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Old 08-12-2010, 03:07 PM   #1
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Drying food and our Excalibur 3900 9-tray: Part One

Drying food and our Excalibur 3900 9-tray

Dehydrating food is great for us, as we have to rely on either fresh fruit and veg, or dig down into our brasserie’s massive chest freezers for that all essential bag of frozen broad beans. Until an American friend of mine recommended we buy an Excalibur food dehydrator, and a vacuum bag sealer so to store our dried produce without drawing on electricity to keep our food fresh. That’s not to say we don’t buy fresh fruit and veg, but we need to have dry stocks of high quality food ready at hand, especially if our suppliers let us down. And that can spell disaster, loss of customers and a whole lot of profits besides.

Let it be said, though, that canning and freezing foods retain far more nutrition than dehydrated foods. Well, I think so and would be interested to read other people‘s views on canning and freezing. However, dehydrated foods are highly space-efficient, and are an excellent way to preserve foods. It is also easier to dehydrate foods than it is to can them. Dehydrated fruits and vegetables make excellent snacks and can be used hundreds of ways in thousands of recipes. And backpackers and campers will find just how useful vacuum packed dried food really is, especially as it weighs less.

Since most bacteria need a moist environment in which to survive and multiply, drying is a natural technique to prevent spoilage. Sun and wind, especially the intense sun of Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Malta for example, used this simple form of food preservation spanning back centuries. And then more modern techniques started, and the advent of the food dehydrator, the likes of the Excalibur has radically changed the way people store food much more safely.

First, some ways of drying fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs.

Drying fresh fruit.
If you haven’t the space for an Excalibur or similar dehydrator, drying fruit and vegetables in the oven is a wonderful idea, for while they are minding their own business drying for hours, you can be away doing other things.

As with any method of preservation, it is very important to use good-quality, fresh, ripe fruit. Fruit in the peak of condition will retain a much better colour and flavour. Prepare according to type, lay on the trays and dry at a temperature of about 120°F / 50C / Gas Mark 0-1, maximum. Do not allow the temperature to rise above this heat for the first hour, or the outside surface of the fruit will harden and this will prolong the process of evaporation of moisture from the fruit. It may also cause the skins of plums, apricots and peaches to burst.

(A tip I use before dehydrating tomatoes, for example, is first dip them into boiling water and loosen the skins. Peel and slice tomatoes and then dehydrate. The tomatoes will become nice and crisp. Incidentally, the fibre content of fruits and vegetables remains relatively the same after dehydrating).

When the drying process is completed, remove the trays from the heat source and leave to cool at room temperature for 12 hours. Pack the fruit in wooden or cardboard boxes lined with greaseproof paper or, alternatively, airtight jars or containers and store in a very dry place. Dried fruit can be eaten as they are but, if required for cooking, allow sufficient time for soaking in cold water for several hours before use. Then heat gently to boiling point in the soaking water and simmer gently until tender. If they are not sweet enough for your taste, add sugar a few minutes before cooking is complete.

Drying fresh vegetables.
My family and I have found root vegetables are not worth drying as they can be easily stored in boxes of sand or peat in the garden shed, like for home. But mushrooms, all varieties of string beans, onions and some peas, these can be dried successfully. Whole onions are usually stored in “strings” or in nets in the garden shed, but a supply of dried onion rings can be useful in late winter or early spring. In our commercial kitchen I like hanging great strings of onions, particularly the darling French onions from racks hanging down from the ceiling. Lol, they do look good among pots and pans! However, I digress… Prepare according to type (some will require blanching), lay on the trays and dry at a temperature of about, as said previously, 50°C / 120°F / Gas Mark 0-1 maximum.

Chilli peppers are very easy to dry, except the thick-walled varieties such as jalapenos. The easiest way to do this is really to simply string them up by passing a threaded needle through the base of the stems of a succession of chillies until you have a long line of them, rotating them so they point out in different directions as you add them. When you’ve finished, tie a loop at the top and hang them up in a warm, dry, place. I’ve successfully done this with a great many of them by just stringing them from the rafters in our kitchen at home. It may take longer before they’re fully dried, about 4-6 weeks in some cases, but they’re “out of the way” and I’m still getting through fresh or partly dried ones.


