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FYI...

September 14, 2013

Dehydrated foods: Dried and wrinkly and nothing but flavor

When it comes to preserving food, dehydrating is the least-glamorous option, exiled from most cookbooks and conversations while canning and freezing get all the attention.

Culturally speaking, that's in line with our gravitation to beauty and youth: Canning and freezing technologies have been around only for a couple centuries; dehydrating began as early as 12,000 B.C., according to the National Center for Home Food Processing and Preservation. But it's not just the caveman dieters among us who appreciate this simple technique. Dried foods aren't always the prettiest (dehydrating darkens and wrinkles them), but they're the lightest-weight and arguably have the purest flavor of anything preserved.

"A dried peach tastes peachier than a fresh peach," writes Deanna DeLong in her comprehensive guide "How to Dry Foods" (HP Trade, 2006), which was first published in 1979. That's because dehydration removes water, leaving behind the essence.

In a professional kitchen, any chef will tell you, dehydrating is all about flavor concentration.

"Food preservation techniques like dehydration allow me to buy fruits and vegetables at the peak of the season and preserve them through the winter months to add pop to winter dishes," says Michael Bonk, executive chef of the Pig in D.C.

Bonk considers dehydration a versatile, fundamental skill, not to be dismissed in this time of fascination with ultra-modern practices. In fact, the most challenging requirement is patience: Most everything needs a minimum four hours.

"The key is to forget about it," says Michael Friedman, executive chef and co-owner of Red Hen in Washington.

Among other things, Friedman dries cherry tomatoes (packing them in olive oil) and has been substituting dehydrated blackberries for raisins in ice cream and other desserts.

When blackberries are peaking, that makes them perfect for dehydrating - the first rule of which is to use fruit and vegetables at their peak maturity when flavor and nutritional value are greatest. "If it's prime for eating, it will be prime for drying," says DeLong.

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