The Urban Homesteader: Dry Run - Preservation Through Dehydration
An environmental consultant by trade, Cara Cooper started her garden with citrus and avocado trees plus a few herbs … all the makings of margaritas and guacamole. Here, she shares the lessons she’s learned as that “party garden” has grown into a full-fledged urban homestead.
Spring is a time of abundance in our garden, particularly for fruit and greens. We have starfruit (carambola), mulberries, raspberries, kale and Swiss chard bursting out of our garden. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good problem to have, but when it’s more than we can eat and our friends and neighbors have had their share, we try to find ways to stretch out the harvest to enjoy it during the lean summer months too.
That primarily means freezing our bounty, but this year I’m putting in a little more effort and trying my hand at canning and dehydrating. Dehydrating in particular preserves nutrients and intensifies taste in a way that canning can never quite match. It’s also a good way to make your own dried herbs, fruit leather and herbal teas.
While I love the idea of dehydrating, it requires cooking at a low temperature (less than 140 degrees) for as long as it takes to get the produce completely dry – potentially as much as 24 hours – and the thought of running the oven in our small kitchen for an extended period makes me cringe. So instead, we usually borrow a friend’s dehydrator or use our Sun Oven – a handy little item that’s basically a solar-powered slow-cooker you can leave running in your yard (you can check them out at sunoven.com).
One of the things I love to dehydrate is Roselle Hibiscus, a citrusy relative of okra. In the fall when the plants are flush with pods, we are in a race to harvest, use and preserve them before the squirrels get to them. We primarily use the flower bases, or calyxes, to make the famous red hibiscus tea popular in the Caribbean and Mexico (our version is significantly less sweet than the one at Taco Bus). We dry the flower pods and ration them out all year long, and particularly enjoy mixing them with lemons from the yard to make hibiscus lemonade (adding tequila for a unique Cinco de Mayo party drink). I’m sharing our simple but delicious recipe here.
Dehydrating is a handy tool to have in your gardening arsenal – there’s nothing as sweet as having your own dried blueberries over oatmeal in the fall or having fresh hibiscus tea whenever you make Mexican food at home, something that canning or freezing can never quite match.
Using fully-ripe produce yields the best results, but avoid bruised or over-ripe produce.
Use a thermometer to ensure your oven can bake at a low enough temperature to properly dehydrate (less than 140 degrees). If it doesn’t, you’ll shorten your drying time, but may not get optimal results.
If you have a convection option on your oven, use it – it will help evenly circulate the air and dry more effectively and quickly.
Thin-slice your produce and use a very light layer of seasoning.
Take the guesswork out of how much time and what temperature to use by finding dehydrating recipes. Try thebackcountrychef.com for ideas.
Double-check for complete dryness before storing – the littlest bit of moisture will lead to mold. Also inspect newly opened batches of your dehydrated goodies before eating to ensure they haven’t turned funky.
Store in an air-tight container somewhere cool or, even better given our humid environment, in the refrigerator.