Drying fresh herbs
Now, isn’t it useful to have a store of dried herbs in the kitchen? Herbs such as parsley, mint, sage and marjoram are often used in large quantities during cooking and a few jars or bunches of dried herbs are an excellent standby to add flavour to soups, stews, vegetables and salads. And especially when the winter months close in and snow covers the ground in a while blanket making it impossible to find any fresh herbs, at all.

Personally, I find herbs intended for drying should be gathered on a warm dry day, not after rain, and before the sun has warmed the leaves and begun evaporating their essential oils. Pick them just before they come into flower as, after flowering, the leaves start to toughen up. Pick and process one variety or type of herb at a time.
To air dry herbs, this is really simple. Pick and remove any dead or withered leaves, then tie in small bunches by the stems and blanch in boiling water for a few seconds. Once done, shake off any excess water and leave your lovely herbs to dry, or pat them on a tea towel or piece of kitchen roll. Wrap loosely in muslin - muslin really is the best for this, because the fabric is light and airy, and all you do is hang it to dry in a warm place, such as over a cooking range or, in a nice warm and dark airing cupboard.

Drying length of time varies according to the temperature and the draught. If considerable heat is radiating from the cooker, and there is also a good draught, your herbs may be dry in just a few hours. If left in the airing cupboard, where there is little draught, they may take about 3 to 4 days. The drying process is complete when the main stems of the herbs crack, rather than bend, and the leaves are brittle.

To oven dry herbs, if using large-leaved herbs, such as mint or sage, strip the leaves from their stalks. Otherwise you can leave them in sprigs. Pick over the herbs for any dead or withered leaves and then blanch small numbers of leaves (tied in muslin) or sprigs of herbs in boiling water for 1 minute. Shake off the excess moisture and spread the leaves or sprigs on trays. Place in a cool oven, at a temperature between 45°C / 110°F / Gas Mark 0 and 55°C / 130°F. The herbs should be dried until they are crisp. If the drying process is continuous, this takes about 1 hour (on a rack above the stove it will take 3-4 hours). Lovely!

When dry crushing the herbs with a rolling pin, discard any stalks. If you want to reduce them to a fine powder, sieve them. Store in small airtight containers, well-filled to preserve the fragrance. I’m a bit of a Scrooge here - I use jam jars, or of the Kilner/Mason-type jars freely available. If stored in glass bottles, protect them from the light to conserve the colour. And, just a little note here, but if drying sprigs or stalks of herbs in the oven, turn them over halfway through the drying period to ensure even drying.

You can dry herbs in the microwave. This is a simple and easy process but you do need to pay careful attention over what you are doing. Lay two sheets of absorbent kitchen roll and then put a layer of herbs down, then another layer of paper towel. Use the microwave on high for 1 minute then in bursts of 30 seconds, moving herbs around and checking dryness frequently. The whole process should take no longer than 3 minutes, though personally, I’m not sure nuking herbs this way is for the best. I may only be young, but my preference has always been for the traditional ways of country life, of which I used to work on a smallholding in Greece. I love the old ways, but then, I embrace the new, as well.



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Old 08-12-2010, 03:07 PM   #2
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Drying food and our Excalibur 3900 9-tray: Part Two

And then along came that awesome food dehydrator, the Excalibur.

Do you know, I had no idea just how addictive drying food could be? In my busy kitchen, it’s in almost constant use teehee!

I have dried pounds of apples, oranges, pears, tomatoes and several different types of herbs as well. Going bananas here, and you will, too, once the bug of drying with an electric food dehydrator.

The only problem with dehydrating food that I have discovered so far, is that as soon as the fruit comes out of the dryer - seemingly, no matter what the volume - my family and friends almost instantly consume it. Gannets everywhere! I did a jar of lovely oranges. One moment they were on the shelf - next moment - gone. But they were delish, though.

Our Excalibur 3900 9-tray is incredibly well designed. The front door of the dehydrator is easy to remove - in fact that is one of my few complaints about the Excalibur - it loosely hangs, which can lead to a noisy vibration. Most models of the Excalibur food dehydrator come with either a 24 or 26-hour timer, which turns the unit off automatically. You can get the most basic model that don't have a timer, but because drying times can be so long, so I would recommend against that.

Now, while our biggy is sufficient for our commercial kitchen and at a price easily affordable (present cost is £249.00), get the biggest unit you can afford and have room for: that is, if you are serious about dehydrating food this way. Just make sure you select the right machine for your particular needs.

