Before refrigeration, air drying and sun drying were the most common way to store food, and it remains a simple, effective method of food preservation
The first time I ever tried to dry food at home, I sliced apples, strung them on string across my apartment’s tiny dining room, and promptly forgot about them.
With no acid to keep the apples from discolouring, and dust in the air because of my terrible homemaking, it was a clear failure.
Years passed before I braved the world of dehydration again!
People have been drying foods for centuries. Before refrigeration, drying was the primary means of preserving fruits, beans, and meats. Drying herbs is a time-honored way to preserve these healthful plants, and drying garden produce in the attic is something early North American settlers often did.
These days, one of the reasons people turn to drying foods is because it seems simpler – you don’t need the equipment and added ingredients that are necessary for canning, and even a dehydrator is optional. You can make use of nature’s basics – sunlight and air – to dry foods.
Of course, while drying isn’t as involved as canning in terms of equipment, there are still some items you’ll need and some techniques to employ.
Here are some tips on how to use the air and sun to dry your foods.
Sun and Shade
Some foods do fine in the sunlight – grapes and mushrooms, for instance – but others do not. Green beans, for example, lose their color if they are dried in the sun, but they do great in dry shade.
You’ll find that soft-fleshed fruits like peaches and pears tend to turn brown when dried, as do apples and bananas. One way to help prevent this is to toss fruit with lemon juice before drying, or dip it in a mix of lemon juice and water.
Here are some simple things you’ll need to dry your own foods using only the sun and air.
You can use clean, old window screens or make your own with a simple wood frame and plastic screening stapled to the frame. (Plastic resists rust, but you can use metal screening as long as it does not contain lead.)
Cloths and/or paper towels
You need these to cover the screens so that the food has a clean, dry surface on which to be placed, and you’ll need cloths or paper towels to cover the food lightly while it dries. Clean, thin cotton works well, as it allows air to circulate above and below the food.
Upholstery thread and large needle
Some foods do really well when strung on thread and hung, garland-style, from your home’s eaves, in the attic, or other shady, dry places. Green beans do great with this method, as do mushrooms and apple rings.
Even if you rely solely on the sun and air to dry your foods, putting them in a warm oven (about 175 degrees F) for half an hour after they dry is a good idea. This is to kill any insects and their eggs that may be lurking in the foods.
The basic air and sun method is to lay the food pieces on a cloth-covered screen, making sure they do not overlap and that there’s a little space between them, and covering it with another cloth. Then place it outside in an area where birds, pets, squirrels, other critters can’t get at them.
Leave the screens out during the day and bring them in at night.
String slices of apple, green beans, garlic cloves, tiny onions, etc. on upholstery thread and hang them in a dry, warm place such as an attic or outdoor shed. Once again, you’ll need to guard against pests and bring the “garlands” in at night if they’re outside.