Fruit Leathers -- Fun and Easy
Fruit rollups are a great idea -- it's an easy way to make fruity goodness portable and less messy. Kids love 'em; and they're great for carry-along snacks for hikes and camping trips. The down side is that the manufactured stuff is over-processed, and hugely over-priced. Making fruit leather at home offers many benefits. It's much tastier, more nutritious (especially if you leave peels on the fruit), and you can make a wide variety of fruit blend combinations, or add whatever spices you like. It's a fun project for children to help with, and if you have a blender or food processor, it's also a snap.
All you need to make fruit leather is something to puree the fruit you're using, and something to dry it in. I'm partial to the American Harvest dehydrator that I use, because it's compact and very easy to operate. A gas or electric oven, if it can maintain a steady temperature of between 130-140 F, will do quite nicely. If you're into more primitive methods, the New Mexico State University College of Agriculture and Economics has an informative publication sheet on drying foods.
If you're not using a dehydrator with its own plastic trays, you'll need some thick, food-grade plastic to make your own (just thick enough not to buckle under the weight of the puree -- about 1/4-inch). Or, if you have a jelly roll pan, or something similar that isn't aluminum (it's too reactive for this use), that will work. It's possible that the "easy release" aluminum foil can be used, but I've not tried it. Waxed paper will not work. Whatever you use, a very light spray of nonstick cooking spray is recommended, to further help in releasing the leather once it's ready.
Many kinds of fresh fruit work well for leather; simply wash them, dry well, remove any blemishes, and peel if desired before pureeing (chunk larger fruits before pureeing to speed the process). Frozen fruits also work well; in fact, freezing and thawing some fruits (like my beloved cranberries) improves them for use in fruit leather. If a frozen fruit is especially juicy, you may wish to drain off some of the excess juice before proceeding -- you can keep it in if you wish, but doing so will extend the drying time. A few fruits -- bananas come to mind -- aren't well-suited for leathers on their own, but make good additions to other fruits for tasty blends.
If desired, you can strain out pips, skins, and other bits that will make the leather more textured, but doing so will decrease the amount of fiber and other valuable nutrients in the finished product. Of course, you can process some of the fruit that way, but not all of it, so that some of the nutrition is retained. Experiment to see what you like best.
Some fruits need pretreatment to prevent discoloration and flavor loss; these include apples, apricots, peaches, and pears. The easiest is a dip in lemon juice (other citrus juices will work too, if you'd like to experiment with flavor combinations), or a dip using ascorbic acid crystals available from most grocery stores for this purpose. Don't soak the fruit for a long period -- 30-45 minutes is the maximum I recommend. (The longer they soak, the longer the drying time will be; a 5-minute dip is sufficient.)
The texture of the puree should be about that of applesauce. In fact, applesauce is a quick shortcut for apple fruit leather. Many recipes I've seen suggest using corn syrup as a sweetener/thickener, if one is needed; the reason given is that sugar can give the finished product a brittle texture. I've not had any problems using sugar, but I prefer the flavor of the fruit to shine through, and don't make my leather overly sweet. Brown sugar, honey, and maple syrup are other good sweeteners that add their own nice flavors -- but do use genuine maple syrup, not the fake crap. Keep in mind that all flavors will concentrate as the fruit puree dries into leather, so use a light touch with all additional flavorings.
Spread the fruit puree as evenly as possibly on the trays, to between 1/4 and 3/8 of an inch thick. If you're using an oven, rotate the pans throughout the drying process to help ensure they dry evenly. (If you're using an electric oven, use a kitchen towel or something to prop the door open about an inch, to let the excess moisture escape the oven.) When there are no tacky spots, the leather is dried.
Drying times vary widely, depending upon the liquid content of the puree, the thickness of the puree on the trays, and temperature. Begin checking the leather after 2-3 hours. Remove from the tray while warm, and cut into smaller pieces if desired. Store in zippered food bags.
Storage: at room temperature (in a dark place) -- three weeks
Refrigerated -- three months
Freezer -- twelve months
- Apple -- apple pie leather (using cinnamon and nutmeg); apple-maple; apple-pear. Extremely versatile, and blends well with other fruits. Pretreatment essential if you don't want disgusting-colored leather. If you make your own applesauce, blend different varieties of apples for nice flavors, then make your leathers. Spices to consider: cardamom; cinnamon; cloves; nutmeg.
- Banana -- best used in blends with other fruit, especially berries or tart fruit. A bit of lemon juice will help stop discoloration. Strawberry-banana, raspberry-banana, orange-pineapple-banana (yummy with or without coconut) are some good combinations. Nutmeg's a nice addition to some banana-blend leathers.
