Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Singing the Praises of Dehydrating Frozen Veggies

Last year, I got a food dehydrator as an experiment to see if it was useful in preserving our garden harvest.

Although I'm still pretty new at this dehydrating thing, I'm really liking it so far.

I wanted to see if using dried veggies and fruits are as tasty and useful as people say. Are they really a good addition to your food storage efforts and everyday cooking, or are they redundant to frozen foods?

Because we weren't sure about how much we'd actually use a dehydrator, we didn't buy the expensive Excalibur brand that many folks recommend, just the cheaper round type you can get nearly anywhere.

We've been slowly putting our new dehydrator to the test. And I have to say I'm a fan! We've dehydrated sliced apples (HUGE hit with the kids) and a number of different kinds of vegetables. We'll try to do more of other types of fruits and veggies next year.

But what I'm really excited about is how easy dehydrating frozen veggies is.

Using Frozen Cuts Down on Prep Work

As I have developed my gardening skills, I find that we have more food than we will typically eat right away. So last year I worked at cutting, blanching and freezing my extra veggies so that when I needed some, I could just open the freezer and get them. And it was handy to have them already prepped in the freezer, I have to say.

However, I have to be honest...I am extremely lazy. I can't stand doing lots of prep work if I don't have to. So while I enjoyed having a bunch of chopped carrots from my garden in the freezer, I wasn't too enthralled with the long process of washing, peeling, chopping, blanching, and then freezing them individually on cookie sheets, then getting the whole mess into a storage container. Why not just buy frozen? Not organic but waaaay less work.

Dehydrating would involve a similar process; wash, peel, chop, blanch, and then put them in the dehydrator. This kind of prep isn't hard, just time-consuming and repetitive. With four kids, teaching, and writing, I prefer to do other things with what free time I have instead of standing around in a kitchen doing prep work.

So while I LOVE having fresh veggies from our garden all through the year, I had to be honest with myself that I wasn't likely to spend a ton of time doing all this prep because I find it so boring and repetitive. Some people enjoy that kind of cooking and fussing; I really REALLY don't. Yet I didn't want to give up on adding more vegetables to our diet. So I looked around to see if there were any shortcuts we could take.

What I found was that it's way easier to dehydrate frozen veggies from the store.

Get some bags of frozen veggies on sale, toss them on the dehydrator trays, and plug in the dehydrator. Simple as that. About 8-12 hours later, you have dehydrated veggies!

What's the advantage of dehydrating frozen vegetables? Frozen veggies in bags have already been made into uniform sizes, blanched, and individually frozen.

All that prep work, already done for me?  SOLD!

Yeah, it's not my home-grown veggies, which are tastier, and yeah, it's not organic (which I strongly prefer), but the convenience factor can't be beat. So I'll probably continue some of both....freezing, canning, and drying my garden surplus, plus dehydrating frozen bags of veggies.

My next goal is to make homemade fruit leather by drying my homemade Spicy Ginger Applesauce in the dehydrator. I might even try dehydrating some of my special Oven-Roasted Spaghetti Sauce to make a quick and easy addition for things like soups or chili.

Why Dehydrate?

I'm sure some people are wondering, though...why go to the trouble of dehydrating? Why not just keep bags of frozen veggies and use them? You can certainly do that if you want, but the advantages of dehydrated foods include:
  1. You always have food on hand, even when you are too busy to get to the grocery store or when circumstances like illness prevent getting fresh food from the market or garden
  2. Dehydrated veggies are lighter and smaller to store. You can store much more food in the same amount of space, which is far more efficient storage
  3. You don't need electricity to store dehydrated food. If power goes out, you won't lose as much food storage if some of it is dehydrated. You'll lose refrigerator and freezer stuff eventually, but the dehydrated stuff will still be good as long as you store it properly
  4. You can save money by buying big amounts of food when it's on sale and then dehydrating it
  5. Dehydrated veggies will save a bunch of prep time during cooking on busy days. Just put dehydrated veggies into hot water in a pot or a slow-cooker and start a good soup or stew
  6. In an emergency, you will have easy-to-fix food that is either ready-to-eat (dehydrated fruit, fruit leathers, beef jerky) or quick-to-fix (dehydrated veggies in soups)
  7. Dehydrated foods are handy and lightweight for backpacking or other forays into nature
Remember, you don't have to make a choice between types of food preservation; combine them so that you have several different types of food storage available. You can still use the freezer for the stuff that really needs to be frozen, and you can still do canning of foods that you prefer canned. Dehydration just gives you more choices in your storage. The more diverse your storage is, the more resilient it is.

In winter, when we are so busy with school activities and rushing about, having dehydrated food already prepped and ready to just throw in a soup stock to rehydrate will save a bunch of time when cooking. I really like that. Convenience food without the junk food health penalty....definitely a bonus.

For example, when I cook chili, I usually add shredded or diced carrots, corn, onions, etc., and sometimes zucchini or other veggies. Before, I had to take the time to chop up the veggies while I was cooking the meat. Not that hard, but sometimes we were too pressed for time and so I didn't add as many as I would have liked. Having already-chopped dehydrated veggies takes away a lot of that prep time and makes my life easier.

Same thing for cooking in the crock pot. It can be a hassle to chop and prep everything in the morning before leaving for work, and it's not easy to fit it all in as you get the kids ready for school. Having dehydrated veggies you can just throw in along with the fresh ingredients would shorten the process considerably, making me more likely to do crock pot cooking more often.

So it seems to me like dehydrating frozen veggies is even more of a WIN-WIN situation. Gives us more emergency food storage, frees up freezer space, keeps me from having to do all the blanching and chopping myself, saves on prep time during cooking, and encourages more use of veggies. What's not to like?

If money is an issue, it's perfectly fine to get one of the cheap round dehydrators (which can be found even more cheaply on eBay and at garage sales). Start small, see if you like it, and then if you really get into it and want to do a ton of dehydrating, consider upgrading to the Cadillac version, the Excalibur. For most of us, the small round dehydrators are perfectly adequate and store more easily.

To find out more about dehydrating, click here, here, or here, or google it for even more links. There's plenty of information, videos, and helpful hints out there on the internet if you are interested.

Do you dehydrate?  What foods do you dehydrate?  Any hints for dehydrating newbies?

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