The harvest of summer’s fruits and vegetables is in full swing, and it’s a perfect time to think of drying the abundance of these foods. Drying food is a great way to make fresh foods last longer. Harnessing the power of the sun to aid in drying food is not only a planet-friendly method of food preservation, but also a time-honored tradition that has been used for centuries.
What is Solar Food Drying?
Much like the name sounds, solar food drying involves using the sun to dry out foods. This can be something as simple as setting a plate of food outside and letting the sun go to work (though not at all recommended), or something as elaborate as building your own system that acts to protect the food from dust, debris, and pests, while the food is drying. Depending on the conditions in your location it takes an average of two sunny days to dehydrate food in a solar food dehydrator.
Why Dehydrate Food?
Many people wonder what the big deal about dehydrating food is to begin with. The truth is that there are many benefits, some more obvious than others, to drying food.
Preppers, or people who make a point of preparing for rough days that may lie ahead, like dehydrated food because it lasts a long time, is easy to store, and is highly portable.
Environmentalists, or people who are interested in saving the planet, have different reasons to appreciate the benefits of dehydrating foods, including the following:
- Requires less energy than freezing or canning.
- Not susceptible to power outages.
- Creates a concentrated product that requires fewer containers and less storage space than the original products.
Then there are the people who are all about the power of fruits and vegetables. They understand that drying foods creates foods that retain more nutrients than traditional methods of preservation, and the process of drying foods can serve to improve food’s flavor.
Why Solar Dehydration?
There are other methods available for dehydrating foods. Knowing this, why are people so committed to solar food drying?
To begin with, there’s the cost factor. The sun shines free – even on days when you wish it would find a cloud or so to hide behind. That brings the operating costs of drying foods with solar power to zero once you’ve built the environment in which you’ll be doing the drying.
Even the costs of building your own solar food dryer can be mitigated by purchasing supplies from a surplus building supply or Habitat for Humanity store. This helps the planet by giving new life to old building materials and can save a bundle on supplies.
Another cost factor to consider involves savings over the costs of other preserving methods, like freezing and canning. Freezing fruits, vegetables, and meats is an effective way of preserving them to use later, but it incurs a monthly cost for operating your freezer – not to mention the risk of losing the food in your freezer in the event of a power outage or equipment malfunction.
Canning often requires long cooking times at high heats in order to properly preserve and store the fruits or vegetables while preventing spoilage. This uses up precious fossil fuels and makes the inside of homes, if you’re canning your foods inside, uncomfortably warm – causing air conditioners to work even harder to keep up.
Then, there’s the simple fact that it’s easy to do and requires very little participation on your part once you set the wheels in motion. Since it often takes two full days to properly dry food, it frees up your time in the meantime to devote to other things. You don’t have to stand over it and watch it like a hawk to make it happen.
What Kinds of Foods can be Dried?
Drying food is quite versatile and offers endless possibilities when it comes to fruits and vegetables and, to a lesser extent meats, though the USDA discourages the practice on meats.
Most people think of food drying in the terms of drying fruits or even making leather from fruit. These make great snacks and are fun to experiment with. Then there is the added versatility in that once fruit is dried it can be rehydrated at a later date by soaking it in fruit juice or water, and then used for making jams and syrups, in sauces, and for baking.
Before drying vegetables, they need to be blanched. This will stop enzyme activity and aids in killing off any microorganisms on the vegetables. Beans are some of the best foods for drying, including lima beans and snap beans, but other foods that dry well include:
- Onions (strong odor when drying)
There are more than just these, too. If there is a vegetable your family loves and eats in abundant supply, there is likely to be a method of drying it for later use.
Meat is somewhat controversial among food drying experts, despite the fact that people have been doing it for centuries. Because of the potential for illness, it’s important to make sure you get solid training on how to properly dry meat if it’s something you’re interested in. The most common method of drying meat is by turning it into jerky. You can make jerky of almost any meat, including fish, deer, beef, pork, and more.
How to Use the Sun to Dry Food?
Successfully drying foods depends on two primary things: temperature and airflow. The primary goal is to keep air temperatures low enough to avoid cooking the food or causing it to crust, while maintaining enough warm air to discourage the activation of enzymes that would otherwise begin the spoiling process. The target temperature is typically between 120 and 185 degrees. Airflow is also important, as it helps to create balance in the drying process.
Before you begin, you should prepare your food by blanching or steaming the vegetables. While this is a relatively new thought when it comes to drying food, it is designed to prevent spoilage and rot.
Cut food into thin slices, less than one-half inch thick, and spread them out over the drying trays, allowing plenty of room for air to move around the individual pieces of fruit or vegetable.
Add trays to the solar food dryer, and rotate 180 degrees each day until the food is completely dried. This helps to create a uniform drying process.
Proper Storage of Sun-Dried Foods
Allow dehydrated foods to cool completely before attempting to store them. Dried food should be stored in airtight jars or plastic containers in dark spaces. Fruits should have layers of paper between them in order to prevent them from sticking to one another.
When done properly, solar food drying provides families with the opportunity to enjoy favorite fruits and vegetables throughout the year, whether safe at home or on the go.
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