Sun-drying is one of the least-utilized methods of food preservation, and this is surprising when we consider that it doesn’t require any power or a lot of equipment. As long as you have access to direct sunlight and the right conditions are present, you take advantage of this time-honored way to keep fruit fresher for longer periods of time. Let’s take a closer look at how you can tap into this alternative and put it to work for you.
Establishing Ideal Conditions
Ideally, you want to sun-dry fruits when temperatures are greater than 85 degrees and humidity levels are below 60 percent. However, you can replicate these conditions, even in the middle of the winter, by using a greenhouse or building some kind of thermal box. It’s also important to remember that you need a lot of direct sunlight and patience as the process can take a few days to a week to complete.
Aside from ample sunlight and temperature regulation, fruits need to be laid out on racks that allow for ample air circulation. Circulating air helps to whisk away moisture, inhibits the formation of mold and helps to speed the overall process along. You can buy racks and trays that are made specifically for this purpose, but you can easily make your own as well. Just make a wooden frame and use thick screen material or chicken wire for the base and you’re good to go.
Preparing the Fruit
Most fruits will need to be peeled, cut or pitted before drying. You may also need to soak certain fruits in lemon juice or ascorbic acid in order to prevent them from browning on the rack. It’s also important that you cut the fruits into uniform slices or pieces so that they will all dry at the same rate. Keep in mind that the thickness of the fruit directly-relates to the amount of drying time needed as well.
Try to place the trays in an area that not only has ample sunlight and good ventilation, but is away from blowing dust, dirt or other sources of contamination that can get into the food. You also want to turn the pieces at least once a day to ensure even drying, and avoid stacking the trays atop one another. Finally, consider improvising a screened cover that can be placed over the food in order to keep insects away. You can also drape the pieces with a piece of cheesecloth or porous fabric as an alternative.
As a general rule of thumb, most foods will need anywhere from 4 days to a week to dry, but times will vary depending on conditions in your area. Once foods have become about ¾ the way dry, you can move them into a semi-shaded area with good ventilation to minimize scorching.
Conditioning, Pasteurization and Storage
It’s important to condition foods before canning and storing them over the long-term. This helps to remove excess moisture and inhibit the growth of bacteria, mold or fungi. Fill large mason jars about ¾ the way up with the fruit before attaching the lids. Let them sit for about 7-10 days, and give them a shake one or twice per day. If you notice the development of condensation, remove the fruit and let them oven-dry at the lowest possible temperature for about an hour before putting the pieces back in the jars and repeat as necessary.
Pasteurization helps to kill off any insects, eggs or larva that may be present on the fruit. All you need to do is place the pieces on a baking sheet and bake them at 160 degrees for about 30 minutes once they’ve been conditioned. Remove from heat when finished, let them cool to room temperature, and store the fruit in sealed Mylar bags or mason jars.
Hopefully these tips can help you to hit the ground running when it comes to sun-drying fruits. It may take some time, along with a little bit of trial error, before you develop a foolproof system. However, don’t let this discourage you from taking advantage of this time-honored preservation method. Once you get the hang of things, you may be able to extend the shelf life of some of your favorite fruits by up to six months, and this alone makes learning the process all the more worthwhile.