What’s the Best Solar Food Dryer?

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Appalachian Food Dryer. Image: Mother Earth News.

Dehydration is a great way to put up food. Second to freezing, it’s the best way to persevere nutrition without adding sugar or salt. And if you use the power of the sun, you won’t need to spend any money on electricity.

In a desert climate you can just put your food out on screened trays. But just a bit of humidity in the air makes this approach risky. Food can spoil before enough moisture is removed. That’s why you should build a solar food dryer.

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Brace Direct Food Dryer. Image: FAO.

There are two basic designs for solar food dryers: direct and indirect. Direct dryers are just a box with a piece of glass on the top. Indirect dryers use a box to collect the heat of the sun and then, thanks to the fact that hot air rises, take that heat up into an enclosed box that contains the food you want to dry.

The Poistk Dryer

The Poisson Indirect Dryer. Image: Mother Earth News.

Which design works best? Dennis Scanlin, Coordinator of the Appropriate Technology Program and Professor of Technology at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina has been studying solar food dryer technology for decades.  According to Scanlin, indirect drying is the way to go. Scanlin tested three dryers, the Appalachian Solar Food Dryer (an indirect dryer that he invented) against a direct dryer developed by the Brace Research Institute and the Poisson indirect dryer. In an article in Permaculture Activist, “Evaluating Solar Food Dryers: Stocking Up with Solar Power,” Scanlin says,

The Appalachian indirect dryer produced higher temperatures than the other two dryers and also removed more moisture from the tomatoes drying inside each day. In one test, the Appalachian dryer removed 32 oz. (0.95 L) of water during ta day, while the Brace direct dryer removed only 20 oz/ (0.59 L), and the Poisson dryer only 15 oz. (0.44 L). The Appalachian dryer was able to remove as much as 3.73 lb. (1.69 kg) of water in a single sunny day from tomatoes drying inside.

Scanlin also notes that direct dryers degrade the quality of the food and possibly nutritional value due to direct UV exposure.

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Our Appalachian Food Dryer, badly in need of a paint job.

We built a Appalachian Dryer several years ago and it works great. You do need to remember to bring in the food at night to prevent rehydration and spoilage (for some reason I often flake out and forget to bring in the food). For awhile I had an electric Excalibur Dehydrator on loan and it’s a lot more convenient. But, of course, it uses electricity and makes a lot of noise.

Since I built my Appalachian Dryer Scanlin has decided that it’s not necessary to use insulation. This makes the project even simpler. For just around $200 worth of materials you can easily make an Appalachian Dryer out of plywood nails and screws.

You can find plans for Scanlin’s dryer here.

Making Tofu From Scratch at the Institute of Domestic Technology

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Around once a month I teach a bread class at the one of a kind Institute of Domestic Technology, founded by our friend Joseph Shuldiner. The IDT is not your usual cooking school and its offerings are difficult to define succinctly. If I had to take a stab at explaining what the IDT does it would be that it teaches things worth doing from scratch that most people haven’t attempted since the pre-Betty Crocker era: cheesemaking, home coffee roasting, bacon curing, bread baking, jam and exotic projects like making your own nocino and toothpaste.

One of the perks of teaching at the IDT is getting to sit in on some of the other classes. The coffee roasting class changed my life. Now, every morning, I look forward to fresh coffee I roasted myself in a Whirley-Pop Popcorn maker. This past weekend I sat in a new IDT class taught by author Andrea Nguyen on how to make tofu from scratch.

Continue reading…

Home cooking advice?

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Our talk about the perils of added sugar this past week has reinforced to me how very important it is to cook at home, from scratch. It’s important for so many reasons, and big reasons, too. To name just a few, it’s good for our health, it’s good for the environment, it makes us civilized, it teaches kids what real food tastes like, it reinforces cultural traditions and forges bonds between family and friends.

Sometimes, though, it can seem hard to come up with a meal every night. It’s particularly daunting if you don’t have any experience in home cooking, and if you weren’t raised watching people cook. I was not, myself, so I had to figure stuff out as I went along.

