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You have wondered about drying food, haven’t you? Otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Get ready because this 5000+ word post should answer all of your questions and get you well on your way to dehydrating like a champion.
I’m not kidding – this is the ultimate guide to dehydrating your own food at home. We’re going to cover the essential tools for drying food, the types of food you can dry, a step-by-step outline on how exactly you do it, and a bunch of things that you can do with your dried food.
Are you ready?
Just about every season there is some kind of food you can dry, and the variety of dried foods is significant – from berries in the summer to wild game jerky in the fall – so you you can be drying food all year long. Vegetables like corn and green beans can be dried, and all sorts of fruits – including bananas and apples.
But why bother? Are there really any benefits to dried foods?
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Drying Food is Economical
Have you looked at the price of jerky and dried fruits and vegetables in your grocery or health food store? You might have had to look twice – they’re expensive. They are particularly pricey if they are healthful versions, free of preservatives and artificial colors and flavors. Drying your own wholesome food is much less expensive, especially if you dry foods that are in season and/or on sale.
Also, bringing along some of your own dried foods on car trips and vacations can save you a lot of money on snacks and meals on the road.
Dried Food Has a Long shelf life
If you like camping, dried food is great to take along – it’s lightweight, doesn’t require refrigeration, and is high in nutrition. You can also store it for use in an emergency, and include it in emergency kits you may have for yourself and your family. If the power goes out during a summer storm or due to some other act of nature, you can still have fruit, vegetables, and meats available for a meal. (Okay, you probably need to have some water on hand, too)
There’s no doubt that dried foods are convenient. They are especially handy if you have children and need to grab a quick snack on the way out the door.
What if one of your children needs to go to the ER, and you don’t know how long you’ll be sitting there? (I don’t know about you but I’ve spent hours waiting in the ER!) You and the other children will need something to eat.
Even for running errands, it’s nice to have snacks in the car. In fact, you can have a take-along bag with dehydrated food that you always take with you in the car.
Dried food is also convenient when you can’t get to the store, such as during a snowstorm. It’s also nice to be able to have dried produce on hand for soups and stews and other recipes. You can serve up a fresh-tasting raspberry sauce with your holiday roasts without spending a ton of money on store-bought berries.
Dried foods retain most nutrients, except those that depend on the presence of water. All of the fiber is intact in dried foods. And it’s chemical free, devoid of preservatives and artificial flavors and colors. Think of being able to reap the nutritional benefits of, for example, raspberries in December when you feel a cold coming on.
Even when we are committed to eating seasonally, it’s great to grab a handful of immune-boosting dried berries that you picked and dried in the summer. Harvested in season and processed at home, they retain all the benefits you need.
Easy and Inexpensive to Prepare
Dried food is not particularly complicated to make. When drying food, you don’t need to fuss over sterilizing jars, using a pressure canner, and spending money on added ingredients like sugar and vinegar. (No, that stuff’s not incredibly difficulty, but drying food is definitely easier).
You just dry the food – it’s simple, and the food is not too far from its natural state. As my grandfather would have said, it still remembers where it came from.
Do You Really Need a Dehydrator for Drying Food?
Food dehydrators certainly do have some pros and perks. But then, so do air and oven drying. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of dehydrators and other methods.
These neat machines look a bit like air purifiers or humidifiers.
They work by circulating hot, dry air around food at a temperature of about 150F. They are priced anywhere from a budget-priced Nesco that works better than you’d think for that price (I have owned one) to the very amazing (but very expensive) Excalibur that doubles as a yogurt incubator, bread proofer and much more.
Take the time to look at your options. The more expensive ones tend to have better fans and air circulation as well as stronger motors, meaning they dry more quickly and evenly. But a small, round one may be all you need.
* Speed – There’s no doubt that dehydrators speed up the process of drying food, sometimes significantly. Fast drying means bacteria have less time to grow, and it also means that foods tend to retain their color better.
* Space – A dehydrator takes up a lot less space than spreading foods all over screens or stringing them on thread and hanging them in garlands.
* Convenience – When drying food in a dehydrator, you don’t have to carry your food indoors at night and put it back out in the morning. You also don’t have to worry about leaving an oven on all day if you have to step out.
* Expense – Dehydrators can be expensive. Expect to pay anywhere from $40 to $400 for various models. Price really matters – although the cheaper ones will do the job, the more expensive ones will do it faster and dry the food more evenly.
* Energy use – Dehydrators don’t necessarily use a lot of energy, but they certainly do use more household electricity than air and sun drying. We can not run a dehydrator when we are at our off-grid cabin.
