…“Would your Honor like to try this dried fruit?”… The Taming of the Shrew
As the nights become cooler and we begin to see the morning dew, it is time to wrap up our fruit drying operation. Thankfully, we have just enough hot weather to dry our very favorite dried fruit, the flavor king plouts., which we moved from the dry yard area to the roof of our packing shed, where it is sitting on the corrugated metal roof getting full sunlight and lots of air circulating around it.
We started drying our fruit about 16 years ago with some old redwood drying trays from our neighbor’s apricot drying operation. They sulphured theirs; I can still see in my minds eye the tunnels and the plumes of sulphur rising off them. A sulphured dried apricot is plump and deep orange and very pretty but even if we could have; (it is not be allowed in organic dried fruit) we didn’t want to mess with sulphuring. A lot of people have reactions to it and I admit, I was and am, reluctant to handle it.
We started drying peaches and discovered pretty quickly, that even though it was much more labor intensive, peeling them made for a much, softer and delicious dried peach and more attractive; the gray dried peel is eliminated.(Another reason sulphur isn’t needed). Ironically, the peel protects the flesh from the heat, which causes another cosmetic issue to the peeled peach, the “blackened peach”; the sugar of the peach is caramelized during the drying process. At first I thought this was a reaction to the redwood tray but we are still seeing this on our new, PVC and wire trays. Even so, the flavor is not affected and it still stays soft.
When there started to be more demand , we ramped up our operation, buying more and more trays until we were up to over 150 trays and had a steady crew of about 15 people just drying fruit. Realizing our redwood trays were falling apart, we decided to make new trays from PVC and wire and screening. This winter our crew made 200 trays and we dried 32,000 lbs of dried Cal Reds alone. We also dry nectarines, apricots, plums and plouts but the best seller is peaches and once they catch on, the flavor kings will eclipse dried peach sales.
After the fruit is peeled (peaches only) they are set on our large 4x4 fruit bins about 4 ft off the ground to dry. After 2-3 days and it varies depending on the heat, each piece is turned for more even drying. After they have shrunken to about 1/8th- 1/10th of their original weight, they are bagged into 10 lb bags and immediately put into our cold storage at 32 degrees, where they will remain until they are bagged 2-4x/week into retail size bags.
A dried piece of fruit is only going to be as good as the fruit you start with. That is why our dried fruit is so stellar; we are starting with fantastic, ripe fruit. After 16 years of drying fruit we have learned which varieties work for drying and which ones don’t. Peaches that are stringier in texture of overly juicy won’t work so the early varieties we generally don’t use. The Cal Reds however, are meaty and flavorful and as with everything, make amazing dried fruit.
Dried fruit will not go “bad” over time and if it does, it will happen very quickly. Moldy fruit is an indication of either too much moisture in the dried fruit or exposure to moisture during storage. The best way to store it is in a Ziploc bag in the refrigerator or freezer. Make sure there are no holes or punctures in the bag. Ina cool dark cupboard you may see the fruit “whiten” over time. It looks a little like a creeping frost. This is not mold but sugar crystals moving to the surface of the fruit. It should last a good 6 months in the cupboard and a year or more in the refrigerator or freezer.
Drying fruit is easy to do at home as well. If you’ve haven’t a good area at home where you dry out side, in the oven works well also. Plan on about 3 days for peaches, depending on the size and thickness of the fruit and overnight for thinner slices of apples or pears and if you have a convection oven, all the better. The Colorado Sate extension has a lot of good tips about drying fruit at home: http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09309.html
Over the years, we’ve begun to incorporate our dried fruit into more recipes. Aside from the obvious, like our fruit cake, for instance we’ve begun to add it to our peach chutney giving it a more substantial and chewy texture. The dried plums are wonderful in stews, especially with lamb stew and we’re excited about the new fruit mustard we’ll be making this fall. Rehydrating it in water or wine or vinegar depending on what you’ll be using it for, works beautifully and makes chopping it much easier. Any leftover liquid can be added back in to the dish so you can capture and keep the flavor from the fruit.
It is always a little sad to say goodbye to our fresh stone fruit but it is comforting to know that we can still have a little taste of it throughout the year.