By Cinda Chavich
Dehydrating food is back in vogue, but this time it’s artful and sophisticated.
A slice of candied grapefruit glistening like ruby glass in your cocktail. A shaving of salty fish roe bottarga over pasta. A dusting of powdered carrot across your plate. Chefs are discovering the ancient art of drying food.
Dehydration is one of the oldest methods of preservation, used to prepare everything from fruits and vegetables to herbs, pasta, meats and fish for storage. And like fermenting, curing and canning, drying is back in vogue.
But this isn’t your hippie, backpacker fare. Following the lead of Noma’s René Redzepi and others, chefs are turning this simple, traditional technique into high art.
You may have encountered a flavourful “dust” or “soil” scattered across your plate, a bit of crunchy dried reindeer moss, or a curl of candied fruit leather perched atop a beautiful dessert.
At Boom + Batten, chef Sam Harris uses both pickled beet and purple “beet dust” on his Scallop Crudo appetizer, adds dried porcini to the vegetarian mushroom and cashew mozzarella pizza, serves grilled carrots with broccoli pesto and dried carrot chips and sprinkles dried peppers over avocado toast for breakfast.
Drying is also a popular technique for raw food chefs. The vegan Hippie-Chick Café serves dehydrated tomato soft taco shells and raw pizzas on their signature dehydrated crusts.
Dehydrating preserves seasonal foods and concentrates flavours, creating surprising new components for the plate.
At Pluvio in Ucluelet, chef Warren Barr uses dehydrated foods in surprising new ways. Whether it’s his chewy dried beet and house-smoked salmon appetizer, or an elderflower and lemon panna cotta studded with glass-like shards of dried rhubarb purée, Barr loves the textures and flavours he can produce with dehydration.
“Drying vegetables is a great way to put a new spin on something people may think of as quite common,” says Barr, describing his jerk-style chicken dish, with carrots that are cooked, dehydrated and then rehydrated in a braise of carrot juice and jerk spices.
Like many chefs, Barr has a commercial Excalibur dehydrator purring away in the kitchen, but he also simply dries fruits and vegetables overnight on racks in a cool convection oven with the fan running. Air circulation, not heat, he says, is the key.
“The beets are cooked whole, wedged, then dried and braised again in a sweet dashi broth with kombu, to add that hint of ocean flavour,” he adds. “The texture is really neat — almost like wine gums.”
Like many sustainably minded chefs, Barr also uses his dehydrator to repurpose food that might otherwise be wasted. To create crispy rice chips, he ferments the carrot pulp leftover from juicing, then purées it with rice before drying it into crackers. Apple peels are dried and pulverized to create a flavourful powder to dust over desserts.
A simple home dehydrator is an inexpensive tool. Whether you want to dry a bushel of apples or tomatoes from your garden, make healthy fruit roll-ups or jerky for school lunches, drying is an easy way to preserve a bumper crop.
And it might add a little chef-worthy cachet to your next dinner party creations.