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The Wonders of Dried Fruit
by Jan Gjestvang-Lucky, Grocery Merchandiser
Ahh, summer, the season of long sunny days, fresh local produce, and sandals. It’s the time of year that brings to mind the wonders of...dried fruit...? Yes, that’s right, dried fruit! That wonderfully tasty, nutrient rich, incredibly convenient way to take energy and flavor along with us on our picnics, hikes, bike rides, camping trips, road trips...(you get the picture). So let’s talk dried fruit, how it came to be, why it still is, and what it can do for you! Ask not what dried fruit can do for you... oh, go ahead, ask. It can do a lot!
The oldest, simplest, and most natural method of preserving food is drying. Nothing is added to organic fruit in the process of drying, except maybe flavor. As fruit is dried and moisture is removed, its volume is reduced. This leaves us with nearly the same amount of nutrients in a much smaller package. That’s why dried fruit is such a concentrated source of so much good stuff. Drying works to preserve fruit because the bacteria and other organisms that make food spoil thrive on moisture, which has been greatly reduced, and they don’t like to be around too much sugar, which has been increased. So, less wetness and more sweetness really spoil the party for all those microorganisms. That’s why dried fruit can last for up to a year without refrigeration.
There are many different ways of drying food, ranging from no-tech to high-tech. Sun drying, obviously, was the original method. The fruit to be dried is spread out on a flat surface (rocks, screens, roofs) and turned repeatedly through the three to five day drying process. Because the temperature needs to be 95º Fahrenheit or above with very low humidity for this to work, there are some serious geographical limitations to solar drying. Oven drying takes less time, usually four to 12 hours, but uses a lot of energy, and the fruit often ends up brown and brittle. High-tech, at least for fruit drying, is an electric dehydrator, which is basically a heat source with a fan, and some trays that let air flow through them. Depending the dehydrator’s power and the type of fruit, it can take anywhere from four to 14 hours to dry.
At least that’s how it is with the moisture in dried fruit. Our bodies use their own fluids to reconstitute dried fruit in order to digest it. As the fruit reabsorbs moisture, it increases in volume, which can lead to a painfully bloated stomach. That means it is not only important to drink a lot of water when you eat dried fruit to replenish your body’s supply of fluid, but also to not eat too much dried fruit at once. That is, unless you enjoy that bloated and dehydrated feeling.
This is especially important to remember with young children because they can’t easily tell us how they are feeling (“Waaaaaah-Haaaa!” translation: “I feel painfully bloated and dehydrated at the same time! It must be all that dried fruit I ate.”) The other very important thing to remember when giving dried fruit to young children is the potential choking hazard it poses. This is mainly a concern with smaller fruits, likes raisins and berries, that often stick together in large clumps. This is fine for those of us with big mouths and all of our molars, but even two or three raisins stuck together can be too much for a small mouth and throat to handle.
Just like a certain other product, which I will not name, dried fruit is both great tasting and less filling (at least in a backpack). It is also a good source of vitamins and minerals and high in fiber. It has almost no fat, and, as a plant food, no cholesterol. Because it is rich in fructose and glucose, which are fruit sugars that our bodies can absorb easily, it provides a ready and stable supply of energy. Dried fruit has traditionally been used as a quick pick-me-up and energy source for people on the move or hard at work. These things, combined with its light weight and easy portability, mean it is great to bring along anywhere you go.
So what’s the difference between a fresh apricot and a dried one? Which one is better (nutritionally) for us? It seems that dried fruits are very similar to their fresh counterparts with regards to nutrition and even sugar absorption rates. This is important for diabetics, who can keep dried fruit around as a good emergency carbohydrate source. It typically takes four to five pounds of grapes to make one pound of raisins, and about six pounds of fresh tree fruit (e.g. apples, pears, mangos) to make one pound of dried. That means, ounce for ounce, that dried fruit has more of just about everything than fresh, but a serving size for dried fruit is also smaller than for fresh.
