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Food: Food Drying


Dry it, You'll Like It

For those who have spent any time in the north or been on an extended weekend in the wild reaches of this country, we all come to realize one simple truth; the weather can be miserable, our clothing inadequate, but the food had better be good!

There is nothing more buoying for one's spirits than food that has flavour, texture and variety. And one of the best ways to ensure that is to take along plenty of dried fruits, vegetables, and foodstuffs. It is one of the closest substitutes to having the real thing with you in the wilds. Beholding a hot and steaming rice dish full of fresh sprigs of broccoli with plump peas and spears of zucchini is a sure way to distract one's attention from the sore muscles from that last long portage. The biggest secret of drying food is that... there isn't any. There are, however, a few guidelines to observe but for the most part anything goes.

Almost any food can be dried, be it fruit, vegetable, or even pre-cooked dishes. If you plan to try food drying invest in a food dehydrator that will do most of the work for you. Food dryers come in a variety of sizes and price ranges, which are too numerous to mention here, but keep your needs in mind... and realistic. Better to get one that is is one size up from what you need.

The HACC uses one that is manufactured in British Columbia called the "Berron Food Dehydrator". It is a great machine with six different temperature settings and a fan that is "fairly" quiet. Included with it is a 20-page book that gives approximate drying times and temperature settings for different foods, as well as recipes. The company makes two sizes, a six- and a ten-tray unit. The larger size was our choice as we are planning for anywhere from four to six healthy appetites. The larger unit is also more convenient because we can be drying salsa on three trays, and on the remaining seven trays do green peppers and onions.

The most important rule of drying is use only the freshest and best quality food that you can find. It doesn't have to be expensive, just free of bruises, dents and other defects that could cause the food to mould when in the dried stage. If in doubt when preparing the food remove the object in question. There is nothing like taking out a bag of dried veg's and find that the bag is all full of multi-coloured fur. All fruit and veggies should be well-washed (not in a well) and cleaned. Slice foods in the same way as you would want to cook them, the larger and fatter the slice the longer it takes to dry. Meats, such as hamburger, chicken, and tuna can also be dried, although with meat one has to be careful about bacteria and all the fat must be removed. As many of our meals are all vegetable we don't dry much meat but it isn't difficult. Experience is really the best teacher, and as you try different foods you will quickly learn certain personal preferences and techniques. Potatoes for example should be blanched lightly before they are dried, or they will get purplish spots. The discoloration doesn't affect the taste, but it certainly is a visual distraction.

The second rule of drying is that the greater the moisture content of an item, the longer the drying time -- and hot, humid days of summer stretch the drying time further. Things like cabbage dry in about six or seven hours, whereas tomatoes take much longer. A food dehydrator allows you to dry foods as they are available during the season and at their flavourful best.

Drying precooked foods is another aspect that can be investigated. Beef stews, spaghetti sauces and salsa, are easy to do, and it allows you to take some of your favorite recipes with you into the wild. Many sauces are dried as a kind of leather, in that they are dry yet still pliable; laying out sheets of a plastic food wrap on the drying trays, you can pour the more liquid sauces on to and when dry you can roll them up and tuck them into a plastic bag until needed. This brings us to the third most important factor in food drying: storage.

Store dried foods in a clean, air-tight container in a cool dark space after drying -- they do not take kindly to being left out in strong light or in warm rooms. Properly stored, dried food can last months, even years, with little nutrient loss. As with every adventure, there are hits and there are misses. One year, six bunches of asparagus turned into the Creature from the Plastic Bag -- I hadn't cut the pieces small enough and when they had dried . . . well, they hadn't. But it was better to find out they had spoiled before the trip than on it.

Finally, if you are going to rely on something for nourishment in the middle of nowhere, test it out a few times before you go. There is nothing worse than discovering that a particular vegetable tastes like old socks. One very pleasant surprise was when I dried fresh pineapple. It was fantastic -- the drying condensed the sweetness and its flavour was exquisite.

Remember, experimenting is the best teacher. Just like cooking, some recipes work better than others, so keep trying. Now if I could only figure out a way to dry a couple bottles of single malt... or, perhaps, dry martinis are best!

(Taken from Outfit 78 of Che-Mun)
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