Excellent Excalibur - Dehydration 101

Years ago, after struggling with the trials and tribulations of canning summer produce – working over a hot stove during the height of summer, dealing with pouring blistering hot ingredients (no, that is not me in the photo) and finding room for space-hogging jars – I discovered dehydration for food preservation. It’s simple, quick and easy, the biggest problem being that one Excalibur deydrator isn’t enough.

Nothing is safe, it seems, from my constant experimenting. Crispy sea-salted zucchinis became a delicious potato-chip replacement. Excess basil, pureed with equal amounts of tomatoes has become a seasoning “leather” from which I can pull off strips, tossing into this coming winter’s dishes for a burst of summer flavor. Cantaloupe melons, still a few days from being ripe, became intensely condensed in their flavor when dehydrated, with ¼-inch thick slices converting to paper-thin taffy-texture treats. I filled several Excalibur deydrator trays with rough-chopped celery leaves, while others contained diced stalks. Within 8-hours they were dehydrated and ready for storage, neatly tucked away in my spice cabinet.

Granted, running the dehydrator 24/7 for weeks at a time, during harvest, isn’t gentle on the electrical bill. I’ve looked at various Mother Earth News solar-power outdoor alternatives, but given New England’s relatively weak sun (think Middle-East where outdoor dehydration is a huge industry – figs, dates, etc.), high humidity, as well as high leaf and fungus mold counts, an electric in-door version is the best tool available for me.

This past week, my CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture) cooperative had a huge sign hung over crates of tomatoes which simply said, “Yes! There are tons of tomatoes! Do something about it!” I didn’t need any further encouragement.

Home came a crate of tomatoes.

I’d been reading the Excalibur recipe and tomato reference section and decided I’d make tomato powder – a multi-purpose food to have on hand since it had be made into any number of tomato-based items (sauces, juice, paste, etc.). The trick on making powder, is to dehydrate the tomatos to a “crispy” stage instead of the regular “leathery” texture.

I washed and rough-chopped 2 pounds of tomatoes at a time, (10 medium sized) pulsing them in the food processor to “chunky” stage. I let them drain for the length of time it took me to process another 2-pounds in the food processor (trimming ends, rough-chopping, etc.), sitting in a fine-mesh strainer placed over a glass bowl to collect the juices.

The saved juices were allowed to separate, draining off the clear water rising to the topic. The thicker tomato juice can be dehyrated into a “leather”, or used in soups and stews, as I did, thoughout the week.

After draining the tomato puree’, I simply spread evenly on a Teflex-lined dehydrator tray.

I’ve been dehydrating fruits and vegetables for many years, but never cease to be amazed by the decrease in volume. This is the same 2-pounds of pureed tomatoes pictured above, after 10-hours in the dehydrator.

When dehydrating a very moist food (like tomatoes), I’ve found rotating trays 90-degrees, every few hours, helps to obtain a more even texture.

Caveat: When using smaller amounts, rotating isn’t as necessary. I tend to push the upper limits when it’s peak harvest time.

Here’s an interesting comparison of the size difference between a tray of diced (originally 1/4-inch by 1/4-inch cubes) and slices (1/4-inch).

For comparison, this is what 18-pounds of dehydrated tomatoes look like. When compared to the earlier photo of the full crate, this gives a good idea of how wonderful dehydration is for storage space – requiring very little for a large quantity of food.

Excalibur has some excellent articles at their website. Here are some of my favorites:

Excalibur Factory-Direct Site

Excalibur Helpful Articles – Directory

Excalibur’s Raw Food article

Testing Dehydrated Foods for Enzymatic Activity

Food Temperature vs. Air Temperature – I think this article contains THE most critical information for anyone interested in dehydrating