When I first began food preservation, I was very interested in applesauce and jam; they were both easy and familiar. I’d made applesauce back in high school, large pots of it, and froze it in “seal-a-meal” bags, laid in our small freezer like slabs of bacon. There were hundreds of recipes for jam; once I figured out the slight shift in bubble structure that indicated the perfect “jamming” temperature, I was off. Our shelves were lined with half pints of blackberry jam and pints of applesauce, followed by a foray into Dilly Beans. Life was good and I repeated the process the next year, adding home canned fruit—until we had a serious backlog of jam and pickled beans. Then I realized that we did not eat much jam and the canned fruit, except of peaches, was too sweet, unless we had an old batch of sour yogurt. And I was still buying dried fruit for work and backpacking trips. Something was off. I bought a cheap food drier and we have never looked back.
Drying fruit makes far more sense than canning.
First, it is fast and easy. I can slice up a pile of apples (peal still on) after dinner, laid them out in the drier, turn it on, and go to bed. If I set the timer to turn off in six hours, we have dried fruit in the morning. I toss it into my vintage Magic Mason jars, check it off of the master list, and put it on the basement shelf. Italian plums and figs require a little push and spread motion to expose more surface to the air, but, overall, drying fruit is a one step process.
Second, it is healthy. I gather my fruit at the peak of the season and process it directly, with no added sugars or preservatives. Much of it is organically grown, either by design, in my backyard, or neglect, when I harvest from the abandoned alley trees around the neighborhood. Drying preserves all of the fiber, most of the nutrients, and all of the flavor. Mixed bags of dried fruit are our favorite winter snack; we both keep a stash in our desk drawers.
Dried fruit is tasty. We have all purchased pieces of fruit from the grocery store that are well traveled and know the consequences. Despite the fancy label, an apple in March often tastes dry and mealy and an orange is often a disappointment. A piece of dried fruit, however, is always good. Peaches and pears are sweet and flavorful throughout the winter when dried. Over the last few years, we have moved almost totally away from buying “fresh” fruit out of season, because of the dried fruit stash in the basement. Why bother?
Finally, dried fruit is flexible, unlike canned fruit. It travels well, so we take it backpacking and camping, as well as to work. We eat jars of dried fruit out of hand all winter long. When we long for “fleshy” fruit, I make compotes, mixing several types together with some warm juice to plump it up. I also toss handfuls into oatmeal and granola, muffins and scones, and pasta sauces.
When I first started drying, several friends asked about the carbon footprint of running the drier all day, and, it is true that our electric bill goes up in August. Wouldn’t it be more energy efficient to purchase the fruit that was dried commercially? Although I have not done any calculations, I am not convinced this is so. The fruit I dry travels less than five miles to my house, always on bike or foot. It is often raised without any summer water; it is not sprayed with chemicals. This reduces the carbon footprint considerably. Then, it is not shipped from the factory to the store, then to my home. We have also totally eliminated packaging. Finally, unlike canning, the jars and lids can be used over and over again. I have some lids with six or seven years of notes on them! When I consider all of these factors, I am not concerned about my drier. And, yes, I am interested in a solar drier, although I wonder if it would work given the dropping light levels and cool nights that come around at the peak of drying season.
If I were beginning food preservation again, I would start with a drier, not a canner. I use my steam canner all summer long, processing pickles and roasted tomatoes, as well as canned peaches, applesauce, and grape juice. But the drier processes the most important foods we put up for the winter—all of our foraged fruits.
Lemon Icebox Pie: the perfect pie for a 98 degree day
8 oz cream cheese
1 can sweetened condensed milk
zest and juice of three lemons
Toss it all into the food processor and whirl until smooth. Pour into a graham cracker crust and set in the refrigerator overnight. Top with whipped cream.