These are a few things I’ve figured out. I hope you all will add any advice or tips you have in the comments, to help other people along on their journey into cookery.

1) Simple is good.  Despite all those over-the-top cooking shows they put on TV, good food can be very basic. A pot of soup and a hunk of bread. Done. Fiddlesticks to side dishes, much less courses.

2) Always make double batches if you can, then either freeze the other half for an easy meal down the road, or eat the leftovers for lunch, breakfast, dinner.

3) Shop with a list. Plan your meals for the week. It doesn’t have to be a tight plan, but maybe just a list of 5 main dishes you will make that week, and the ingredients you’ll need for them, along with the “usual suspect” types of food that you keep on hand for breakfast and lunch.  It really helps. Not just with organization, but also because it helps you set your intention to cook. This wakens your inner cook.

4) For bonus points on your weekly planning, consider how ingredients from one meal might transfer to another, and save you effort. Say you’re going to be making soup stock for something (or something you’re making will yield soup stock) — what else can you make which will use the rest of that soup stock? Same for cooking up a pot of beans, or a chicken, or a loaf of bread. Same goes for opening a jar of olives or splurging on a hunk of good cheese. Multitask those ingredients.

5) Pick a cooking style and try to stick with it. Some may disagree with this vehemently, but  I’ve decided that I can’t competently cook all of the world’s cuisines, nor can I maintain a pantry which will allow me to cook out of any cookbook a moment’s notice.

I’m lucky to have access to foods from all over the world, and have learned to love those flavors, but it’s not so good for my kitchen organization.  I’m sure my great-grandmother never stood staring at a shelf of cookbooks from ten different countries when she was trying to figure out what to make for dinner.

In short, to make my life simple, I’ve chosen to limit my home cooking palette.

I can go out and eat pad thai, waffles, bouillabaisse, sushi, pupusas, bahn mi, chile rellenos, dim sum, extravagant desserts….whatever.

At home now, I’m only cooking Italian and Middle-Eastern foods. (Of course there are many different Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines and cooking traditions, but these broad labels are enough for now.) I am neither Italian nor Middle Eastern–my native regional dish would be a steak with a corncob on the side–but I live in a Mediterranean climate, and the vegetables and herbs and fruits used in these cuisines thrive in my yard, and are easy to buy locally. This food just makes sense here. And we like it.

If I limit my choices like this, my pantry becomes functional. I use everything in it. Nothing goes to waste. Everything matches. It’s like a well organized clothes closet or a professional color palette. The flavors harmonize. The basic ingredients were meant to be together, so it’s easy to look at what’s in my fridge or on the shelf and pull something together without confusion or emergency trips to the store. Meals just happen. The tomatoes want to be with garlic and the chickpeas and the eggplants. They all get along. My spice shelf is starting to make sense.

Leftovers harmonize under this system. If we have a supper of leftovers, instead of the table resembling a low-end Las Vegas buffet at about 3 AM, I can just put everything I’ve got on hand in little bowls and announce, “Meze!”  It’s very impressive.

I like this simplicity thing so much, I’m considering booting the Italian food so that I’m only working with one palette. I love Italian food, and there’s plenty of crossover in ingredients with Middle Eastern food– but I love even more the thought of a perfectly streamlined, specialized pantry.

(I’m imagining some of you might be saying here, “What about the homemade tortillas you’ve been making? What about all that sourdough bread? That’s not Middle Eastern.”  Part of the answer is that the wonder of tortillas is that they’ll wrap around anything.  And another part of the answer is that we’re pretty freeform about what we eat for breakfast and lunch.

What have you learned that you wish you knew when you started cooking dinners from scratch?

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Worth Doing From Scratch: Corn Tortillas

homemade tortillas

We do a lot of experimentation here at Root Simple Labs. Some things work out and others fail miserably. I thought I’d periodically look at the projects that have worked in the long term, specifically from scratch. Call this the first blog post in a sporadic series about stuff that’s easy and economical.