Just to give you an idea, I found some nutritional information for three different fruits and their dried counterparts. As you can see from the graph, these dried fruits have about four times as many calories and carbohydrates as fresh, and some of the other nutrients have similar ratios. This information is “Average All Brands” and does not differentiate between organic and conventional dried fruit. (See chart below).
Sulfites, sugar, and sometimes other ingredients, are often added to fruit in the drying process. Sugar can help preserve the fruit and its appearance. It can also sweeten tart fruit such as cranberries or cherries. Sulfites are also used to preserve the color and freshness of dried fruit. Sulfites have also been known to cause shortness of breath and kidney problems, and to worsen some digestive problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome. In some people they can also cause life threatening allergic reactions.
Organic dried fruit cannot, by definition, have any added sulfites. If you want to reduce your exposure to sulfites, but can’t get organic fruit, try soaking and cooking your dried fruit. Although you’ll get fewer sulfites this way, you may also get less flavor and texture and fewer nutrients. The easiest way to avoid sulfites, and other unwanted additives, is to buy organic.
Can you make your own dried fruit? Yes you can, although it can be a lot of work. You will need three things to dry fruit, other than the fruit itself: heat to force moisture from the fruit, dry air to absorb that moisture, and air movement to carry the moisture away. Before being dried, the fruit needs to be prepared by being cut in to small pieces or thin slices. Some fruits also need to be blanched to help stop the ripening process. Then they are ready to be dried using one of the three methods mentioned earlier: sun, oven, or dehydrator.
After drying, the fruit needs to be prepared for storage. It can be pasteurized, by freezing or heating, to kill any bugs left behind, both visible (ants or flies from outdoor sun drying) and invisible (germs). It also needs to be “conditioned” to evenly distribute the remaining moisture among the pieces of fruit so mold doesn’t grow on them. Then it can be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
For more specific information, take a look at the website where I found most of the information on drying at home: “How to Dry Fruit” from the Virginia Cooperative Extension: http://www.ext.vt.edu/pubs/foods/348-597/348-597.html. There are many other websites offering fruit (and other food) drying information, and several of them also recommend books on the subject, so if you really want to dry your own, take a look, and good luck! Of course, you can find a huge selection of dried fruit, most of it organic, here at the Co-op. My favorite right now is the dried organic mango, which I am chewing as I write this. Dee-licious!
Dried fruit can also be a great addition to recipes, providing sweetness, flavor, and texture. Here are a couple of tasty looking ones that I found:
Dried Fruits: At Your Table, by Jane Clarke
“Try making a simple salad with a couple of large handfuls of watercress, a finely chopped spring onion, a handful of walnuts, half a handful of chopped organic dried apricots, 30g (1 oz.) of crumbled mild goat’s cheese, a few washed chicory leaves and half a ripe avocado, sliced. Toss it all in a little olive oil, a pinch of sea salt and plenty of black pepper—a good hearty lunch for one.”
Zoria Farms recipes
4 cups dried apricot halves
3 cups cider vinegar
4 cups onion wedges (3 lg. onions)
1 cup chopped candied ginger
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon Tabasco
3 cups brown sugar (packed)
3 cups sugar
2 cups water
3 cups seedless golden raisins
2 tablespoons whole mustard seed
Directions: Cut apricot halves in half. Combine all ingredients in kettle. Bring to boil, then simmer slowly, uncovered, until thickened, about 1 hour, stirring often. Portion into sterilized jars; seal at once. If desired, process in boiling water bath for 15 minutes. Makes about 13 half-pints.
Just Fruit Recipes
1/2 lb Dried figs
1/2 lb Dried cranberries
2 c Red wine
1/4 c Lavender or flavored honey Spices tied in cheesecloth:
1/2 tsp. Thyme
Directions: Add figs to a saucepan with red wine and honey and cheesecloth with a selection of herbs. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, for 45 minutes or until really tender. Remove figs from saucepan, boil the liquid down until about more than half remains. Discard spices in cheesecloth. Serve as is, or spoon over vanilla sherbet or ice milk. Yield: 4 servings.