Listener Question: Drying and Other Ways to Preserve Food Yourself

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Jorge P. from Manteca, CA writes:

Thank you so much for all the helpful information. I listen to you on my way to work and my way home. I recently bought a home though it has a smaller backyard and my wife and I are planning out our small farm. We are from a town Los Banos (Yes “the bathrooms” in spanish, and Manteca is “lard” in spanish. Heh hahah) where agriculture is king — and now that we are in the suburbs its been a rough adjustment. What kind of tips could you give for food preservation, and tips for drying, and if you have ever salt cured pork or beef for preservation? 

Here is my response to Jorge.  I love his sense of humor!

Great to hear from you!  Ha ha ha!  Those are great names! 
These are great questions!  On episode 51 of Small Home Farm Radio I answered a gal’s question about preserving food – she wanted to use a cold cellar, but lived where it was too warm all but two months of the year.  I think she was in zone 9, also.  I believe Manteca, where you live, is zone 9.
 
For her I suggested canning and drying, and also succession planting so she has fresh food available to her most of the year since there is such a long growing season.  In the really hot parts of the year you’ll want to concentrate on growing heat loving veggies like tomatoes, tomatillos, various peppers, squash, melons, and beans.  Anything like potatoes, carrots, turnips, etc… you can just leave in the ground and harvest as you need them until frost.  Then they should keep in regular storage for maybe a couple of months – depends on how warm it is where you store them.  The colder the better, but above freezing.  If you have a really cool spot (below 40 degrees) you should be able to keep them quite some time.  But you have to sort through them and take out any that are starting to go bad regularly.  If you miss one, you can easily lose your whole crop to spoilage.  You can leave carrots and parsnips in the ground over the winter.  They will get sweeter the longer they stay in the ground, but you need to keep a bale of straw over top of them to keep the ground from freezing there.  Then just flip back your bale and pull however many you need for a week or so, put the bale back on top of the rest of them, and they’ll keep just fine!  
 
You can freeze a lot of foods, certainly.  That’s a good option if you have freezer space available to you.  I prefer chest freezers.  If there is a power outage, the contents will stay cold a little longer in the chest freezer.  The first time you open the door to the upright freezer, you lose a lot of the cold!  At least the chest freezer will keep the cold air in it a lot better if you open it.
 
If you want to dehydrate your foods, you can air dry, sun dry, dry in your oven, or use a dehydrator.  I’ve tried all those methods.  I think you just need to experiment to find which ones you like best.  I like a dehydrator for a lot of things, but they can also get a little *too* hard and crispy if you don’t watch it.  To air dry (indoors), you just spread things out – I’m talking about peas and beans here … nothing really, really wet like tomatoes.  And let them dry on your table or countertop.  Then you can store them in jars with a silica gel packet once they are completely dry.  The silica packet keeps any moisture left in the jar at bay.  But again, you want them really dry when you put them in there.  
 
Sun drying is great for tomatoes.  You just slice your roma tomatos in half or quarters and spread them out on an old screen or something that will allow the air to circulate under and around.  You’ll probably have to put a lightweight piece of fabric over them to keep the bugs off.  Nothing heavy at all, though, or it will hinder the drying process and they could start to mold instead of drying.  Let them sit until they are dried out and leathery, then store them in a small jar with olive oil in it, and maybe add a bit of herb to it – oregano or basil or something you like to cook with your tomatoes.  Then when you’re making a dish you want the tomatoes in, you just fish them out of the oil and add them to the pan toward the end of the cooking.  You can also sun-dry berries or sliced fruits or your peas and beans.  If you slice fruits, you want to dip them in lemon juice or sprinkle them with ascorbic acid or Fruit Fresh so they don’t turn very brown out in the air.  
 
To oven dry, you set your oven at its lowest temperature, crack the door, and put your produce in on baking sheet.  If I recall correctly, it takes roughly 8 hours – give or take a couple hours depending on temperature, what foods your drying, etc…, to dry things.  And whichever method of drying you use, you want things to be relatively small or sliced thinly so they will dry quickly and not start to rot or mold instead.  You wouldn’t dry 1/4 of an apple, for example, but you could slice the apple into maybe ten or twelve slices and dry the slices.  Those are good dried, by the way, sprinkled with a little cinnamon or cinnamon and sugar after you’ve dipped them in your lemon juice!
 
A dehydrator is pretty easy to use.  I found mine at a garage sale for $1!  So you don’t necessarily have to buy a new one.  You could even try borrowing one to see if you like it if you know anyone who has one.  Seems like it’s not uncommon for people to have one sitting around in a closet somewhere!  Just follow the instructions that come with the dehydrator.  They usually tell how to prepare whatever you want to dry and how long they should dry.  I use this for my herbs and fruits and fruit leather.  I’ve done fruit leather in the oven, too, but it usually ends up a little too crispy for my tastes.  It can be done well, I’m just not that talented!  
 
I have not salt cured my pork.  I freeze it.  But I’m pretty sure I do have instructions for that.  I also have a recipe for corned venison, (which can be found here) which can also be done with beef.  Beef is generally frozen or made into jerky or sausage.  I’ve made homemade jerky by adding herbs and spices to ground beef or venison and drying it in the oven or dehydrator – both ways work – and it’s quite good!  Beef is not really salt cured the same way you do with pork.  If you are using salt to cure it, it would be in a brine like with corned beef, I believe.  
If you are interested, you can “Like” the Small Home Farm Radio facebook page and we occasionally have discussions on there that folks take part in, and fans can ask questions that we try to answer.  
 
Thanks for getting in touch!  I can relate to having a hard adjustment period after a move when it’s so different from what you’re used to!  I hope you settle in well and get your garden up and running so that it’s a pleasure for you!  If you can get a copy of Paul Heiney’s book “Country Life” through the library, it’s a nice inspirational piece with good pictures to help you have an idea of how to set up your small farm to suit your space.  It’s no longer in print that I’m aware of, though, so you’d have to buy a used copy and I believe they’re pricey!  But here’s a link to Small Home Farm Radio’s Recommended Reading page where you can find one of my favorite books about food preservation in case you want some recipes and instructions, as well as the book Country Life by Paul Heiney. 
Have a great week … and Happy Home Farming!
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