Fruit Leather: The Food You Can Eat, but Probably Shouldn’t Wear
Unless you are Lady Gaga
We’re dreaming of summer — and for some of our readers west and in the south, it has arrived. We’re running this piece to dream a little of how we can extend the season’s bounty, which, in this case, takes some planning and equipment. And we’re guessing Debby will inspire you. You’ve read her pieces on The Bittman Project on green onion cakes and the wildly popular chopped liver (seriously!). Read on for more.
I discovered fruit leather when my kids were little. It came in multiple flavors — strawberry, apple, peach, apricot — in individually wrapped pieces that made me think of tiny two-by-fours: one-inch wide, four inches long, and thinner than a matchbook. It was just right for child-sized hands. The packaging was brightly colored and enticing, a direct contrast to the actual product, which was mud-colored, slightly mottled, and often sticky.
Unlike actual fruit, it was never out of season. Also, the kids liked it so I kept buying it — until the price shot up and I could not justify spending that kind of money on what I had come to consider fake fruit.
It never occurred to me that I could make my own. I assumed fruit leather existed as a wholly formed entity, like the gefilte fish Mom bought in a jar every year for Passover. Interestingly, I learned the truth about both around the same time, about 10 years ago. The truth about gefilte fish — that it’s actually a mishmash of carp, pike, and whitefish — did not inspire me to make my own. Fruit leather has been a different story. In fact, making it from scratch has been life-changing, and not just because I had to acquire implements I’d never heard of (a steamer juicer, for one) and can no longer live without.
I learned to make fruit leather by accident, in a canning-and-preserving class offered at a local food emporium. The owner-instructor, Barb, shamed me into signing up after she heard me lamenting in the checkout line that a batch of my homemade strawberry jam had gone moldy because I hadn’t sealed the jars properly.
“Come to my class!” she ordered. “You’ll learn to make a proper seal.”
The class was scheduled for three hours on a weeknight in late summer. Three hours is a long time to learn to make a seal, especially in my northern corner of the world, where summer nights are a precious gift that shouldn’t be squandered indoors. But Barb was an expert (not to mention extremely convincing). If she thought it took three hours to learn to seal a jar, who was I to argue?
As it turns out, I still can’t seal a jar properly. I don’t even remember that part of the class, most likely because it was a demonstration. As it turns out, watching someone seal a jar is boring.
Far more captivating was watching Barb and her assistants make fruit leather. They started by placing apples, whole, in the top of the aforementioned steamer-juicer, which looked like an oversized stockpot but was in fact a three-part contraption: The bottom held water to steam the fruit at the top, which was essentially a flat-bottomed colander. The colander rested in the midsection, where the juice collected.
The colander was so deep Barb didn’t have to cut the apples, the beauty of which wasn’t clear until after the juice was bottled. I had assumed that the juice-making was the end of the demonstration. But no, there was more. Barb and her assistants transferred the deflated apple carcasses from the colander to a food mill resting over a bowl. As they turned the food mill handle, the bowl began filling with applesauce.
I’ve been making applesauce my entire life, a process that requires peeling, coring, seeding, chopping, and boiling. These women simply dumped whole apples into the top part of a steamer juicer for an hour or so, bottled four liters of juice, put the fruit through a sieve, and, voilà! Applesauce! Then it got even better. Barb put the sauce into a blender to smooth it out. Then she added some of the juice to thin it slightly.
Next, she directed our attention to a round white implement about the size of a Smart car tire. “This is a dehydrator,” she said. “Now we’re going to make fruit leather.” She sprayed eight-round plastic trays with nonstick spray and emptied some of the blender contents onto each. Then she stacked them one on top of the other, loaded them onto the dehydrator, and turned it on.
It takes about eight hours to dehydrate fruit leather, less time to dehydrate tomatoes, bananas, carrots, apples, peaches, pears, and all the other fruit Barb had dehydrated previously and now dangled in front of us as part of what turned out to be an elaborate sales pitch. I should have known; this wasn’t a cooking class, it was an infomercial. We students exited through Barb’s cooking emporium, where we were expected to purchase the fancy implements we’d been introduced to over the past three hours.
I should have known; this wasn’t a cooking class, it was an infomercial. We students exited through Barb’s cooking emporium, where we were expected to purchase the fancy implements we’d been introduced to over the past three hours.