- Blueberry -- defrosted frozen berries work very well. Wonderful in many combinations -- blueberry-lime is one. Cinnamon is an excellent spice to add to blueberry leathers.
- Cantaloupe -- I haven't tried this one yet, but I've made cantaloupe sorbet a few times, so I think it would work decently as a leather. I'll try to remember next summer, and test it.
- Cherry -- cherry pie leather, with a touch of cinnamon. Also good in many combinations. Try sweet cherries, or tart ones, or a combination, for interesting variations. Frozen fruit works well. Make sure to check for pits!
- Citrus fruits -- These are too juicy and don't have enough substance to work on their own, but the juice and/or pulp can be added to other fruits with delicious results. Cranberry and orange are a very nice combination; lemon gives a nice zing to many sweet fruits.
- Coconut -- not substantial enough on its own, but makes a good sweetener/bulking addition to other fruits. Or, sprinkle it on the top for a nice variation. If you're working with fresh coconut, don't forget to save and use the milk too!
- Cranberry -- Freezing them first softens them, and helps release the scant liquid they contain; even so, you'll need to add additional liquid, and a hefty amount of sweetener to make cranberry leather palatable to most people. Or, they can be cooked (12 oz. berries, 1/2 C sugar, and 1/2 C fresh orange juice is a good jump-off recipe) until the berries all pop. More liquid may be required after cooking to get the proper consistency for making leather. They yield a quite lumpy leather unless you remove at least some of the seeds and skins. Applesauce is a natural, easy addition for a tasty blend that also provides the liquid cranberries need. Think of all the cranberry blend juice drinks available if you need further inspiration. Cinnamon, cloves, or allspice are yummy spices with cranberries.
- Peach -- fresh is best (but that's always the case with this wonderful fruit). Frozen fruit works very well, too. Peach-strawberry, peach-cherry .... my mouth is watering just thinking of the possibilities! Add cinnamon or nutmeg (both if you wish), or cardamom.
- Pear -- a lovely fruit that's under-appreciated because it's so difficult to get nicely ripened fruit from a supermarket, and they don't generally ripen much after they're taken home. Because of this, I've not yet experimented with pear leathers, but think they'd work well. Good combinations likely include: apple; cranberry; and raspberry. Try cardamom, nutmeg, or ginger with pears.
- Pumpkin -- pumpkin pie leather! Or pumpkin-apple leather. Allspice, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg -- pumpkin stands up well to assertive spicing (but remember, flavors will concentrate so don't go overboard).
- Raspberry -- highly versatile gems, these are great alone or in combinations. Try them with cranberries, strawberries, blueberries, peaches, or apples -- or be even more daring and blend three fruits. Orange juice is a nice liquid addition (which may be necessary if using fresh fruit; it's unlikely you'll need it with thawed frozen raspberries). For extra zing, add a touch of cinnamon.
- Strawberry -- another fruit workhorse. As with raspberries, thawed fruit have more juice than fresh. Try strawberry-rhubarb leather for another pie aproximation; or pair with banana, cranberry, blueberry, peach, or raspberry.
As if that isn't enough to get you started, here are some more ideas!
- To add more nutritional value, consider finely chopping some nuts to add to the fruit puree. Almonds with raspberries, cranberries, peaches, cherries ... walnuts with apples, cranberries, pears ... pecans with apples, bananas, blueberries, pumpkin ...
- For more adult-flavored fruit leathers, small amounts of fruit brandy or liqueurs (or nut liqueurs) can be added to the puree. Or, for a more subtle adult kick, reduce a decent red wine and add it to raspberry, strawberry, cherry, or pear purees. (To reduce a wine, simply boil it down to a concentrated syrup, stirring occasionally.) I've not tried it yet, but one can probably do the same thing with white wines -- Chablis would be a nice addition to many fruit purees. (I don't think most wines would combine well with acidic fruits, such as citrus and cranberry, as the flavors could compete. But I could be wrong.) Dry wines would probably work better with sweet fruits, and sweeter wines would complement more tart fruits.
- Consider combining unflavored (or vanilla) yogurt with a fruit puree for an even more nutritious snack. This could take much longer to dry, depending upon how much yogurt you add. Storage is the same as for fruit leather. (The cookbook that came with the American Harvest dehydrator has a recipe for yogurt leather -- dehydrate it at 130 F for 10-14 hours.)
If you try some of these ideas, or have other suggestions for fruit leathers, please email me! I'll add the best ones to this page. I'm also interested in leathers using regional and/or foraged treats, like persimmons, paw-paws, huckleberries, and various edible cacti.
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