Depending on the size of your garden, from midsummer on you may find it produces more vegetables than you can possibly consume. Giving fresh produce to friends and neighbors is a great way to help solve that problem. But if you want to taste the fruits of your summer labors well into the winter, drying helps remind you of the season you had while stretching your food dollars. Dried vegetables are delicious in soups and stews, while dried herbs flavor meals for months after they're processed. Here are a few easy ways you can get started drying your food.
Pick your produce at peak ripeness to capture the height of its flavor. Vegetables should be blanched before drying. Sometimes you have to slice fruits or vegetables to make drying easier. Cut thick items, such as strawberries, carrots, and watermelon into slices about 1/4 inch thick. Small berries can be dried intact.
In southern France, people still lay grapes out on roof tiles to dry. You can sun-dry your food using screening or cheesecloth draped over oven racks. Just place your racks in direct sunlight where there's good air circulation. After 2 or 3 days in the sun, move your produce to a shady location to complete the drying process. If rain threatens, use your oven to complete the job (see below).
Your oven is an efficient food-dryer. Spread your produce on racks with at least 3 inches between pieces. For electric ovens, set the temperature at 160 degrees and pop the door open 1/2 inch. In a gas oven, pop the door open 1/8 inch. Depending on the moisture content of your food, expect 4-12 hours of drying time. Also, be sure to rotate racks about every hour.
If you plant a large garden and enjoy dried food throughout the winter, you might want to invest in a dehydrator. These sensible machines use very little energy and are simple to use. You can find them online or in stores.
Once your food is dried, store it in screw-top containers. Old peanut-butter jars work great for this. Keep an eye out for spoilage for a few days. If some food spoils, discard it and re-dry the rest. Dried food stored in a cool, dark place can keep for about a year.
You can easily turn dried vegetables into vegetable powders to flavor soups, stews, and sauces. Slice thinly then dry onions, garlic, carrots, celery, spinach or bell peppers sliced thin. Next chop up your slices and pulverize them in a coffee bean grinder or a high-speed blender. Sift through a sieve and re-grind bigger chunks. Store each separately or mix them up in a medley of flavors.
Herbs contain little moisture, so the dry easily. Pick them early in the morning when the oils in the leaves are at their peak. Tie bunches with string and hang them in a cool, dark spot with good ventilation. Once dry, lay one bunch at a time on a plate and stroke the leaves off the stems. Store the leaves in screw-top jars. You can also freeze your dried herbs if you wrap them tightly, to minimize their exposure to air.