By COPE Food Systems Specialist, Carole Palmer
Humans have been preserving plant and animal products since the dawn of time by drying and storing them carefully, in order to have food available for themselves, their families and their communities during the off-seasons, for long-distance travel and for times of scarcity.
While the Equinox on September 21/22 may indicate the arrival of fall for many cultures, October marks the “Separation of Seasons” for Navajo people. October or “Gháájí’” (which translates to “half”) brings with it a new moon. These two events mark the beginning of a new year in the Diné culture, a time of family unity. Traditionally, families gathered to prepare their harvest for the long winter months ahead.
Crops such as squash and melons were peeled, then carved into long strips and hung outside to dry. Peaches, apricots and other fruits were often sliced open, their pits removed and then placed out onto rocks, with a family member assigned to chase away birds, squirrels and other rodents who wanted to share in the bounty. Even squash blossoms were collected, pierced with the stiff stem of a long grass and hung to dry so that they could be stored and added to stews during the winter months. Meat jerkies were also made from animals that were hunted, such as deer, elk and antelope.
Many traditional Navajo foods are still prepared for later use by drying, especially neeshjizhii (dried steamed corn), chil’chin (sumac berries) and Navajo tea, which has many names, including chʼil ahwééh, dééh, cota and greenthread.
The process of drying fruits or vegetables can be as easy or as hard as you want to make it. Drying meats requires additional care to be done safely. The main requirements are good air circulation, consistently warm temperatures and enough time for the moisture to evaporate from the food so that it can be stored safely. Its best that the temperatures remain much lower for drying food items ~ usually, between 120 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit (50 to 60 degrees Celsius) for fruits and vegetables and between 160 to 175 degrees F (70 to 80 degrees C) for meats. The listed temperatures are more easily achieved with an electric food dehydrator. It is good to remember that when temperatures are higher, more nutrition is lost from the food, a slow, low-temperature process is preferred.
Many fruits and vegetables become ripe during the rainy monsoon times, from late July through August. The extra humidity from the rains means that it will take longer for food items to dry thoroughly. This could lead to mold damaging or wasting food and wasting the time and effort spent on preparing them. Also, many insects hatch out in wet conditions and with climate change, we are also experiencing more strong winds throughout the summer months into fall. Wind can stir up dust and other particles which could contaminate the food while it dries.
For general convenience, you may choose to use a food dehydrator instead. Drying time is often reduced because the unit allows for efficient air circulation and more control over the process.
The traditional ways are still an excellent approach for drying many food items and a wonderful opportunity for families to share stories and work together to preserve the harvest.
Household objects such as shelving and other materials can be recycled to make drying racks. Some people are still known to use the metal roof of their home as one big drying surface for crops. Those who choose to dry food outside will often cover the items with a light cloth to protect the food from sunburn, critters, bugs and dust while it dries.
Once the extra moisture has been removed, dried foods are lightweight and take up less space than other preserved foods. To use them in cooking, add water to the amount you will use and allow time for it to rehydrate OR just toss them into your soup or stew, making them even more flavorful.
Another approach is to powder dried foods, which is more easily done these days by using a coffee grinder, blender or food processor rather than a grinding stone. These vegetable and fruit powders allow you to quickly add an additional boost of nutrition to soups, stews, sauces, smoothies, breads, dips and whatever else you can think of. Nutritionally, most dried food retain about the same amount of vitamins as food that has been frozen.
Cakes and cookies can become healthier for your family if you add some fruit or vegetable powder to your mix. You may be able to use less sugar in your recipes with this approach, as food dries, the natural sugars concentrate. It is especially nice to dry melons that were not as sweet as you hoped when you tasted them fresh.
No matter what approach you choose, the process is similar:
Select good quality, ripe fruits or vegetables (fresh, canned, frozen)
Peel fruits or vegetables if needed; many items do NOT have to be peeled and peels can add nutrition, so do what you and your family like best;
Cut or slice so that all pieces are a similar size. Usually, a one-quarter inch thickness or so is good but it depends on what you are drying.
Do some research and pay attention to the time. If the air is more humid due to rain OR if the weather has gotten colder, it may take longer to dry your food items, even in an electric dehydrator. You may need to rotate items, rotate trays or racks and possibly remove some items from the trays early, if they dry faster than the others. If you are drying items outside, it is best to bring them indoors at night due to cooler temperatures, then put them back out the next day to continue drying in the warm sunshine.
Most of all, no matter what approach you take for food preservation, remember to enjoy the process and engage in it with a loving heart. Food is medicine.