This post comes to us courtesy of cookbook author and food writer Karen Solomon.
So, like other food preservationists and kitchen tinkerers, I love to dry things – fruit slices, fruit leather, cheese, beef jerky, etc. In the heat of summer the sun does the work for me. But the other ten months of the year in Northern California, however, I usually rely on my oven on a low setting, door slightly ajar to release moisture, to do the job. And while effective, each bite contains the residual taste of enviro-guilt that comes from leaving the oven on and the heat blowing upward for several hours. The results are excellent, but I cannot help but be haunted by the fossil fuel energy loss necessary for a homemade Fruit Roll-Up.
Certainly I could buy a food dehydrator (and I still may), but my gas oven runs therms, plug-in dryers run watts, and I’m not science-geeky enough to know if they are truly more energy efficient. Plus, I thought, I already own a large piece of heating equipment that dries sopping wet clothing in record speed (also fueled by gas), that spins with convection-like capability.
The Newton’s apple (orange?) that struck me with the idea was a perfectly shriveled piece of orange peel found at the bottom of the clean laundry basket. Had I been sitting on (and ignoring) the world’s best food dehydrator next to the washing machine and not taking advantage of its power? Is it possible to more efficiently dry fruit, vegetables and meat in the high-heat, high-motion clothes dryer in one round of Permanent Press? Sadly, at least in my scientific exploration, the answer is no.
I quickly sliced a navel orange into 1/8-inch slices. My hope was that a regular high heat setting would yield chewy, moist results. I didn’t want the fruit to touch the walls of the dryer directly, as I feared a future of sticky laundry as I scraped orange sauce from the inside of the machine’s barrel. I thought fabric assistance would help wick moisture and hold the fruit in place, so I grabbed a clean cotton dishtowel. Oh, and a knee sock. Everything’s better with knee socks.
I laid a dishtowel out into a rectangle shape and then arranged two rows of orange slices horizontally across the middle. I folded up the bottom and folded down the top, making sure fruit was tucked into towel completely. Then I folded one encased row over another to sandwich both rows of oranges together. I used rubber bands to cinch the sides of the towels together and to keep the fruit from falling out. I had first tried this with clothespins, but they banged around too much and some of them broke. Safety pins work, too.
Then – my genius move – I cut the toe from an old knee sock (don’t worry, I’ll still wear it!) and wiggled the sock down like a tube over the entire length of the towel and fruit to secure it. Note that I first tried this with a polyester sock, a fiber known for keeping moisture in. Rookie error! Go with all cotton.
I moved the whole fruit-towel-sock contraption to a mesh laundry bag. If my experiment worked, my hope was that I could put several batches of fruit into the laundry bag and dry them all at once.
After 70 minutes on Permanent Press, the good news is that I managed to contain the fruit and I didn’t have to clean the machine. The bad news, however, is that the fruit was still very, very wet. I tried one more cycle but then gave up, because after two hours, it wasn’t drying nearly as quickly as it does in the oven. If you try a different method and you have any success, please let me know!
In the interim, I’ll go back to drying fruit the old-fashioned way in the oven (OK, modern old-fashioned, because true old-fashioned would be drying it over a fire). Here’s how I usually do it.
Chewy Dried Orange Slices
Time: About 3 hours
Despite my continuous protests, my mother mails me Honeybell oranges from Florida every year. They cost her a fortune. Some of them always arrive moldy. They’re not organic. And, uh, I live in California where the oranges nearby are outrageously good. I feel bad just using them all for juice, so I dried them with just a touch of sugar to balance out the tanginess of the dried fruit. The finished results are far more complex than they appear: moist, sticky, and chewy, tangy and super flavorful – like a slice of the best marmalade or orange candy you’ve ever had. Eat them straight up, or use their jewel-like demeanor to stunningly top iced cookies, cupcakes or cakes. Of course you can also do this with navel oranges or any other sweet variety.
1/2 cup sugar
4 large Honeybell oranges
1 tsp. flaked sea salt (like Maldon)
Crushed black pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F.
Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper, and pour the sugar into a bowl or small plate.
Using a serrated knife, slice the rind and pith from the bottom and the top of the oranges. Stand the fruit straight up and cut off all of the skin – first cut from top to bottom and then flip the orange over and slice from top to bottom again to remove it all. Thinly slice the well-peeled fruit into horizontal rounds about 1/8th-inch thick and move them onto a clean dish towel in a single layer. Once all oranges have been cut, lay another clean towel on top and press on it gently to absorb some of the juice.
Dip one side of the orange into the sugar and place it onto the baking sheet sugar side down. Follow suit with all of the oranges until the tray is full – it’s ok if the oranges touch one another, but don’t let them overlap.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place them in the oven on a low rack, and leave the oven door ajar with a wooden spoon.
Check the oranges after about three hours. They should be tacky on top and may pool some syrup, but not fully dry. If not, check them every half hour for doneness.
Eat them warm or pack the oranges in a single layer separated by sheets of wax paper in an airtight container. Store refrigerated for several months.
About the author: Karen Solomon is the author of Can It, Bottle It, Smoke It and Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It (Ten Speed Press). She has been a well-published food writer for over a decade. Her edible musings on the restaurant scene, sustainable food programs, culinary trends, food history, and recipe development have appeared in Vegetarian Times, Fine Cooking, Prevention, Yoga Journal, Organic Style, the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Magazine, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Zagat Survey: San Francisco Bay Area Restaurants, and elsewhere.