Strawberries dried, first drying of the season

Last weekend was a busy one. Saturday the family drove out to Sauvies Island for some U-pick strawberries. We came back with about 45 pounds! With strawberries you don't have a lot of time after they are picked before they go bad and we didn't have a lot of room in our refrigerator. They either need to be eaten (always a viable option!) or preserved pretty quickly. Becky, super woman, dove into action and started canning. With a little help from me and Greta, she cranked out a huge quantity of canned strawberry jam!

I used our berry bounty to take the solar food dryer out on it's maiden voyage. Today, Monday, I harvested the strawberries out of the dryer. Overall it was a success. I did have some observations that are worth sharing about the dryer. (One of my intents with this blog.) As mentioned earlier, I built two solar dryers based on plans from Eban Fodor's book The Solar Food Dryer.

Some notes on the trial run of the dryer
Saturday was an overcast, cooler day and it was late afternoon by the time I had all of the strawberries cleaned, cut up and loaded on the screens. I was able to grab some late sun to get the dryer up to around 110 degrees but that didn't last too long. I was paranoid about fruit flies. We are in the midst of a gigantic fruit fly bloom in our compost, about eight feet from the dryer, so I needed to maintain a higher temperature in the dryer to discourage the flies. I was forced to plug in the dryer over night. It was a little discouraging doing so for the first use of the dryer but the circumstances made it necessary.

The dryer worked. The scent of the drying strawberries was wonderful but it quickly developed significant condensation problems. The night was cool and lots of water built up on the inside of the glass. The strawberries probably retained a lot of water from being washed and they are inherently pretty water-laden anyway. Moist air hitting the cold glass surface caused big water drops to accumulate. Some of the water ran down the inside of the glass and dripped on the screen at the back of the dryer. Maybe a possible solution here is to put a blanket over the glass at night. This would help keep the glass warmer and probably improve the efficiency of the dryer.

One problem I discovered with this dryer is that I forgot to install any screen in the top ventilation door. Oops! This needs to get fixed since keeping bugs out of the dryer, especially when drying sweet stuff, is important. For this batch, I tried to keep the vent door closed as much as possible to keep the flies out by limiting access and maintaining a higher temperature. This meant that I wasn't able to evacuate the moist air as quickly as desirable. I noticed that mold even built up by the side vents. Welcome to Oregon. This is not acceptable. That vent door needs to get fixed!

Comments on drying strawberries
It's weird how there is so much variation in the taste from one strawberry to another. This makes me a little undecided how much I like them as a drying fruit. Some of the first berries I tasted had an odd sort of chemical taste (acetone-ish?) to them which I think is related to the speed and temperature of the drying. (I'm sure there is some food science explanation for this but it's beyond me.) I don't seem to notice this taste as much now. Other berries were absolutely dreamy. The drying concentrates the flavor, making the berries tangier, sweeter and more "strawberry-y" tasting.

We tried some in our Cream of Wheat this morning. For hot cereal, I think I still prefer plums but maybe the berries need to cure in the half gallon mason jar for a while. One problem with the solar dryer is non-uniform drying. A few weeks in the mason jar will help the berries cure to a uniform consistency. Right now some are chewy and some are crunchy. The crunchy ones take a bit too long to soften in the hot breakfast cereal for optimal eating, though as-is I prefer the over-dried crunchy ones for snacking. I have a tendency to over dry fruit. I'm still not very confidant how well partially-dried fruit will stay preserved. This will take some trial and error.

I read some of our old 1970s drying books for information on drying strawberries. These books heartily endorse strawberries as a good drying fruit. One important tip is to place the berries skin-side down otherwise they have a tendency to really get glued to the screen. I was a bit haphazard with my berry placement and some did turn out to get pretty stuck. By pressing up from the underside of the screen, I was able to get the berries free. Still it took a bit of extra effort. The more the berries were dried the easier it was to release them from the screen as they tended to snap off. Some of the less dry strawberries smeared as I was taking them off. Maybe extra dry is the only viable way to dry strawberries?

One book suggested to cut berries into half inch pieces. This is a little vague. Next time I'll stick to simply halving them and quarter the particularly large ones. Quartering rather than slicing prevents a flat fleshy inside surface from getting stuck to the screen. A quartered piece still has some outer skin to put face down.

The two trays, fully loaded with berries, yielded about two pints of dried fruit. Strawberries shrink considerably when dried! We produced these just in time to replace our exhausted supply of plums, though really we should be eating the real thing, fresh strawberries!

And that's probably more than you'll ever want to know about drying strawberries.