The modern fridge may have spelt doom for the traditional kitchen larder for countless decades, but many of us now find ourselves seeking out the simple creative food legacies of the old-fashioned larder. In our series on Larder Love we hope you discover along your own journey, the joy that a well-stocked larder brings with it – the history, that certain sense of home, of tradition and of comfort.
Following on from our article on the Ancient Art of Pickling we brought you last month, we thought we’d step back in time to the historical food preservation method of dehydration.
Dehydrating food is one of the oldest methods of food preservation in history. Dehydration involves drying certain foods in such a way as to remove the water content and prevent the growth of micro-organisms that cause decay. Properly dried food can last in your larder for up to one year. Just like pickling, air drying food using sun and wind is a method that dates back to ancient times.
Dehydrating has been traced back to the ancient Egyptians who are thought to have used the desert heat to dry fish and poultry. In fact, until the middle ages the sun continued to be the main method of drying food until people in colder climates in Europe began drying food in specifically designed rooms using the heat from a fire. In these rooms, vegetables, fruits, herbs and other foods were strung across the room and left to dehydrate.
Because drying removes moisture, food becomes smaller and lighter. There’s no doubt dried food makes a great addition to many recipes – from delicious dried fruit in Moroccan tagines to fragrant oven roasted vegetables with dried herbs. Dried food is also a great travel food to pack as it takes up little weight and space.
We spoke to Laurie Green from Crop Swap Sydney who told us she loves dehydrated food for “It's ability to prepare the disorganised cook! Spice mixes, dried fruit and vegetables are easy additions to last minute meals that make the difference between a bland, and well considered one.”
Crop Swap Sydney is a brilliant community run organisation with a focus on reducing waste and helping people to eat healthier, at a lesser cost. They build stronger communities through facilitating the swapping of homegrown produce, seeds and edible plants through local, cashless markets. They also run various sustainability focused workshops so keep your eye on their website and social media pages for upcoming dates.
Commercially dried food as we know it today evolved to use mechanised techniques that are a far cry from the basic methods of the ancient Egyptians or Europeans. However, you don’t need big fancy commercial machines to dry your own food at home. The three basic things you need are heat to push out the moisture, dry air to absorb it, and air movement to carry it off.
At its simplest, dehydrating food by sun is still a very effective technique; ideal drying temperature is around 30 degrees Celsius. All you will need is to thinly slice your preferred food fruit or vegetables and 3-4 days of direct sunlight with dry conditions and low humidity levels. You can use this method for drying many different fruits and vegetables including such favourites as dried apples, peppers, pears, apricots and peaches. Make sure you wash, pit, dry and peel (if necessary) as well as slice thinly – this allows fruit and vegetables to dry more quickly.
Some foods will benefit from blanching first (think apples, pears and apricots). Blanching the sliced vegetables or fruit for 5 minutes before drying them helps retain flavour, sets in their colour, aids drying by softening the tissues and halts the ripening process. There’s no need to place blanched food into an ice water bath as you do in other methods, as the drying process heats them back up anyway.
After drying them thoroughly, arrange the thin slices on drying racks or cookie sheets and cover with cheesecloth to prevent insect attacks before placing them outside in direct sunlight. Turn the fruits or vegetables over once a day for equal drying. Bringing them indoors if it rains and overnight will also prevent them from collecting moisture. After drying, store the dried fruit or vegetables in air tight containers.
If ideal weather conditions aren’t available and you live in more humid locations (like most of Australia does!) you can try your hand at indoor air drying or oven drying. Air drying is especially ideal for herbs and chillies or even mushrooms. Simply thread these foods on string or tie herbs in bunches and hang up indoors to dry.
For dehydrating beginners, Laurie recommends starting with herbs which are very easy to dry, or for a delicious snack, try your hand at dried apple with cinnamon. Laurie warns that the biggest mistake you can make when dehydrating food is under-drying. “There are no such things as over dried foods, they can always be re-hydrated”, said Laurie.
Another fairly simple method of dehydrating foods is by using your home oven. Follow all of the above steps as for sun drying to prepare your food then simply place on wire racks in a warm oven (60 degrees Celsius is ideal). You need to allow between 10 and 20 hours for the fruit or vegetables to dry and make sure you occasionally turn them over and monitor them closely for even drying.
When it comes to favourite dehydration method, Laurie from Crop Swap has experimented with all of the methods above but believes the most predictable and efficient way of drying food is by using an electric food dehydrator. These machines come in various shapes and sizes with a price range to suit most budgets. “Our dehydrator lives in the laundry, which helps to dry clothes, is near the pantry/ kitchen and is on most nights.” Said Laurie.
Laurie was also kind enough to share with us her delicious, fool-proof raspberry and banana fruit leather recipe which she uses regularly. It uses only 4 ingredients and is a winner among kids and adults alike! Find it here.
Home drying fresh fruit, herbs and vegetables is a simple but effective technique to embrace. Often commercially dried foods contain unnecessary preservatives, chemicals or oils. Home dried foods are a valuable addition to your kitchen larder that can be used in many savoury or sweet dishes, as well as being a tasty, healthy snack on their own!
We hope we’ve given you some more inspiration to continue your larder love journey. There’s no doubt a well-stocked larder is a greener alternative that will inspire you to make healthy, home-made meals. Happy dehydrating, cooking and eating!
Main photo courtesy of Laurie Green @cropswapaustralia Instagram