Many techniques exist for drying food for storage and snacking. There’s sun drying, but many of us aren’t close enough to the equator for that to be reliable. Mega-gardeners may swear by their giant hot air dehydrators, but the urban kitchen tinkerer need not invest. Die-hard drying enthusiasts, I salute you and your parched practices. But for the rest of us, particularly we city slickers who are storage-challenged, drying can be successfully and easily accomplished with our beloved oven.
Drying food like orange slices, herbs, or fruit leather can happen without a great waste of precious dollars, electricity, or storage space. Here are a few tips to help you successfully oven dry like a champ.
- First up: the slice. Sharpen your knife or bust out that mandoline. Thin, thin slices of anything – no more than a quarter of an inch thick, ideally – are going to dry quickly. A mandoline is particularly great for uniformity. If everything is the same thickness, all pieces will dry evenly and simultaneously.
- Next, let me introduce you to my best friend: salt. Particularly with meat and seafood (though I also suggest it in small doses on fruits and vegetables), kosher salt is your first plan of attack to pull moisture from food. After slicing thinly, use your fingers to toss a bowl of your to-be-dried food evenly with salt. A vegetable like daikon will immediately begin to leech a large quantity of liquid. Beef will soon get shiny and begin to sweat. It’s a good idea to let the food sit with the salt to penetrate 10-30 minutes (more time for food that’s more dense). This will also add some nice flavor to your finished product. Keep in mind that salt could also mean soy sauce, fish sauce, umezu, or salty brine. All of these will also impart another dimension of flavor.
- I hate to pressure you, but exuding pressure on your food will also wring out lots of that liquid we’re trying to rid. Something tough, like turkey for jerky, should be layered between two clean kitchen towels and literally get pounded with a hammer, meat tenderizer, or a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Juicy vegetables, like shucked corn, should be layered between two clean towels, covered with a large board, and then weighted on top to gently press the moisture out. Food that can take it, like kale or radishes, should be rolled up in a clean kitchen towel and squeezed or twisted (without bruising) to blot excess moisture. Muscle power, rather than electricity, is yet another effective way to drain.
- Hey! Look over there! In your kitchen! The biggest dehydrator in the world is already running 24 hours a day. Your refrigerator is a master of dehydrating, albeit slowly, and it’s a great resource for sucking out moisture from anything. (Don’t believe me? I double-dog dare you to leave a piece of cheese in there unwrapped.) Your thinly sliced, seasoned, and towel-dried food is now ready to be laid out in a single layer – I suggest laying it flat on a lightly oiled cooling rack set over a baking sheet. Now, place this rack of food in the fridge overnight or up to 24 hours. For something like apple slices that can’t take a lot of salt or twisting, this is an especially great technique to cut down on oven time.
- Now that we’ve done all that we can to prepare our food for oven drying, it’s time for the final step: dry it in the oven. For successful oven drying, position a rack on its lowest setting and heat the oven to 200 degrees F. Insert a prepared tray of food and keep the oven door ajar with the handle of a wooden spoon (to promote air circulation). Check your food after 1½ hours, but it usually takes about 2 hours to become completely dry. Your meat, fruit, vegetable, or fish will be dry when the edges are quite firm and the exterior feels dry to the touch. The center should also be checked; you want it tender and pliable, but also not wet and raw. Note that if you’re drying more than one tray at a time you should plan on about 3-3 ½ hours of drying time, and that the trays should be switched halfway.
Dried food travels very well, but it should be stored long-term in the refrigerator in a sealed bag or container. Hint: you can also save small packets of desiccant from store-bought snack seaweed and re-use them for your homemade dried foods.