For us, our Excalibur 9-tray is a so easy to use and to clean. The drawers slide in and out easily and cleaning them is a breeze. The dehydrator removes the water without cooking, concentrating the natural flavour, sweetness and aroma of the fruit and vegetable. Fruits taste wonderful, all fruits’ natural sugar flavour being far healthier than high-fat snacks and refined sugary sweets. And we get to use them in our recipes, our customers love the food and they come back for more. Our Excalibur retains all of the active enzymes that are usually killed during high temperatures, and what I so love about it is its patented drying system which uses a quiet rear-mounted fan, a 600-watt heating element and a thermostat adjustable from 95° to 155°F.

Because it moves warm air from back to front instead of from top to bottom, food on the upper trays dry at the same rate as food on the lower trays. Now isn’t that neat? This way, it prevents food spoilage and the need to rotate trays during the drying process - like if you using an oven. The Excalibur’s heating element sits behind the food, so its not affected by dripping juices, making cleanup quick and easy. Ours has nine 15" x 15" dishwasher-safe polypropylene trays included and these trays are easy to clean - another important food safety factor in keeping equipment clean. Would I recommend it? I certainly do! It does need some space, though. Dimensions are 12"H x 16-1/2"W x 19"D - that’s massive - and it weighs a hefty 22lbs.

We have a vacuum sealer and though I can’t remember its name right now, it completely removes all the air from a special vacuum bag, so to protect the food from the harmful contact with oxygen which causes foods to deteriorate. Vacuum sealers preserve dried food up to 5 times longer than storing it naturally, and there are some bargains to be found on the internet. One I can recommend off the top of my head is the Elite II, produced by Excalibur.

Well, I hope you enjoyed my article. In a domestic kitchen it’s all about enjoyment, economy and safe food dehydration. Drying food is also very useful in being prepared.
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Old 08-12-2010, 03:22 PM   #3
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Excellent article, Linux! Beautifully done. Though with your schedule, I don't see how you pulled it off so quickly! Great job!
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Old 08-12-2010, 03:23 PM   #4
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I have an Excalibur 9 tray with 26 hour timer as well and like yours, ours is in almost constant use too. We have dried every fruit you can imagine. We even dried watermelon. I never would have thought that would work since watermelon is mostly water, but it did work and was delicious. We have also done pears, apples, grapes (for raisins), cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple (a favorite of mine), cherries, string beans, zucchini and squash, celery, asparagus, and many other things. Just this weekend we did beef jerky and also made granola. It is so much fun and most of the things the kids can help with too.
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Old 08-12-2010, 06:14 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by PrincessFiona60 View Post
Excellent article, Linux! Beautifully done. Though with your schedule, I don't see how you pulled it off so quickly! Great job!
Must admit I have been working long hours and when it rains, somehow the wet weather brings more customers in. but this afternoon I finished early, and after a nap (I get up at 5 am) I began writing the article. It was fun, I really like writing.


Quote:
Originally Posted by GB View Post
I have an Excalibur 9 tray with 26 hour timer as well and like yours, ours is in almost constant use too. We have dried every fruit you can imagine. We even dried watermelon. I never would have thought that would work since watermelon is mostly water, but it did work and was delicious. We have also done pears, apples, grapes (for raisins), cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple (a favorite of mine), cherries, string beans, zucchini and squash, celery, asparagus, and many other things. Just this weekend we did beef jerky and also made granola. It is so much fun and most of the things the kids can help with too.
I forgot you can make granola on the dehydrator - mmm, must try that! ^_^ But it comes into its own drying tomatoes which we can use reconstituted in our sauces to get really concentrated flavours for making bolognaise, or a tasty tapenade, or making a jumping hot salsa. Equally, just a small amount in a lasagna, because dehydrated tomatoes paste really well, and when only a tablespoon is needed, these dried tomato slices become way economical.

I’m pleased you get the kids into helping. I’ve my dear old gran to thank for firing up my childhood love for all things foodle.
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Old 04-12-2011, 11:27 PM   #6
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I know this is old, but all my reading on dehydrating fruits and veggies indicates nutritional content just below fresh and frozen, but above kitchen canning (due to salt, sugar and high heat during the process). Depending on ingredients, commerical canning can about the same as drying or worse nutritionally.
One more note, commericially dried produce is making a fresh appearance in our groceryand health food stores. Often, they have added oil, salt, sugar or sulfur to retain color, create crisp, or enhance flavor. Read ingredients and be aware:)
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