I refused. No way was I falling for that scam. But back home over the next week, staring out the window at the fruit falling off the trees in my yard, I had an overwhelming urge to make fruit leather.
As it turned out, a friend of mine had every single one of the implements Barb and her team had used, and she was happy to loan them to me. Eventually, I borrowed them so often that I wound up buying my own.
When I first started making fruit leather, I doctored it — added cinnamon or maple syrup or topped it with chopped pecans or walnuts or coconut flakes. Sometimes I tossed brown bananas into the blender with the sauce. But I’ve become more of a purist (not to mention lazy): my fruit leather now is just fruit, whatever falls off my trees or is cheap (i.e., rotting) at the farmer’s market.
In an era in which recycling and fighting food waste are as trendy as they are necessary, making fruit leather feels virtuous. Also, for someone like me, who enjoys baking and giving away the results, it’s practical. Increasingly, my friends are gluten-free, dairy-free, keto, vegan, or have some other obscure dietary restriction that prevents me from foisting my baking upon them, which means I have to keep it and eat it myself, which I could easily do, but really shouldn’t.
Fruit leather, on the other hand, fits into pretty much everyone’s diet. Even if it’s packed with sugar, it’s natural and doesn’t require additives. Also, it has a shelf life that rivals that of Bismuth, an element I discovered when I Googled “What element has the longest half-life?” Unlike cookies, which get stale within a few days, you can give someone six-month-old fruit leather and they’ll never know the difference. Heck, you could probably give them six-year-old fruit leather and they wouldn’t know the difference, though I can’t say for sure because until recently I’d always consumed mine fairly quickly.
While researching this story, I processed more than 80 pounds of apples, peaches, apricots, and pears. But don’t let my experience scare you. Unless you are developing a recipe (or own an orchard), you probably won’t have to handle so much fruit at one time. I got carried away because I forgot to take proper notes the first two times I made fruit leather for this assignment. The third time, I sent my son out for a bag of fruit and he came home with three massive bags — nearly 40 pounds worth, for which he paid about $17 at the farmer’s market. Because the fruit was rotting (hence, the price), I had to process it immediately, which is how I came to spend four days steaming, food-milling, and dehydrating. Even with eating some and giving a lot away, I still have enough to make a mini-dress for Lady Gaga, who is probably overdue to replace her steak suit for a vegan-friendly edible garment.
How to Make Fruit Leather
Start with 10 to 12 pounds of fruit — however much fits into your steamer juicer. I usually use a mix of apples, pears, peaches, and apricots, although I’ve used all apples. Avoid using only peaches or apricots because while you’ll end up with a ton of juice, you won’t have much pulp left for the leather. You don’t have to cut the fruit, but you can squeeze in more if you do.
Fill the bottom third of the steamer juicer with enough water that it won’t evaporate. Depending on what fruit you use, steaming should take one to two hours. However, if it takes longer, check and make sure there is enough water in the bottom. If you run out of water, you risk burning the bottom of the pot, which can affect the flavor of the juice and pulp.
Empty the juice into sterilized glass jars. Then remove the fruit from the colander and transfer it, in bunches, to a food mill. I use a manual food mill but if someone could recommend a power version, I’d be happy to try it; I usually have so much fruit pulp that I have to do four separate passes with the food mill which, given my limited upper body strength, can take an hour or more. If I’m lucky, my 24-year-old son will be around and do it for me, but otherwise, the sauce-making part of fruit leather is terribly time-consuming. On the other hand, it’s an excellent workout.
I usually wind up with close to 4 liters each of juice and sauce. Before making fruit leather, I thin the sauce so it’s about the consistency of pancake batter. If I’m using my Nesco American Harvest dehydrator, I will coat the plastic trays with no-stick spray (use vegetable oil if you’re averse to aerosols). If I’m using the oven, I cover the cookie sheets with parchment paper but I spray the parchment paper lightly anyway because I always worry that things will stick. I use about four cups of purée for the dehydrator sheets, five cups for a 12-by-17-inch cookie sheet, and three cups for a 10-by-15-inch sheet. At 170ºF, it takes about seven hours to dehydrate in the oven. I use a lower setting in the dehydrator, so it takes longer. Four liters of sauce yields about a pound of fruit leather which, given that the fruit leather is very light, is more than you think.