It's the end of the growing season for most of our summer herbs and vegetables, or at least close to it. Maybe you were really lucky and able to eat everything you grew, or gave it away. Or maybe you are like the other 99% of the population and you ended up with a bumper crop of all of your favorite things. It happens to the best of us. Our eyes are bigger than our proverbial garden stomachs and we buy too many plants.
But what happens to the extras? After your neighbors and co-workers have had their fill, you've canned, pickled and preserved until your shelves are full but you can't bear to see the precious hard-work go to waste. There is still one easy, and very tasty way, to save the last bits of summer. Sun-Drying!
I was thinking about this during the #SolarEclipse2017, when everything was all about the sun. And it's an excellent way to preserve fruits, veggies and herbs! It also lends them to your favorite fall and winter recipes different than canning would. So, what is good to sun-dry? Almost everything! But before you toss your produce on the back porch and call it good, there are a few things to keep in mind.
The whole point of sun-dying is to remove as much moisture as possible from the produce in order to preserve the flavor and nutrients for later use. Bacteria and mold need moisture to survive and grow. Remove it, and no more bacteria. Some produce is going to take longer than others to achieve optimal dryness, so you have to pay attention. Hot, all-day sun is best, and pay attention to humidity levels. We want water leaving the produce, not going back in!
Equipment. Tossing some tomatoes on a sheet pan and calling it good is only going to get you a big, moldy blob of tomato goo. You need to make sure there is plenty of room for air to circulate around the entire vegetable or fruit to make sure it dries evenly. Use a sheet pan, lined with parchment and a drying rack. This will elevate the product to allow even air flow. Also, unless you plan on standing over the product for a day or two, you might need to protect it from critters; bugs, squirrels, birds and the like. You can easily make a cage of chicken wire or other wire grafting material and cover it with cheesecloth or some other kind of netting-like fabric. Remember, sunlight is key, so make sure you can see thru it well. You can also purchase something like this
Size. In this case, it matters. Just like when you cook food, it needs to be of uniform consistency and shape. Also, the smaller the food, the faster it will dry. For tomatoes, slice them in half or quarters and remove the seeds. For zucchini, squash, peppers, etc, slice them into ¼ inch rounds or strips. Slicing is a good idea for fruits too. You also want to cut your produce to allow air inside
the flesh. The skin is there to keep air out. So you need to break the skin to allow air in. For berries that you would want to keep whole (because who wants to slice a million pounds of blueberries?!), blanch in boiling water for a few seconds to crack the skin. This could work for cherry tomatoes too.
Oxidation. You know when you've cut into an avocado and it starts to turn brown? That's called oxidation. It's when air mixes with the molecules of the flesh of the fruit and makes it turn an icky brown color. It's still delicious, just not delicious to look at. It mostly happens to fruit and there are a couple of ways to prevent it. Soaking the fruit in a mixture of lemon juice and water will usually do the trick. Ascorbic acid and citric acid work well too. You can buy them in powdered form to sprinkle on the flesh of the fruit.
Leafy greens and herbs. Air drying herbs is my favorite way to preserve them. I can only eat so much pesto by January before I wish I had some plain fresh basil. Freezing in olive oil, or making an herb oil is good too, but limiting to how I can use it in a finished product. Pick the leaves from the stems of the herbs and lay out on a parchment lined sheet pan. You don't need a drying rack in this case because of the flat, thin nature of the leaves. Spinach, kale and chard are all great to air dry too. You want the leaves to be as separated as much as possible. And thicker, curly leaves like kale will take longer than the tiny leaves from herbs like thyme and oregano. Dry whole, chop later.
If you don't have a lot of direct sunlight, or maybe you don't have the space to sun-dry, the oven works well for drying too. Set it to the lowest temperature setting possible, and apply the same rules as above. The oven will most likely take less time, as it is a more direct heat applied in a smaller space, but the results should be the same.