Dried Fruit Stores Sweetness
By Heidi Lewis
Fruit dried on the vine or in the sun is the most ancient of food preservation methods known to humanity—and it’s still practiced today. Using the sun and the free hot air to dry fruit is another way farmers can be sustainable. It’s an efficient use of excess fruit that isn’t made into juice or jams. “We use about everything we harvest—we even use the peach pits to fill the potholes in our roads,” says Annie Main, owner of Good Hummus Farm in Capay, CA (Yolo County).
Dried fruit is fruit that has had most of its water content removed by drying in the sun or in dehydrating machines. Fruit such as plums, peaches, apples, apricots, and tomatoes can be peeled, sliced, and laid out on trays to dehydrate under the mighty sun. Some farmers choose dehydrating machines for more control over the drying process or if their harvest is ready during inclement weather or fog. Asian pear grower Subarashii Kudamono in Coopersburg, PA, uses a Victorian-era gas-flame drying mechanism. Sun-drying is practiced by large, small, and micro fruit growers across the country to produce about two and a half million tons of dried fruit each year. An estimated 90 percent is dried under the California sun.
Raisins (dried grapes) make up about half of all dried fruit sold today, followed by dates, prunes (dried plums), figs, apricots, peaches, apples, and pears. Raisins come from grape varieties grown specifically for drying and are dried on the vine. Ninety-five percent of raisins come from Thompson Seedless grapes.
Prunes are also a lovely dried fruit—plump, sweet, and moist. It’s not every plum that can become a prune; there are specific varieties of plum that make the best prunes. Petite d’Agen is a Gold Rush–era plum originally from France that transformed California orchards into prune-producing heavyweights. In 2000, the prune industry won approval from the Food and Drug Administration to call them “dried plums,” which may sound more commercially appealing. Regardless of what you call them, a recent study found that eating prunes were more effective than consuming psyllium husk (found in high-fiber breakfast cereals and other fiber supplements) for treating constipation.
Dru Rivers, co-owner of Full Belly Farm in Guinda, CA, says they use redwood trays positioned four feet off the ground to dry fruit and that insects aren’t an issue in the drying process: “People are always amazed when they look at our dry yard,” said Rivers. Full Belly and other dried fruit producers put their sun-dried fruit products in a freezer or use dry ice to remove air and create a sterile environment as a final step to the curing process before the fruit is hand-sorted for quality control and packaging.
The shelf life for dried fruit depends much on its variety, packaging, and any added preservatives. One of the oldest preservative practices is pre-treating fruit with sulfur fumes, which goes back to the 1600s and is still used today. Farmers would place a smudge pot of burning sulfur in the drying shed. The sulfur smoke would lightly coat the fruit, preserving its color and texture, before it was placed back in the sun. The FDA issued concerns about sulfur use in dried fruits in the 1980s regarding adverse reactions for people with asthma and compromised immune systems.
To maintain color, some producers, especially of light-fleshed fruit such as apples, apricots, or golden raisins, use other pre-treatments such as dipping the fruit in ascorbic acid (vitamin C), citric acid, or sodium metabisulfite solution. Home and small producers may use something as simple as lemon juice, while others simply allow the fruit to oxidize. Read the packaging on any dried fruit you purchase, especially if you’re sensitive to additives. When additives are used, the dried fruit falls in the “packaged food” category and is therefore subject to regulations, labeling, weight, and measure guidelines. Any product labeled CCOF Organic means the farm has its sun-drying operation included in its organic system plan and does not mix organic and conventional fruits.
Eating Dried Fruit
Dried fruit should keep up to two years in the fridge or one year in a cool pantry. (Unsulfured dried fruit should always be refrigerated.) Besides eating dried fruit out of hand, it can be a wonderful addition to everything from breakfast cereals to salads, as well as making a great accompaniment to roasted veggies and meats. Dried fruit adds sweetness and dimension to sauces. Since it is dehydrated, just add water and rehydrate! Either simmer in water to create a compote, or spray lightly with water to plump up the fruit. Make up little bags of dried fruit and nuts for a healthy snack at work or after a workout.