Now that it’s the peak of the summer growing season and you can find watermelons, cantaloupes, and honeydew melons at nearly all supermarkets, curb markets, and roadside stands, you can pig out on the juicy delights. And each taste is made a little sweeter by the realization that within a few weeks, there will be no more melons for months and months.
At least, it is that way for some people. But, starting now, you can provide yourself a full winter’s supply of melons of all sorts by simply dehydrating your favorites and then storing them in a suitable place until your appetite tells you to pull them out and eat them.
How about giving dehydrated watermelon a try?
The following question comes from all corners of the nation: doesn’t dehydrating take all the flavor out of melons?
Isn’t it a messy job?
Doesn’t it require a lot of special equipment and other supplies?
And what does it taste like when all the water and flavors are removed from the meat of the melon—leather?
Here are the answers:
First, dehydrating watermelon or cantaloupe, or any other kind of melon in no way diminishes the flavor of the melon. In fact, it actually increases the flavor so that you get a rich taste you never before found in a watermelon or honeydew.
It is not nearly a messy job as it is to eat the fresh-cut melon right from the patch or market. All you need to do is butcher the melon, slice it according to the instructions given below, and dehydrate it.
As far as equipment is concerned, you can buy an inexpensive dehydrator, or you can make one for nearly nothing. You can even spread the melon meats in the sun and let nature take its course.
What does dehydrated watermelon or cantaloupe taste like?
Let me assure you that the taste is unlike anything you have ever tried before. First, think of how a fresh melon tastes, and then keep in mind that the melon is largely water, and the water dilutes the sweetness and flavor of the melon greatly. When you take out the water, all that is left is flavor.
Think of it this way. Imagine a glass half-full of terrific grape juice. Take a sip and revel in the great taste. Now fill the glass to the top with tap water and taste the mixture again. Much of the flavor has disappeared. Imagine how flat the taste would be if the mixture were 80 percent water.
That’s about the taste approximation of a good watermelon. Even with the water, it’s terrific. Take out the water, and you have a flavor explosion beyond comparison.
What you are going to learn in the next few paragraphs is how to prepare the melon, how to dehydrate it, and how to store it.
Start, if you need reassuring, by remembering how great dried fruit in general is. You have doubtless eaten dried apples, plums, peaches, apricots, and grapes. Ever notice how sweet a raisin is?
Getting to work
Start with a goodsized melon.
Lay the melon in front of you lengthwise and cut it into halves.
Then cut off round slices about an inch and one-half thick. Then cut the melon meat out of the rind. Cut the slices down until each section is about the size of your palm.
This is a good time to remove the seeds if you wish. If you don’t wish, leave them in.
Now you are ready to dehydrate. If you own a dehydrator, pull it out and set it up. Clean the trays thoroughly to avoid any kind of contamination. Some trays come with very thin mesh liners, like incredibly thin screen wire.
You can spread the slices of watermelon onto the mesh sections so that the pieces barely touch each other. It is easy to place half a dozen or more chunks of melon in one tray.
I have found that if I add a section of waxed paper or one of the food wrapping products, I can keep the dehydrator from getting so messy. The juice will seep out of the melon, and then as it accumulates, it will run to the lowest edge of the tray.
For this reason, I place a thin strip of wood under the back and one side of the dehydrator so that the juice runs to the front of the tray and then to the low corner. You can set a wide pan of some sort under the corner so that you catch nearly all of the juice.
Don’t discard the juice. You can either drink it or use it in beverages as a flavor-adder.
As the melon slices begin to dry, you can, after four or five hours, rotate the trays so that the one that started on the bottom will move to the top, and the one at the top will move to the bottom. Reverse the two middle trays, too.
The reason for doing this is that in nearly all dehydrators, the heating element is at the bottom so that heat can rise through the trays. The tray nearest the heating element will dry faster than the others, with the top tray drying last. So if you rotate the trays, you will have fairly uniform drying.
A good plan for tray rotation is to start the dehydrating process early in the morning and then, in mid-afternoon, rotate the trays. Then, before going to bed, rotate them again.
It will take about two days for the melon to dehydrate totally. Give it all the time it needs: you do not want to try to store still – moist melon. If you do, you’ll wind up with spoilage and nothing fit to eat.
