There is nothing quite like eating fresh fruit from your own garden. A polytunnel or fruit cage from First Tunnels can make it easier to gain an abundant fruit harvest. In fact, when you grow fruit in a polytunnel or fruit cage, you may be overwhelmed by the quantities that you can successfully grow. Unlike when fruits are grown without cover, outdoors, you will not have to share your fruit with local wildlife, and it will be easier to combat a range of pests in your organic garden. In fact, efforts may be so successful that you find it difficult to prevent some of your fresh produce from going to waste. Learning how to dry fruit can provide a solution.
Why Dry Fruit?
Drying produce from your polytunnel or fruit cage can help you to make the most of your harvest and prevent your fruit from going to waste. What is more:
- Dry fruit will store for longer than fresh produce, without the need for energy (like your freezer, for example).
- Dried fruit will shrink, so will take up less space than fresh or frozen fresh produce in your stores.
- Certain methods for drying can be sustainable options – renewable forms of energy can be used.
- Drying fruit can often concentrate sweetness and intensify their flavours.
- Dry fruit is lower in water content, which can make it better for use in a range of baked good and other recipes.
Which Fruits Can I Dry?
Many of the fruits that are commonly grown in UK gardens are ideal for drying. However, which fruits you can dry successfully will depend on which methods for drying you select, and the exact conditions for drying where you live. Generally speaking, how easy it is to dry fruit depends on its water content, and size. Some common fruits that can be dehydrated using various methods (described below) include:
Selecting Fruits for Drying
When selecting fruits for drying, it is important to pay attention to the health of the specimens that you are choosing. You should make sure that the fruits you wish to dry are free from blemish, rot and disease. You should also avoid fruits which are:
- Over ripe. (Over ripe fruits are prone to rotting and may not taste as good.)
- Under ripe. (Under ripe or immature fruits are often less sweet as sugars are not at their peak stage of development. They may also lack nutritional value.)
- Damaged by or infested with pests.
Preparing Fruits for Drying
Once you have selected good quality, ripe fruits, it is time to prepare that fruit for drying. First:
- Wash the fruit you have selected with clean, running water to remove all dirt and impurities.
- Pat the fruits dry or place in a colander to remove excess water.
- Cut larger top fruits (like apples or pears) into thin slices. Halve and de-stone stone fruits like plums, apricots and peaches. Grapes and other smaller fruits can be left whole, but can also be halved if required to speed up the process. You should also be sure to remove any seeds, stems or leaves still attached to your fruits at this time.
- Spread out your fruits or fruit pieces on trays or drying racks for the drying stage of the process. Make sure that the pieces are not touching. Halved stone fruits are best placed cut side up, to allow the water to evaporate more easily and lessening the chance that the fruits will stick to the tray or rack as they dry.
Methods for Drying Fruits
There are three main methods for drying fruits:
- Air drying
- Oven drying
- Drying in a dehydrator
Which one you choose will depend on which fruits you are drying, the conditions where you live, and your other requirements and preferences.
To Air Dry Fruit:
(This method works best in less humid areas, and for fruits with lower water content.)
- Find a sunny location, with a temperature of over 25 degrees Celsius, humidity of less than 60%, and good ventilation. (These conditions must be maintained over several days.)
- Place fruits of drying racks or trays that allow good air flow, making sure that the fruit is kept in an even layer and pieces are not touching.
- Make sure air can flow below the rack or tray, and consider boosting the speed of drying by placing a reflective surface below to reflect the sun’s rays.
- Make sure the fruit is protected from insects, birds and other pests.
- Monitor progress and retrieve fruits when they are shrunken and chewy.
Note that simply leaving fruit to dry naturally is not usually the best option here in the UK, as it can take too long, and humidity is usually too high. Fruits that do not dry sufficiently quickly, or which are not dried in optimal conditions can be prone to rotting.
To Oven Dry Fruit
One way to dry fruit without investing in specialist equipment is to use your home oven. This method will allow you to dry fruit more effectively and quickly than using natural methods, yet the down side is that it uses energy. Of course, if you have green energy, or generate your own renewable power, then this can still be a sustainable choice. To dry fruit in your oven:
- Place fruits or fruit slices on trays lined with baking paper (to prevent fruits from sticking to the trays.)
- Preheat your oven to a low setting – around 150-200 F or 50-100 C.
- Place the fruits on trays inside the oven. (If you wish, you can leave the door ajar slightly to allow excess moisture to escape.)
- Depending on which fruits you are drying, and how thinly larger fruits have been sliced, drying will take 4-8 hours. Keep an eye to make sure they are not drying out too much or burning.
- Remove the fruit from the oven once it has dried sufficiently to wrinkle and is chewy – not crunchy or squashy, in texture.
To Dry Fruit with a Dehydrator:
There are a number of dedicated, specialist electric dehydrators on the market. While dehydrators are more commonly used in other countries, like the US, it is still easy to get your hands on one right here in the UK. You can find budget options for under £50, though you can spend several hundred pounds on better and more sophisticated models. If you have renewable power, as with the oven method described above, using an electric dehydrator could still be an eco-friendly and sustainable choice. To use an electric dehydrator:
- Following the manufacturers instructions, place fruits on the trays of the dehydrator and set the appliance to the correct setting for the fruit you wish to dry.
- Dry the fruit in the dehydrator for the time specified by the manufacturer. (if there is not a timer on the appliance, be sure to check at certain intervals to see whether the fruit is ready).
- Collect and check the dry fruit.
Another option is to make your own solar dehydrator, to speed up and increase the efficacy of air drying in sunlight. While these are usually slower than electric dehydrators, they can be a good choice for certain fruits. Use a reclaimed window or another piece of glass and other scrap materials to make a solar dehydrator. That can be used to help store produce that will be grown in your garden in a sustainable way, and can also be made sustainably, using items that may otherwise have been thrown away.
Storing Dry Fruit
Dry fruit should be stored in an airtight container in a cool place. If kept in optimal conditions, dry fruit stored in this way should keep for 9-12 months. How long dry fruit will store, however, will depend on which type of fruit you are talking about, and their remaining moisture content.
Using Dry Fruit
Dry fruit can be eaten as a snack, as is, used in baked goods or other recipes in dry form, or rehydrated with water (or alcohol) for use in a wide range of dishes. Drying fruit can give you access to fruity goodness throughout the year, and enhance your culinary adventures with the produce that you grow in your garden.
Do you dry your own home-grown fruit? Let us know what methods you use, how you get on, and how you use your dry fruit in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.