As we shift into late summer and we are suddenly aware that the days are growing just a little shorter, the urge to capture the flavours of the summer becomes urgent and the need to understand how to dry vegetables becomes more important. Throughout history, indigenous peoples hung fish and meat, fruit and vegetables out to dry, hoping for a warm breeze and low humidity that would preserve their family meals for months to come.
In this century, the arrival of refrigeration and our global access to fresh foods have all but obliterated the requirement for sun dried foods, but our taste for it still remains. The necessity of understanding how to dry vegetables has been somewhat obsolete. However, the popularity of sun-dried tomatoes is only one sign of the universal appetite for summer flavours. So is the popularity of dried fruits and fruit leathers, whose soft and chewy texture and sweet summer flavours are so reassuring when warm breezes begin to turn cool and blustery.
In general vegetables and fruit should be thinly sliced and placed on a screen to dry. Plum tomatoes sliced in half lengthwise and placed on a standard baking tray yield more succulent results than other varieties. And it is important not to crowd the tray.
Now that dried foods have gone from necessity to luxury, the cook is allowed a certain creative latitude. When a tomato is being dried in order to maximize its storage life, 98 per cent of the moisture must be removed. But when a tomato is being dried sheerly to intensify its flavour and destined to be well refrigerated after that, only half of its succulent juices need be lost, leaving it quite soft and giving at its heart.
Drying a summer crop simply to feed a family for winter was not an activity that lend itself to creative cooking. The challenge was simply to beat out the rains and minimize loss. Meat and fish were heavily salted and fruits and vegetables were often blanched before they were subjected to the sun’s rays. The question has now changed: How to dry vegetables for flavour? Drying food for flavour, on the other hand is a challenge to the inventive side of the brain.
Seasoning dried tomatoes with basil, thyme, rosemary and orange zest helps build another layer of flavours, which in turn translates into an interesting pesto or pasta sauce. These same tomatoes can then be layered with cheese or vegetables for a sandwich or a topping for fish and chicken where their flavours lend a nice note of mellow acidity.
Naturally tomatoes aren’t the only things to profit from partial drying. Beans, sliced beets, celery, cauliflower, corn, onions, leeks, eggplant, peppers, zucchini in fact just about any vegetables with the exception of lettuce will undergo a tasty transition with exposed to a low dry heat.
If you happen to live in a warm dry climate, candidates for drying can be laid out on a flat screen and depending on the temperature can take as little as three hours or as long as three days to dry. In an electric dryer the same result can be achieved in an hour and you don’t have to worry about bugs or rain. The question of how to dry vegetables while maintaining flavour seems to have simpler explanation with the introduction of modern technology.
If you’re using an oven, most ingredients will become dense, slightly dry but still faintly juicy in just a few hours in the oven at a very low heat. Since ovens vary so widely, it is impossible to be more precise. You should know that summer squash, mushrooms, onions and potatoes for chips clearly take more time to dry than vegetables such as corn, tomatoes or peppers. In the first case the object is to parch brittle and in the latter merely to condense and concentrate.
In general vegetables and fruit should be thinly slice and placed on a screen to dry. Plum tomatoes sliced in half lengthwise and placed on a standard baking tray yield more succulent results than other varieties. And it is important not to crowd the tray. Vegetables like humans are more affable when slightly lonely.