* Storage – You won’t be using your dehydrator every day, so storing it when you’re not using it (which is most of the time) can be a problem. They are large and bulky. Then again, when you are using it, your dehydrator can take up a lot of precious counter space.
* Saves space – Since you already have an oven in your kitchen, you don’t have to make space for another appliance, or for homemade drying racks.
* Relatively fast – Oven drying is not as fast as a dehydrator due to the lack of circulating air; but it’s generally faster than air drying.
* Energy use – Oven drying is probably the most energy-consumptive method. Even on a low temperature, it takes a decent amount of electricity to keep an oven warm constantly.
* Inconvenience – You can’t cook or bake anything else in the oven until the food is dry.
* Unpredictable – It is very difficult to keep an oven at the right temperature for even drying and I have burned far too many trays of food that were supposed to dry. Unfortunately scorched dried food usually can’t be saved.
Air and Sun Drying
* Free energy – You don’t have to concern yourself with using electricity – sun and air are free!
* Flavor – Some claim that air and sun drying produces the best flavor in produce, and infuses it with “natural energy” instead of electrical energy.
* Pests – Bugs, rodents, and pets can spoil your efforts.
* Weather – If the weather turns wet and you can’t get your food inside on time, your whole venture may be ruined.
As you look at this list, it seems like dehydrators do stand out as the most effective means of drying food. But if you can’t afford one or if you don’t have a place to store one, or if you are just working with a small amount of food to dry, the oven and the air and sun can still work. You can also check at yard sales this summer and see if anyone is selling a used dehydrator for cheap.
So if you’ve decided to use a dehydrator to ensure that your produce turns out well? (It’s a good choice). Read on to find out how to use it properly. (And if you aren’t using a dehyrator? Yes, there’s more information about that, too.)
Using a Dehydrator for Fruits and Vegetables
Imagine being able to snack on healthy berries, vegetables, etc. in the middle of winter when you need an immune-system boost.
If you’re getting into dehydrating produce, you probably have a dehydrator or are thinking of getting one – but you may not be sure just how to use it. Here are some tips and ideas for how to use a dehydrator for fruits and vegetables.
As you start your dehydrating ventures, it’s a good idea to set aside a whole day or chunk of time to get it done. Produce is best if it’s bought/harvested and put in the dehydrator on the same day.
Before you begin to dry a particular food or foods, there are some things you’ll need to get started. Here is a basic list of equipment you’ll need in addition to the dehydrator itself:
* Sharp knife
* Cutting board
* Sugar, salt, herbs, spices, and other flavor enhancers (optional)
* Air-tight containers – I have always used glass jars
Choose Your Fruits and Vegetables
As you get ready to use your dehydrator, it’s important to choose the right produce.
First, make sure it’s at the peak of ripeness and flavor – don’t be tempted to buy overripe or underripe foods just because they are on sale or you’ve overlooked some produce from your garden and it’s gotten too ripe.
I know it’s tempting. Just like when you’re are putting food up in jars, though, the quality that you start with will greatly influence the quality of the finished product.
Prepare the Produce
Wash your fruits and vegetables first unless you’re drying mushrooms. Mushrooms should just be wiped clean. Then cut and slice produce so that all pieces are about the same size and thickness (thinner slices are better).
For fruits that tend to turn brown as they dry, toss them with some lemon juice first. Vegetables should be blanched in boiling water for 3 to 5 minutes and then plunged into ice water. Pat them dry before putting them in the dehydrator.
At this stage, you can sprinkle produce with sugar, salt, herbs, or whatever you’d like. Apples might be enhanced by sprinkling them with cinnamon sugar, for instance, and green beans might be tastier if you sprinkle them with some salt and an herb like dill.
Loading the Dehydrator
Lay the fruit pieces in single layer on the trays. Make sure the pieces do not overlap, and that there is some space between the pieces.
Place the dehydrator somewhere that it won’t get in your way for the next day or so. It takes about 8-10 hours for foods to dry, and it may take longer. You can periodically check the produce – just remove a piece with tongs, let it cool, and see how moist it feels. Cut it in half – if it looks moist inside, it’s not done.
Cool and Store
Once the pieces are dry, turn the dehydrator off and allow the food to cool for about an hour. Then remove the trays and store the food in your airtight containers. Pack them loosely, and watch for condensation. If it appears, return the food to the dehydrator for a while.
Okay, so I’m clearly in favour of a dehydrator, but what if you have the climate to use the air and sun? Read more!