Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Preserving Wild Harvests - Dehydrating and Drying

Sometimes the abundance of a seasonal harvest of wild foods overwhelms us, and we are not able to eat all we gather at once. To preserve the harvest, we use several methods of keeping wild food to use at later dates. Using a basic dehydrator or just air drying are two more methods of preserving our foraged bounty to use all year long, filling the pantry with many jars of goodies. We own two dehydrators, one is an older, basic Ronco circular heat-based dryer you used to see advertised late at night, and the other is a small Excalibur, using heat and a fan to dry food. For some bulkier items, we just leave the food in a large, closed paper bag in a dark place for a few days to dry. We have successfully dried and saved roots, seeds, herbs for tisane, greens, mushrooms, and made some yummy fruit leather from our wild food harvests.

Sassafras roots
Filé powder
Dried dandelion roots
Sassafras roots can be dug during three of the four seasons here in southern New England, and they dry well to keep during the winter. We don't go out for them often, but when we come across a particularly dense stand of small saplings, we gather a large quantity for drying. Robert washes the roots and then uses a knife to shave off slices of the bark and to cut the root into small pieces. He then leaves them in a dark place to dry for a few days, and keeps the dried sassafras roots in a jar. The pieces get boiled to make a strong decoction for making beer or a sassafras drink. The leaves of the sassafras trees can be dehydrated and powdered to make the seasoning for gumbo, filé powder. Other roots we dig and dry are dandelion and chicory. The roots get washed and gently roasted in the oven to dry, then powdered in a spice grinder to use as a slightly bitter coffee substitute. We keep the dried and ground root powder in air-tight jars.

Pineapple weed

Rugosa rose hips

Wintergreen leaves

Linden tisane
An infusion of an herb in hot water is often referred to as herbal tea, but more correctly, it is a tisane. There are a few herbs we gather for hot and chilled tisanes, and they can be dried using the dehydrator, or less succulent herbs dry well in a dark paper bag. We gather the flower bracts of linden trees in spring, red clover heads and pineapple weed in summer, the red hips of Rugosa roses and leaves of bay laurel in the fall, and wintergreen leaves in early winter. The rosehips are cut in half to remove the seeds and irritating hairs, and dried in the dehydrator since they can be very fleshy and need to be dried before they start molding.

Dried bicolor boletes, black trumpets, maitake, and honey mushrooms
There are several mushrooms that we hunt that dry well, like bicolor boletes, maitake, honey mushrooms, black trumpets, and the elusive morels. I use the dehydrator for the mushrooms, often slicing them and drying them in a single layer. The black trumpets are so thin that they can be dried whole. Once dried, many of the mushrooms can be powdered and added to dishes as an umami boost like a seasoning. I usually re-hydrate the maitake in hot water and use the strongly flavored water to make a wild mushroom gravy.The dehydrated mushrooms can be added to soups and stews, or to the boiling water used for cooking grains like rice or quinoa.

Sumac berries
Garlic mustard seeds
The dehydrator works great for seeds and strongly flavored greens, like garlic mustard seeds and ramps greens. We use the dehydrator for the ramps greens, otherwise they may get moldy before they dry completely. The dried seeds and greens can be used whole, or powdered and used as spices. Pollen from cattails and pines need a quick drying session to keep them from spoiling before they are stored in the freezer. The mostly dry berry clusters of sumacs can be preserved and saved all year by drying them in a dark paper bag and storing in an air-tight container. 

Japanese knotweed fruit leather
It is possible to make fruit leather without a dehydrator, but using the machine will give better and more even results. We have used the oven set on low, and even the interior of the car on a hot summer day by leaving the tray of fruit leather on the dashboard. Fruit leathers can be made from most pulpy, sweet fruits, like berries or grapes, or even Japanese knotweed. I prefer the fruit leather seedless, so I use a food mill to remove the seeds to make a thick fruit paste which gets spread over a silicone baking mat on a sheet pan, or the special fruit leather tray for the dehydrator. Once dried, I roll up the fruit leather and wrap portions in plastic wrap or parchment paper. Keeping dried and preserved wild foods on hand allows us to use the abundance of the seasons in our cooking, mixing flavors from the seasons to create whole and balanced, well flavored meals all year.


Josh Fecteau said...

May I ask what kind of spice grinder you use to get such fine dandelion root powder?

The 3 Foragers said...

We use a small coffee grinder to grind seeds and dried herbs to powder. It is the kind that has a blade in the center that spins around. We don't drink coffee, so we use it exclusively for herbs and seeds.