The Family Car as Solar Dehydrator
By: Chris Sims
All summer long, I feast like a queen from the garden, but never lose sight that fall is coming, and we’ll still want to eat. My husband and I therefore freeze, ferment, can, and dehydrate food for winter, and since one of our goals is to avoid the use of fossil fuels to prepare or store our food, we often favor dehydrating.
Dehydration has to be done quickly and thoroughly. Too much moisture left behind causes veggies to get moldy in storage. Drying too slowly costs flavor and quality. Too much heat causes scorching.
We started with an electric dehydrator. It had a number of handy trays and a fan that blew warm air across the veggies. It did a good job, but used a lot of electricity.
Sun drying came next. That worked great when we lived in Montana, where laundry dried on the line in as little as 10 minutes and a picnic sandwich turned to toast before we got to the last bite. Not so in Vermont. Bugs abound here, too, making it necessary to screen out unwelcome taste testers. If the day’s produce fails to dry by sundown, we use the oven to finish, but there we go using electricity, again.
Sometimes the best and simplest solution is sitting right under your nose. In this case it was sitting in our driveway. You know how hot a closed vehicle gets on a sunny day? There aren’t many bugs in there, either. I figured the car had all the right conditions for dehydrating food, so I chopped up some herbs and gave it a try.
Here’s our method:
For leafy herbs and greens, snip them off with scissors, or pick off individual leaves. Spread them onto cookie sheets and place in the car. The dashboard works especially well. Every now and then, stir the contents of the trays for more even drying. Finer herbs such as thyme and oregano can be left on the stem and hung on a line between the headrests, secured with clothespins. Herbs may take as little as an hour, greens half a day. If it’s too hot in the car, open the windows a crack.
Dense, moist fruits and vegetables do best on a food grade screen so air can get to them from below as well as above. A reflective cookie sheet under the screen speeds drying. Husked cobs of flint corn can be spread on a clean sheet or hung on clotheslines in the car for the first round of drying. After they’re shelled, spread the kernels on cookie sheets for round two.
To store our dehydrated bounty, we prefer glass jars. (Plastic seems to encourage mold growth.) Herbs and greens should be dry to the point of crumbling. Tomatoes and fruit should be firm and leathery, summer squash somewhere between leathery and crisp. If we’re the least bit worried about mold, we store the dried goods in plastic bags and freeze them.
Dried produce can go straight into soups, stews, sauces, or casseroles without rehydration. They’ll soak up the flavors of broth or marinade while they cook. Dried fruits, including sliced tomatoes and summer squash, can be eaten as snacks, or snipped with scissors and used in breads, desserts, soups, and salads.
Certainly, there are disadvantages to passive solar dehydration in a motor vehicle. That classic “new car smell” indicates that volatiles are leaching from the interior, and we probably don’t want those in our food. Our solution? We don’t buy new vehicles.
Another disadvantage is that some produce imparts an odor to the car. Don’t get me wrong; I like the smell of chives. I really do. It gets a bit old, though, if I have to drive in a chive-laden miasma on a rainy day with all the windows up. On the upside, it makes for an interesting conversation starter when we pick up passengers. Who knows—it might tip an unsuspecting wanna-be gardener over the edge into the delights of greater sustainability and frugal self-sufficiency!