Why do you dehydrate fruit?
Dehydrating or drying fruit (or vegetables) takes all the moisture out of it. This can intensify the flavour and increase how long the fruit lasts, by a very long time.
Dried fruit can be 100% natural as nothing is added - or taken away - apart from the moisture. Dehydrated fruit can remain packed with vitamins, minerals and fibre, although some of the more volatile vitamins such as Vitamin C may be diminished. It should be noted that dried fruit has concentrated calories which can make it an excellent addition to a hikers back pack, but for those of us watching the calories, it is something we should be aware of. Especially as some of the fruits are just oh-so-delicious and easy to eat.
At Zest HQ we got into drying our own fruit for cocktails because we hate waste. We begrudged wasting a whole lemon or lime for one G&T. Now we have a plentiful supply on hand of a whole variety of fruits, whether in season or not, with nothing wasted or left forgotten in the back of the fridge. And now we wouldn't be without our dried fruit garnish.
How long will dried fruit last?
It has been reported that stored properly, dried fruit can last up to five years, so long as it was initially prepared correctly.
In the shorter term, we recommend you keep the fruit in the bag we supply it in, with the top turned over a couple of times. It would be best to keep the bag out of direct sunlight, at a reasonably stable temperature - normal room temperature is fine - but most importantly it should be kept dry. For longer term storage we suggest popping it in an airtight jar, something like a flip top glass jar. Some of our fruit is now available as an option in a glass jar - it makes a fab gift!
We put a recommended 'best before' time of six months on each pack we sell, however we know it will keep much longer.
What fruit can I dehydrate?
Just about any!
Citrus fruit is just about the best - oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, pomelo - you name it, we've probably had a go at drying it.
Strawberries, raspberries and blueberries are really good too.
Thinly sliced firm pears and apples work well - we dunk ours quickly into lemon juice first to help preserve the colour and to give it an extra little kick once it's in your G & T.
Pineapple is absolutely superb - we give ours a couple of minutes over the steamer, just to start the flesh softening; the lovely discs come out of the dehydrator just a little bit chewy and beautifully, naturally sweet.
We have also had great success with kiwi, rhubarb and mango. We have plans to start trying out banana, cherries, peaches, nectarines, gooseberries and someone mentioned ginger root would be good too!
So.... how do I dehydrate fruit?
Buy the very best quality you can. Examine your fruit and if you wouldn't want to eat it, then leave it on the shelf. If you put poor quality fruit through the drying process, you are going to get poor quality fruit out at the other end.
Reject any fruit with obvious damage, bruising, evidence of mould or suspicious discoloration (uneven colouring is fine, especially in organic fruit, as this could simply be because of the ripening process).
We cannot recommend getting organic fruit enough. Every. Single. Time. After drying, chances are you are going to be dropping that lovely golden orange wheel into your cocktail. And your drink of choice is going to start washing the skin of the fruit. If its not organic, who knows what chemicals and nasties are being transferred into your drink?
You have your fruit. Berries and smaller fruits should be rinsed in a sieve or colander under the cold running tap for several moments, agitating the sieve slightly to ensure all sides of the fruit gets washed. Shake as much excess water off as you possibly can and leave it to drain somewhere clean, protecting from flies and insects if necessary.
For larger pieces of fruit, run a sink full of clean, cool water and gently drop them in. Give them a swoosh around in the sink, and then with a reasonably soft scrubbing brush give them a gentle scrub. The brush should be firm enough to remove dirt, but not so harsh it damages the skin. The aim here is to remove any dirt gathered during growing and harvesting, and during the transportation. Pay particular attention to any creases and the plug ends as this is where the dirt tends to accumulate most. After a quick final rinse, lay the fruit out on paper towels to dry off as much as possible.