The second way to dehydrate is to build your own box. This can consist of a simple rectangular box equipped with a light socket and bulb and with ledges from which to hang shelves. The shelves can be made of a wood strip border with mesh wire (not metal kinds) stapled across them and covered with Saran wrap or equivalent. Rig it up so that juices do not drip on the bulb.
The third way to dehydrate melons (or anything else) is to use the sun and some screen mesh. Construct a border of wood strips and then attach the mesh to cover the space in-between. Make another section the same way. A good measurement is three feet square.
Use wood strips thick enough that when the screen mesh is loaded, the mesh will not be resting on top of the melon. In other words, if the melon slices are 1.5 inches thick, the space between the mesh layers should be at least two inches.
When both sections are completed, cover the first section with Saran wrap and then lay your melon sections on the wrap. Fill the section from border to border. Then lay the section in the sun, with the melon side facing up. Position the other section so that the wood-strip borders rest together.
It is a good idea to rest the entire assembly atop a couple of bricks or other devices to keep the melons away from the floor or dirt. The mesh will keep insects from bothering the melons, and the sun may dehydrate the slices in a short time. You can turn the whole assembly simply by lifting and flipping the two sections. Do this so that both sides of the melon are exposed to the sun.
Obviously, you need a bright sunny day. If it rains, bring the melons into the house. You will find that you are far better off by using a real dehydrator rather than a homemade rig, at least in most cases.
Tips for storing dehydrated watermelon
Now, how do you store the dehydrated watermelon?
Or, a better question is how to know when the melon is ready. It is ready when it is very tacky or sticky. When you lift it, if it will stick to your fingers without your grasping it, you are ready to store it.
I store my dehydrated watermelon in a commercial bag of some sort, like a sandwich bag or freezer bag. First, I wrap it in a clear type of wrap, one slide at a time, and then I slip all the slices into the freezer bag.
Then, just for safety’s sake, I keep the bag in the freezer. If you leave it out, there is a chance that someone or something may punch a hole in the bag and let air into it. Room-temperature air is humid, and the result is a rehydration. Soon after that, the spoiling starts.
When you are ready to eat the melon, take it out of the freezer and let it come to room temperature. Then chow down. Do not expect the melon to taste the way it did before you dehydrated it. Appreciate it for its own taste.
Remember, you can use your dehydrator not just for melons but for nearly everything that can be eaten, as long as it has some moisture in it. So you have used everything but the rind and the seeds. But don’t stop now. Use these items, too.
You can make delightful watermelon rind pickles by trimming off all the thick green and tender pink parts of the rind (in other words, peel the skin off and cut the edible portion away) and cut these into one-inch cubes. Soak the cubes for ten hours in a solution of eight tablespoons of salt to one gallon of water.
After the soaking, drain the rind and cook it until not quite tender. Drain, and then make a syrup of four cups of sugar, two cups of vinegar, four teaspoons of whole cloves, eight cinnamon sticks, and a sprinkle of mustard seeds. You can tie all of the spices into a cloth so that they don’t stay in the container and darken the pickles.
Heat the syrup to boiling, then let it cool for 15 minutes before you add the watermelon rind and cook until the rind becomes almost transparent. Pack into hot sterilized jars and seal. Add one slice of lemon, if you like, or you can add other spices.
If you want to make watermelon rind preserves, trim the rind as before and cut it into thin strips an inch long and half an inch wide and thick. Mix one-half cup of salt to one gallon of cool water and soak the rinds for 8 to 10 hours. Then drain, rinse, and cook the rinds in water until they are transparent.
Drain again, then make a syrup of 8 cups sugar and 8 cups of water, the juice of four lemons, and any spices like cinnamon or cloves that you prefer (again, in a spice bag). Boil the syrup for five to seven minutes and add the rinds. Cook until they are transparent and tender.
When the mixture has thickened to the desired point, remove from heat and remove the spice bag. Pour the preserves into hot, sterilized jars and seal in a canner or in a hot-water bath for 10 minutes.
That takes care of everything but the outer rind and the seeds. Dry the seeds and save them to plant next year, and use the outer rinds for compost.
When winter winds blow, and the searing heat of summer is only a memory, you can recapture a taste of summer by pulling out a handful of dehydrated watermelon. And then your pleasure was well worth the work.