At the height of summer’s bounty, there’s a way to heighten berries’ flavor and nutrition.
Dehydrating concentrates both the sweetness and beneficial properties in berries, from iconic strawberries and prolific blackberries to such superfoods as blueberries and cranberries. Among ways to extend enjoyment of summer fruit, dehydrating is a favorite of Rebecca Blackman, an Oregon State University Master Food Preserver.
“You’re saving all the vitamins and minerals that are in it,” says Blackman, an Ashland resident. “Nothing’s cooked out.”
And unlike the precision demanded by canning recipes, dehydrating is arguably the easiest way to set aside fruit for use in colder weather, says Blackman. Rather than heating up their kitchens, toiling over boiling kettles for canning, cooks can operate electric dehydrators outside on a deck or patio, checking the machine every few hours or so.
Sliced fruits and soft-skinned berries often take seven hours to dry at 135 F, while whole berries and cherries can take 20 hours or longer. Rotating the dehydrator’s trays periodically ensures even drying. Dehydrators come in various styles and sizes, from round, stackable models to enclosed, boxy designs. The master preservers don’t recommend one over another, except to vouch for dehydrators with a fan and thermostat.
“There are very few hard and fast rules,” says Blackman.
From the dehydrator, Blackman puts dried fruit and berries in a gallon-sized glass jar for a few days. She shakes the batch every day to distribute the remaining moisture evenly. Then she stores dried fruit and berries in glass jars or vacuum sealed at room temperature. Resealable plastic bags, she says, do not remain airtight over long periods. And if there’s any suspicion of lingering moisture, dehydrated foods are best kept in the freezer.
“It’s not a scientific process,” says Jackie Greer, another OSU master food preserver and avid dehydrator. “There’s a lot more art to it.”
Because strawberries are delicate, they’re much more palatable dehydrated, rather than frozen and thawed, says Greer, a Medford resident. She enjoys hers on cereal, in baked goods and “just to munch on.”
A popular dehydrated snack is fruit leather, which transforms pureed fruit into a handheld treat with less sugar and fewer additives than store-bought versions. Recipes often combine fruit puree and applesauce and can accommodate a range of spices in conservative quantities. Spices intensify in a dehydrator and can become overpowering, says Greer.
Pumpkin pie spice accenting winter squash puree yields a fruit leather that tastes just like pumpkin pie, says Greer. Strawberry-banana is a classic duo, but creative cooks can even incorporate vegetables, hiding them from children and finicky eaters, says Blackman. Beets, she notes, are vibrantly hued and naturally sweet but packed full of fiber and minerals.
Adding honey to fruit puree makes for the best-textured fruit leather, dried until it’s no longer tacky. Spread the mixture ¼- to 3/8-inch thick onto parchment paper, the layer thicker at the outside edge than in the middle. While nonstick sheets that come with many dehydrators can be used, parchment paper can be cut, along with the fruit leather, using kitchen shears, then rolled up like a “cigar” with the leather attached, says Greer. “The end product takes up so little space.”
For cooks who have a freezer, berries need no preparation (besides washing) to weather frosty temperatures in resealable plastic bags. Berries, like many foods, emerge from the freezer soft, which tends to dictate their use.
But freezing can be an intermediate preservation step, say Blackman and Greer. Freeze summer berries until there’s time to turn them into jams, jellies, syrups and other canned goods. Or pop hard-skinned berries, like blueberries and cranberries, into the freezer to crack their skins before dehydrating. Known as “crazing,” the result also can be achieved by briefly cooking berries before drying.
Regardless of the preservation method, make sure to label and date foods, says Greer. “Dried foods especially,” she notes, “can all look alike.”