Once everything is clean and dry, take a seriously sharp knife. We use knives with hard ceramic coated blades with anti-microbial properties and soft handles for the best grip, but a decent standard vegetable knife will do just as well, so long as it is long enough to reach across the full width of the fruit. Starting with the oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruit, slice the fruit as evenly and thinly as you can. We aim for 2mm thick. This can start getting a bit tricksy especially as you work towards the end of the fruit. Don't panic if they get over thick as this can all add to the charm, but be aware that uneven slices may dehydrate at varying times. Flick away any seeds or pips you may come across, but again don't worry too much as they show up very easily in the finished dried fruit. Think about how you are going to use the finished product. Larger grapefruit may need to be cut in half or even quarters for it to fit nicely into your glasses, similarly some oranges need halving first too. Feel free to use the plug ends. We dehydrate these as well and add them to a separate pot we call The Ugly Muddlers. This is where the failed cuttings end up - too good to throw out, but not quite pretty enough for a Pimms. We use them in a cocktail shaker, giving them a bash with a barmans 'muddler' and a drop of alcohol, to start the flavour layering process.
Lay the citrus slices on your chosen tray ready for drying. Any flat cooking tray will work, be aware that warm air will need to circulate around the fruit as much as possible, so something with no or low sides and a thin base would be preferable. You may chose to use parchment paper, if you wish, but the finished fruit will be a tiny, little bit sticky, so aim at non-stick as much as you can. Lay the fruit so that it does not overlap. Slightly touching is fine, but overlapping will basically weld your slices together, and no one wants welded fruit!
In our dehydrator, citrus fruit takes around 12 hours at 60° C. We would suggest checking with your oven manufacturers instructions about extended use at low temperatures. It is not suitable for some ovens and others may need the door left open. In any instance do not leave the oven unattended, it will get fairly hot and will cause a hazard to kids and pets. After the suggested time give the fruit a little touch test. They should feel brittle, firm and dry to the touch, and should easily snap in half. A little bit of stickiness is fine, but too much will affect how long dehydrated fruit will last. Every piece of fruit is different and may take a longer or shorter drying time - we have also noticed that air humidity connected to the weather can also affect it. Allow the fruit to cool fully in an airy place. Once cool seal them into airtight containers and store in a temperate, dimly lit place - a pantry would be fine. Avoid storing near strong smelling foods or cleaning materials as this can affect the final taste.
Apples and pears are best cut using a mandolin. For our sake, use the guard every time! It makes our hair stand on end when the chefs on TV blithely slice away on an unguarded mandolin. These fruits will need a little dunk in something acidic to preserve the lovely fresh colour and as an added benefit is another layer of defence against bacteria. Depending on the desired end result, we use either lemon juice or organic apple juice. Lemon juice will add an additional kick to the taste, absolutely great in a G&T but a little mouth puckering if eating as a snack. Apple juice helps intensify the warm autumnal appley taste and is great for snacking. Shake off the excess liquid and lay out on your trays as with the citrus fruit. These fruit take about 12 hours at 60° and should feel dry and brittle to the touch - the perfect crispy crunch is still eluding us at Zest HQ, we are starting to suspect other ingredients have been used in the more mainstream brands.... the fruit WILL have taken on a brownish colour - this is a natural reaction to being and dried.
Raspberries can all be left whole and simply placed on the trays with their noses pointing up. These little fella's contain a lot of moisture and can take up to 24 hours at 60°.
Strawberries should have their plugs removed and then sliced into 2, 3 or 4 slices depending on the size of the fruit. If you plan on doing much drying of these babies, it would be worth investing in some non-stick dehydrating sheets. I have spent many hours of my life picking off beautiful strawberry slices from a drying rack, only for them to crack and break in the process :( These also take around 12 hours at 60° C.
Blueberries are very special little things and require a bit more effort in the process. After washing they should be dunked in a pot of boiling water in a colander or sieve for no more than 30 seconds, then immediately put into a bowl of icy cold water. Once they have cooled completely, lift out and allow them to dry as much as possible. Then spread them out on a freezer proof tray and pop in the freezer for at least two hours or over night. Try to spread them as evenly as possible without any of them touching another. Then dehydrate for 12 hours. Check them over and if any look swollen, prick them to deflate with a cocktail stick, discard any that look pale and bloaty. Then set them to dry some more - for another 12 hours. When done, they should have a hard outer shell and 'click' when dropped on the table top - I told you they are very special!