Man has been drying food for millennia. It should be an important part of preserving your food. If I had only one way to preserve my food, only one way to build up my food storage, I would go with dehydrating. As much as I like the taste of frozen food and the convenience of canned food, dehydrating is still my favorite. And here’s nine reasons why it should be your favorite as well. .
What foods can you safely dry?
Basically, you can dry just about anything. Dehydrating removes water from food. This stops all the bacteria and microbes that cause decay. Start with herbs, fruits and vegetables. Most of these foods need no special treatment before drying—just cut them up and place them in a dehydrator. There are some exceptions, though. Some vegetables need to be blanched to stop plant sugars from changing to proteins. Some fruits will turn brown, so you’ll want to dip them in citric acid or lemon juice before drying.
Don’t stop there
But you don’t need to stop with fruits and vegetables. You can also dry protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, eggs, cooked legumes and grains, milk and yogurt. Remember that dehydrating removes water from the food but it can’t remove fat or oil. Fat or oil, if stored in a cool, dry, environment will remain stable for a long time. When fat is heated, exposed to moisture or air, it begins to turn rancid. This is not necessarily spoilage, but it does change the flavor of the food, making it less desirable. So, while you can dry protein-rich foods, you’ll want to trim off as much fat as possible. And everything should be stored in an airtight, water-proof container in a cool, dark room. You should try to use all your home-preserved food in about one year.
If you have some left-over bean soup, dry it to take on camping trips or for emergency kits for an instant soup. If yogurt is on sale, buy a lot and dry it like leather. It makes a tasty, almost candy-like treat that is packed with nutrition. If you have lots of eggs, scramble them up and dry them for instant breakfasts later on.
If you cook up a big batch of dry beans or barley, you can dry them, as well. Just spread them out on your drying tray and dry until brittle dry. Then break up the larger chunks and store in an airtight container. These beans will re-hydrate within minutes, making them a great addition to soups and stews.
The most important thing
It’s very important that when you are preparing food for drying that you make sure everything is the same thickness. When spreading out fruit puree or yogurt to make leather, use a spatula to ensure a smooth surface that is the same thickness throughout. Slice fruits and vegetables the same thickness. A meat slicer or mandolin will not only ensure uniform slices, but will make the job go a lot faster than slicing by hand.
What dehydrator should you use?
Really a dehydrator is the simplest machine there is: A heat source, a fan to blow the heat around, trays to put the food on and a box to contain it all. Choosing the right dryer is really a matter of taste. Any dehydrator will do the job. Each model has it’s pros and cons. You just have to decide what’s most important to you.
A car sitting in the sun with the windows rolled up makes a good dehydrator. There are lots of plans on the internet for solar dehydrators. There’s this one from NDSU Extension that I especially like. I see the round stackable models for sale all the time at rummage sales and thrift stores.
I’ve made a chart showing the features of different dehydrators and their pros and cons. A dehydrator can cost as little as $5. Or you can find top-of-the line models that cost $400. Spend as little or as much as you want to get the features you want in a good dehydrator.
And then dry it—you’ll like it!
Rules for successful dehydrating
- Choose quality food. The finished product will never be better than what you started with, so start with fresh, unblemished food.
- Slice evenly. Uneven slices means uneven drying.
- Pre-treat if needed. Some foods need blanching to stop the sugar/protein exchange process. Foods that need blanching include root vegetables (carrots, potatoes, etc) and celery. Some fruit may need to be dipped into a solution of ascorbic acid dissolved in water to prevent it from browning. That’s about all the preparation that’s needed.
- Space evenly on trays. You want good air circulation, so you don’t want pieces overlapping.
- Store in an air-tight container. Moisture is the biggest enemy of your dried foods, so keep moisture out. Just about any container will do as long as it is air-tight. Also, like all food, heat and sunlight will cause color and flavor to deteriorate, so store in a cool, dark room.
- Date your food and rotate. As with all your food storage, you want to use the oldest first. Dried food is safe to eat as long as there is no sign of mold or other decay.
One last thing
I’ve written a book to help you get started dehydrating. Everyday Drying for Everyday Eating is just that–a book for everyday person who wants to start making the most of their garden surplus. Over 40 pages, with charts for prepping and drying just about everything you can think of. It includes dozens of recipes, a chart to help you choose the right dehydrator, and much more. I think you’ll find it just the thing to get you started on the road to loving dehydrating as much as I do.