When you are flooded with fresh ripe fruit in summer, what could be better than to dry the produce? (We aren’t much for jams and jellies in this household.) In drying you transform the food into a form that keeps better and takes far less space. However I have some tricks and warnings to suggest.
Harvest Maid makes a fine circular dehydrator for drying fruit, such as apricots and tomatoes. It’s notable how often I have seen unused machines priced ridiculously low in thrift stores. Rectangular and square dehydrators do not circulate the air as evenly so I far prefer this type.
I rarely use the higher temperature settings. Lower temperatures take longer but keep a better more complex flavor. I don’t use ascorbic acid or other preservatives because I care nothing about the color of the product, only the flavor. If you want to worry about the color, ascorbic acid simply adds another simple step tor processing fruit such as plums and apricots.
Apricot and plum season comes soon– my apricots are showing a touch of color today.. I use a knife to remove the plum pits before lightly flattening the halves between my fingers. Then I set them on drying racks that have been spritzed with an unflavored oil. The fruit pieces should be barely touching, cut side up. I dry these until the surface is dry enough to turn them face down to continue dessication until they reach a leather-like texture before packing them into zip-locs, pressing as much air out as possible and storing in my freezer. The feel of a piece should be flexible, not breaking at being bent. You can under-dry–the fruit should not be wet or squashy, but more like a prune, and I feel this makes a better product. With apricots I don’t bother to use a knife–I am always trying to do things faster. I tear apricots apart with my fingers, toss the pit out, flatten each half slightly between palm and fingers and set out on racks as I described with plums.
Dried plums, you say, isn’t that the same as a prune? No, not if you use a plum like a Santa Rosa. We take our dried fruit on our long driving trips. One of these dried Santa Rosas will wake up more than your taste buds– they are an explosion of sour and tannin with a little sweetness and even the illusion of a slight saltiness in your mouth. Santa Rosas dried are almost as good as caffeine to keep you alert upon the road. But like strong coffee, don’t take too many on an empty stomach or they might upset it.
These dry fruit are super substitutes for jam fillings in cookies– any apricot jam bar cookies, apple-raisin filling cookie or fig filled type, can be stuffed instead with these dried fruit gently simmered with some water until tender. You will then have a less sweet cookie that explodes with flavor. My one caution is that dried plums will need some honey to mellow their tannin-strong bite and acid. Taste while the simmered fruit are cooling, and modify to your preference before putting them into your cookies. I don’t think apricots need any sugar, treated this way.
Peaches? Never had luck drying them They come out hard and rather tasteless and I have no clever recipes for them that take advantage of their characteristics. Apples? Ditto. I suspect that if I were willing to take the time and try out various preservatives I could get around this harshness, but I’ve been too impatient to date.
For drying tomatoes, you wash then dry them on a very clean towel, core, quarter them, discard the seeds and jelly (or most of it) flatten and place on the drying racks. Lightly salt the pieces with kosher salt before drying them in the dehydrator until each is flexible like a raisin. If you do not salt, you may have a bacterial infection start in on the moist areas– a most unpleasant spoilage of your work. Once you get such a contamination the whole lot is only good for the trash.
Tomatoes are best done in later summer, so I would wait until then when the sugars are at a height. I always store the dry or semi-dry tomatoes in the freezer because they are prone to mold if there’s any moisture left in the pieces. DO NOT STORE IN OIL. Oil creates an anaerobic culture medium for the cruel and usually fatal delights of botulism. If you want a grisly tale of what happens when you ingest botulism, you can check on the government sites, or read Berton Rouche’s charming tale “Family Reunion”, (I have it in his volume entitled Annals of Epidemiology, a book that is a tremendously good read.) http://www.amazon.com/Annals-Epidemiology-Berton-Roueche/dp/B000W3XO30/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1464377443&sr=8-2-fkmr0&keywords=Berton+Rouche+Annals
If you want these frozen tomatoes to taste like the oil-packed form, simply saute the half-dried ones in some olive oil and herbs (herbes de Provence type mixes are fine) until warmed through, and use the same day either over pasta or on pizza. Remember they are already salted, so taste before you add any more salt. These have none of the preservative taste that commercial products can bear. I find them infinitely superior. I suspect one reason is that at home you can leave your tomatoes on the vine to full ripeness while commercial growers must harvest far earlier in the life cycle of the fruit.
Because I’m on the subject of drying fruit I will digress to autumn and talk a bit about persimmons. For drying persimmons you need the fat pointed kind– Hachiyas, which you carefully peel with a vegetable peeler or fine knife, needle a string through just under the stem and hang in any good drying place. Gently squeeze and massage them every day (I wear nitrile gloves) to even the drying process. When they are a consistent texture, a bit like leather, with a whitish ‘bloom’ of sugars on the surface, they are done.
If you use our kind, the Fuyus, you have to slice them thin and they will be like sweet potato chips, but thorny, even perhaps a little unpleasant. I have never liked them dried this way.