It has been a fruitful summer. More produce than we can eat, which is a good problem to have. We hit the ground running to preserve the harvest, canning or pickling much of the bounty. Still plenty left? No problem. We dug in our heels and began freezing crops until the icebox was bursting at the seams. And yet the overflow sits ripe on the counter. Are we going to lose perfectly good produce to the harsh reality of the compost pile?
Fear not, budding homesteaders. We have one more line of preservation. And it’s a good one.
Possibly the oldest method of food preservation, dehydration is the process of preserving food by removing moisture, which dramatically decreases the growth of bacteria.
At its most basic, dehydration requires little more than heat and air. Evidence suggests that the process dates back as early as 12,000 BC. Ancient Romans relied heavily on dried fruits and vegetables and in the Middle Ages, “still houses” were sometimes built, trapping heat from slow burning fires to dry meats and produce when sunny days weren’t in the forecast.
Sunny rocks or stone houses are no longer necessary to dry all manner of food. Dehydration trays or countertop dehydrators are available to fit any budget and can be used to preserve all sorts of foods. Hunters commonly use dehydrators to produce jerky. Beef, chicken and fish can all benefit from dehydration. And for the home gardener, fruits, vegetables and herbs are also winning candidates for this method of preservation.
Dehydrated food retains most of its nutritional value and if processed at its peak, flavor can intensify as the moisture is removed.
For anyone looking to get their feet wet…er, dry…fruit leathers are easy, fun and require no investment in equipment or special storage. And if the yield has gotten away from you, it is a quick way to process produce when its days are numbered.
Fruit leather is pretty much what it sounds like. Fruit is pureed and dried into thin sheets that can be cut into flexible strips for snacking. Apples, pears, strawberries, grapes or plums are prime candidates, but the options go on and on. Tomato leather made with fresh basil is a savory alternative that makes use of a most prolific crop.
As for me, fifteen pounds of well ripe peaches for $4 at the farmers market needed quick conversion this week. Prep time is quick. And then the waiting begins. Here’s how it works.
Prepare the Fruit
Wash well, then stem, core or pit. Leaving the skin on gives a welcome texture to your leather. If working with fruit well-ripened, take a moment to cut out any mushy or discolored flesh.
In a blender or food processor, puree to your heart’s content. A smooth puree will dry evenly. Chunks of fruit in the leather will not dehydrate well and will not store.
Bring to a Boil and Allow to Cool
In a hurry, this step can be skipped, but boiling will help bring the flavor out of the fruit and if adding sugar or spices, flavors will combine more evenly.
Add Sugar or Spice as Needed
More often than not, I don’t add anything to my leathers. But if working with particularly tart fruit, adding sugar to taste may be desired. Consider adding complementary spices like cinnamon to an apple leather or mint in a strawberry leather.
Pour Puree Onto Baking Sheets Lined With Parchment Paper
Smooth into a thin, uniform layer and place in oven at 150 degrees.
Anything under 200 degrees is fine, but the idea is to dehydrate, not cook.
Wait. And Wait
Depending on the fruit, dehydration can take anywhere from 8 to 12 hours. I generally try to start dehydrating ar bedtime and check on it in the morning. Leather is ready when slightly sticky to the touch but does not give or pull apart when touched.
Peel the Leather from the Paper
Cut and store or serve. Fruit leather can be stored for quite a while in an airtight container, but loses flavor over time. I’m told it’ll hold up until the next year when it’s time to make more, but I’ve never come close to keeping it around that long.