Now you should be suspicious of any tortilla making advice dispensed by a gabacho. Let’s just say it’s easy and the results are way better than those dry tortillas you buy at the store. Some things I’ve learned:

  • I have a cast iron tortilla press that works great but my Mexicano friends in the know suggested a wooden press.
  • Making masa from scratch is a huge amount of work and I’ve done just fine with supermarket masa harina.
  • As I like to measure dry ingredients by weight I’ve figured out that for enough tortillas for four people you need to mix 250 grams of flour with 300 grams of water.
  • Cook as many tortillas at once as you can. I can do three at a time on our stove. Cooking one at a time takes forever.

Keep a bag of masa harina around and you’ll be ready for any tortilla emergency. In just a few minutes you’ll have healthy, tasty tacos and save money.

How’s the Sugar Free Experiment Going for Erik?

The Grape Nuts I eat in the morning have about as much sugar as Special K. Image: sugarstacks.com.

The Grape Nuts I eat in the morning have about as much sugar as Special K. Image: sugarstacks.com.

In short, not well. The first day Kelly announced she was going to forgo processed sugar I downed half a bag of chocolate chips. After all, I reasoned, they would go bad if someone didn’t eat them. I have a sweet tooth

Throughout Kelly’s sugar free experiment I continued my usual breakfast of Grape Nuts and rice milk. With neither grapes nor nuts, this cereal is little more than processed carbohydrates with a vitamin pill and 5 grams of sugar (in the form of malt syrup) per half cup serving. The rice milk contains maybe 3 grams of sugar for the amount I’m using each morning. If I go by the guidelines of the American Heart Association I shouldn’t exceed 36 grams of sugar per day.

Before Kelly began the experiment I objected that demonizing sugar is symptomatic of American diet trends that always have to have a villainous scapegoat. Look back at the past 100 years of food history and you’ll see fat, carbohydrates and protein (and, most recently, gluten) taking turns as public enemy number one. Sugar, I reasoned, was the next gluten. I’m sure the big food companies are gearing up to offer plenty of unhealthy low and no-sugar options in response to recent bad publicity. Root Simple reader Rebecca, commenting on Kelly’s anti-sugar post says,

Some colleagues of mine just recently (finally!) published a paper from a huge, ambitious study in mice, where they gave each mouse one of 25 diets containing different levels of protein, carbohydrate, and fat, and tracked feeding and lifespan. It seems to me like Americans really like to cling to stories that single out specific ingredients (see: gluten, sugar). But most foods contain a mixture of things. Evidence from the mouse study and studies in other animals suggest that many animals *jointly* regulate the intake of protein and carbohydrate, but with protein exerting a stronger effect on feelings of satiety – interestingly, the mice didn’t regulate for fat, they just ate whatever amount of fat was packaged along with the protein and carbohydrate. In tracking lifespan, they found that mice given lower-protein, high-carbohydrate diets actually had the longest lifespan and other indicators of better health compared to mice on high-protein foods. They were actually most interested in refuting the “caloric restriction” hypothesis of ageing, which ignores the type of calorie involved. But I think there are broader implications.

I watched Robert Lustig’s video six months ago, and I do think he makes some important points (plus I learned a lot about the biochemistry of intermediate metabolism from him). However…I’d still go back to this whole idea of vilifying a single ingredient. Americans are all still eating way too much processed food overall, and processed food is the larger culprit, in my book, especially because it’s cheap to add fat, carbohydrates, and salt to processed foods, but expensive to add protein.

The study Rebecca mentions is behind a pay wall but you can read the abstract here. Rebecca’s point is a good one. Human nutrition is enormously complicated and current bad health trends are not reducible to one single factor. The fact is that we have limited knowledge about all the complex interactions and feedback loops in human nutrition. This in not even to mention equally important factors such as how nutrition interacts with human customs, rituals and beliefs.

That said, processed sugar is definitely bad. I have no doubt about that. And I don’t think I need to tell the readers of this blog that processed foods as a whole are what are making us unhealthy. But as I discovered in my own life, it’s difficult to avoid sugar. It’s in everything the big food companies make.

Making time to cook from scratch and eating a diverse variety of foods looks like the only way out of the food mess we’re all in.