Can Dehydrated Foods Retain More Flavor and Nutrients?
Nik Sharma of A Brown Table explains.
The path Nik Sharma is paving in the food industry hasn’t been a traditional one, but it’s certainly leaving a trail of big flavors and the beautiful food along the way. Born in Bombay and based in Los Angeles, Sharma isn’t a formally trained chef. He’s a molecular biologist turned cookbook author and food photographer with a multi-award-winning food blog, A Brown Table. Sharma rē-spun his career by walking away from a job in the pharmaceutical industry to pursue his passion for food instead. His background in biochemistry hasn’t gone to waste, though. Instead, it’s helped him develop a better understanding of flavor.
When it comes to produce, you often hear that fresh is best- from both a flavor perspective and in terms of retaining the most nutrients in your food. But Sharma is rē-spinning this narrative. His second cookbook, The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking Explained, takes a deep dive into the science of flavor and some of his recipes make a case for cooking with dehydrated foods.
Dehydrated food doesn’t exactly sound like the epitome of a delicious healthy meal. In fact, the first thing it usually brings to mind is camping food or snacks an astronaut might eat. But, Sharma shows us how dehydrated produce can actually bring out bolder flavors and even retain higher amounts of certain antioxidants.
The Flavor Profile
“When vegetables such as tomatoes are dried, the nucleic acid RNA breaks down to produce the nucleotide AMP, which then changes to inosine and a molecule that also has an umami taste. When used with food that is rich in glutamates, inosine enhances the taste of umami and gives a richer taste of savoriness via a phenomenon called synergism,” he explains.
Umami means “essence of deliciousness” in Japanese and is one of the core fifth tastes for building flavor, including sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. It’s best described as a savory, deep flavor that’s unarguably delicious.
The flavor from fresh produce like tomatoes can vary dramatically depending on the quality, season, and even the soil that it’s grown in. The process of dehydrating foods can actually help you work around these variables by concentrating the flavor as the water evaporates out. The end result is stronger, more savory flavors and surprisingly also increases the content of some key nutrients.
The Nutritional Breakdown
Fruits and vegetables like tomatoes contain high amounts of antioxidants, but the amount you absorb varies depending on the state they’re consumed in. While raw tomatoes contain more of certain kinds of antioxidants like vitamin C and E, dehydrated tomatoes are higher in other key antioxidants like vitamin A and Lycopene.
Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant that’s responsible for giving tomatoes their beautiful color. It’s linked with protecting the body of damage from free radicals, lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol, and reducing the risk of developing certain cancers, specifically breast, lung, and prostate cancer. A study published in the Journal of Science of Food and Agriculture found that dehydrated tomatoes contain roughly twenty percent more bioavailable lycopene than raw tomatoes do.
When it comes to lycopene absorption, fresh isn’t best. Studies have found that lycopene is more readily absorbed from dehydrated tomatoes and even more so when they’re consumed along with oil. Nik Sharma’s vinaigrette recipe below combines dehydrated tomatoes with high-quality olive oil to give you the biggest lycopene bang for your buck. You can use this delicious vinaigrette on salads, roasted veggies, fresh bread, or even meats.
Dehydrated Tomato Vinaigrette Recipe
“Since tomatoes can vary in taste depending on type, season, and quality, I recommend starting with 1 Tbsp of vinegar, and if you feel you need more acidity, then add more if needed. Olive oil can leave a bitter taste when emulsified; if you want to skip the bitterness, use a neutral-tasting oil like grapeseed. I prefer sherry vinegar for its sweeter, milder flavor, but balsamic or a good red wine vinegar will work great here.”
It makes a little over 1/4 cup
- 0.35 oz or about 2 tbsp of ground tomato powder made from dehydrated tomatoes (see directions below)
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil or grapeseed oil
- 1 to 2 Tbsp sherry vinegar
- 1/2 tsp ground toasted cumin (see Notes below)
- 1/2 tsp ground toasted coriander (see Notes below)
- 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
- fine sea salt (try smoked salt for a smoky flavor)
To dehydrate the tomatoes:
Cut your tomatoes into ¼ inch thick slices and salt well on both sides.
Wick away any liquid released by the osmotic action of the salt by sandwiching the slices between dry sheets of paper towels.
Set the slices aside for 30 minutes and then rinse to remove the excess salt and pat dry.
Bake in an oven set to 152F/52C for 12 hours.
Once dehydrated, store the slices in airtight bags or containers to help preserve them.
Making the vinaigrette:
Grind the dehydrated tomato slices into a powder using a pestle and mortar or a coffee grinder/mill.
Mix the tomato powder, olive oil, vinegar, cumin, coriander, and pepper in a small mixing bowl.
Taste and season with salt.
Let sit covered for at least 15 minutes before using.
“For a small quantity of spices, I toast whole spices over medium heat in a dry stainless-steel skillet till the spices just start to brown and release their aroma, 30 to 45 seconds. Remove from heat and transfer to a plate to cool. Grind the whole spices down with a mortar and pestle, or for a finer grind, use a coffee grinder/mill. In this recipe, I prefer a coarser grind.”
Eating a diverse array of produce is key to your overall health, but so is mixing up the state in which you’re eating your produce. Consider making room for raw, roasted, steamed, sauteed, blended, and even dehydrated food at your table. In Nik Sharma’s own words, “every tradition had to begin somewhere at some point, so go ahead and break the rules and make your own traditions!” Mix it up, awaken your palate, and nourish your health with different culinary flavors and cooking techniques.