Eben Fodor changed all of that when he developed plans for his own solar-powered food dehydrator. Armed with a background in engineering and solar design, and a genuine interest in gardening and green living, Fodor tweaked his invention, called it the SunWorks Solar Food Dryer, and has published detailed plans that anyone can use to build a solar-powered food dehydrator in his book, The Solar Food Dryer: How to Make and Use Your Own Low-Cost, High Performance, Sun-Powered Food Dehydrator (New Society Publishers, 2006). "It's a hybrid design with the efficiency of solar collectors attached to a cabinet with the compactness of a high-efficiency dryer," he explains.
Fodor notes that it does take some handyman knowledge and tools to build the solar food dehydrator, and about two full days of labor. But the payoff is bone-dry, super-flavorful food that can easily be stored for a year, with many nutrients locked in place for months. That means you don't have to buy cardboard-tasting produce from halfway around the world when produce is out of season in your area.
Some people may scoff at the thought of such arduous labor. After all, can't you just let your produce sit in the sun to dry?
"You could," Fodor says, "but it's not ideal."
For starters, setting food outside to dry takes a long time—up to a week for some types of produce. And it never dries out as well as you'd like for longer-term preservation. Fruit acids want to reabsorb moisture, and produce rehydrates at night when the sun is out of sight. (That's not even considering the effects of rain and summer daytime mugginess.) Plus, the longer it takes to dry your food, the more nutrients leach away from it.
If you're not up to using jigsaws and drills to build your own dryer—which typically weighs less than 35 pounds and sits outside (thus saving your indoor air from the interesting smells associated with drying food)—Fodor suggests hiring a local carpenter (or recruiting a tool-smart friend or neighbor, perhaps in exchange for some dehydrated delectables). Soon, you'll have another option, too. Fodor just announced on his website, SolarFoodDryer.com, that kits will be available to easily put together a SunWorks Solar Food Dryer this month. (Email SunWorks@SolarFoodDryer.com with "SunWorks SFD Kit Info" in the subject line to get more details.)
No matter how you dry your food, here are some recommendations for a more successful preservation process:
• Consider starting with tomatoes. "A lot of tomato-type dishes require you to cook off moisture," Fodor says. "If you've ever done that, it's a lot of cooking to boil off all of the water. But the tomato is already concentrated if you dried it. This technique is great for sauce and tomato-based pesto." He also loves to eat tomato chips in the winter.
• Just wash and slice. Fodor says you don't have to use a pretreatment for your produce. He just slices pieces to about quarter-inch thicknesses. In his solar food dehydrator, even the wettest food are bone dry in two days.
• Build a nontoxic dryer. If you do decide to craft a solar food dehydrator, look for plywood that is free of formaldehyde adhesives. Look for the CARB-2-compliant Phase 2 standard, suggests Fodor.
• Get food in a dryer fast. Apples and pears are also among Fodor's favorite things to dry. Apples are known to brown pretty quickly, but if you slice and get your produce into a dryer within a half hour, you shouldn't experience any discoloration.
• Go beyond produce. Herbs are at their prime this time of year, so dry all of the oregano, tarragon, and mint you can to experience their peak flavor throughout the year. Fodor also loves to dry mushrooms. "Drying is the only way to save mushrooms, and it actually makes them better," Fodor says.
• Choose ideal storage. Once you get your food as dry as you can, Fodor recommends storing it in glass jars or zip-locking bags in a cool, dry place. "For foods you want to keep as long as possible, you can keep it in the freezer, which also reduces volume tremendously," he says. "For instance, six pounds of tomatoes turns into six ounces."
• Perk up your dried produce. If your dehydrated food is too dry for your taste, just mist, rinse, or soak it in water to soften it up.
• Trust your instincts. If your preserved food is very dry, Fodor says it should easily last a year. But always look it over carefully before eating, and if you notice color changes or funky smells, it's best not to indulge.