Put Your Dehydrator to Use: Make Fruit Leathers at Home for Healthy, Delicious Snacks
I bought an ExcaliburTM dehydrator this spring, and I really like the big square trays for making fruit leathers. They're a lot easier to cover with plastic wrap than the doughnut-shaped screens of round dehydrators with a central air tower. But you can make fruit leather in any type of dehydrator, as it doesn't require high temperatures or precise processes.
Whatever type of dehydrator you have, you'll need something to cover the surface of your screen before spreading the fruit puree. Excalibur sells special ParaFlexxTM sheets, but the directions that came with my unit also suggest using either parchment paper or plastic wrap. I've been using Glad Press ‘n SealTM, and I absolutely love it for this purpose. The "clingy" side adheres just well enough to the screen to keep the edges of the wrap from blowing around, and the finished fruit leather peels off its backing very nicely. If it doesn't quite cover the width of your screen, just add a second overlapping strip or be careful not to spread the puree too close to the edge.
When I put some pluot-applesauce puree on a plate and let it sit for a few minutes, I could see that it was fairly watery. I decided to put it into a fine-mesh strainer and let it drain for 15-20 minutes, in order to cut down on drying time. The juice that drained out was a nice addition to a pitcher of lemonade! Each of the big (14 x 16 inch) screens of my dehydrator will hold 3-4 cups of drained fruit puree.
Cover the screens of your dehydrator with whatever you've decided to use, and spread the puree about a quarter inch thick at the edges, maybe a little less in the middle. My directions said it would take about 6 hours. I found it was more like 8 or 9 hours before the leather no longer felt soft or overly sticky. Maybe my idea of ¼ inch was too generous. We managed to set the timer on the wrong switch, and one batch kept on drying overnight (about 14 hours) and was still pliable. The fruit should be dried until it is leathery and a little shiny rather than soft or moist. I think there is a lot of margin for variability in drying time. In other words, fruit leather is hard to mess up - I like that!
When the fruit leather has dried to your liking, take it out of the dehydrator and let it cool. Lift the plastic or parchment sheet from the screen, and roll both sheet and leather up together tightly. I used either a black or a silver sharpie to label the roll at intervals. Single servings can then be cut from the roll with a knife or kitchen shears. You can store them just like that, in a zip-top plastic bag. To eat, just unroll and peel the leather from the backing. You may want to refrigerate or freeze the fruit leather for longer storage, but somehow I don't think mine is going to be around that long. It's too delicious.
So far, I've made fruit leathers from blueberries, pluots (a plum-apricot cross), applesauce, and a tropical fruit medley I had in the freezer. I mixed the pluot and the blueberry purees with approximately equal parts of applesauce, and that seemed to work out well. Plain applesauce seemed a little boring, but we really liked the enhanced flavor when we added 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon and 3/4 teaspoon dried orange zest (equal to about 2 teaspoons fresh orange zest) to a 32 ounce jar of unsweetened applesauce. We had so much fun making our own fruit leather so much that I think we'll continue playing with this method in winter, seeing what else we can do with applesauce or bananas.
Go to the farmer's market this weekend and see what kind of fruit you can find. Remember, the fruit doesn't have to be pretty, just tasty. Inexpensive "seconds" are fine, as long as you trim off any bruised parts and discard overripe or moldy fruit. Don't put any piece of fruit into the puree that you wouldn't consider putting into your mouth. Add some applesauce if you like, sweeten with a little sugar or add a squeeze of lemon, and consider a dusting of cinnamon. Have fun with creative flavor combinations, and you'll enjoy delicious, nutritious fruit snacks. Dig that dehydrator out of the back of the closet, and put it to good use!
 See Melody's recent article, "When Life Gives You Spotty Apples, Make Applesauce!"
Photos by Jill Nicolaus.
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