Sunny Slope Orchard

Sunny Slope Orchard
In the coast range foothills overlooking the Sacramento Valley

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Drying Fruit - An age old method of preservation

Our favorite snack food:
Dried Fuyu persimmons, apricots, pears, figs and walnuts
Because fruit is such a perishable and delicate crop there is always a percentage of our harvest that:
a. is unmarketable due to belmishes, damage, or is too ripe to pack
b. is ripening faster than our customers will buy it
c. is too small a quantity to offer for sale but too much for us to eat fresh

In these circumstances we often turn to the ancient practice of drying. Because drying involves slicing up the fruit, damaged areas can be cut out, allowing us to salvage fruit that might otherwise go to compost. While salvaging extra fruit is one purpose, drying also creates an intensely flavored form of fruit that we can then enjoy well into the future. We do lots of canning and freezing as well, but drying creates a convenient form of fruit that we can grab and eat by the handful for quick energy throughout the year.

Fruit can be dried in a number of ways, from simply laying it out in the hot sun to using an electric dryer or oven. Commercially, most dried fruits are treated with sulfur dioxide as a preservative. We prefer not to use the sulfer treatment, and instead quick dry with either an electric or solar powered dryer, vacuum pack with a Food Saver machine, then store in a freezer. Done this way the fruit becomes super sweet and intensely flavored and retains its fresh dried color, taste and texture for as long as we keep it.

Here is what we have learned over the years:
  • Sun drying is slow, and the longer the process takes the more color and flavor degrade. Unprotected sun drying also invites insects to contaminate the fruit.
  • The faster the drying process the better the flavor and color are preserved, so cut large fruits into smaller pieces.
  • Electric dryers can work well if they have both heat and fan driven air. Simple electric dryers that have only a small heat source and no fan are not efficient.
  • Do not over dry. When the fruit cools off it will seem much dryer than it did while still hot in the dryer, so stop when you think it's not quite dry enough.
  • Unsulfured dried fruit will continue to lose color and flavor, will get harder and is subject to insect attack if left exposed to air, so vacuum packing is best.
  • Vacuum packing and freezing preserves the fresh dried quality for two years or more.
  • Vacuum packing dried figs
  • The texture actually improves further in the vacuum bags, as the moisture content between the fruit's thicker parts and thinner edges equalizes. When opened up later, fruit packed this way has a wonderful soft caramel quality.

During the hottest weather we use our home built solar dryer. It uses a photovoltaic panel to run an electric fan, which draws air across a hot metal plate and through the drying chamber. The chamber has multiple wooden racks where we lay the fruit out onto smaller plastic screens.

View through the top of our solar dryer
When the weather is cooler and we need to speed things up, we use an electric Excalibur dehydrator. This unit is very well made, has an adjustable thermostat, and the drying trays are easily cleaned in the dishwasher. This is the best home sized dehydrator we have seen.

Drying times will depend upon the fruit variety and size as well as the current weather. But typically the Excalibur will dry apricot halves in 15-20 hours. Fig halves will go a bit faster, pear halves may take a bit longer. We like to set the temperature knob to 125 degrees. But if the fruit is close to dry and it's bed time, we reduce the temperature to 95 deg. to avoid over drying.

Second Crop Figs
We're harvesting our second crop of figs now, and they should last another week or two. Most go to our main restaurant customer, but we do sometimes have extras for sale. Please call us at 707-448-4792 if you're interested.