Welcome to a basic primer on food dehydration. In this article we’ll answer 5 basic questions to get you started with this method of food preservation.
WHO: Anyone who wants to preserve many foods in a manner that drastically reduces volume and weight, preserves vital nutrients and increases shelf life.
WHAT: A dehydrator – home-made or store-bought is the tool of choice for such a venture. I must make note here: Screening of some sort is the obvious choice for making a sun dehydrator or trays for your oven. The material of your screening is VERY important! You can toxify your food with zinc and cadmium reactions from galvanized screen and because of various properties, fiberglass, copper and vinyl screening should also be avoided.
WHERE: You can dehydrate outside in the sun, indoors in your oven or indoors in a prefabricated dehydrator.
You are really only limited by your creativity in making a sun-dryer. The main concern is keeping out pests while the sun does its job. People have even remade rabbit hutches, putting screen on the top and bottom, so that they can just open the door, slide in a tray of food to be dried and voila! I’ve seen solar cookers and wondered if you could somehow harness that technology for drying… If you come up with any amazing ideas, please share them with us here! The main drawback to outdoor dehydrating is that you must have a day without humidity (duh!) and somehow, unfortunately, when most of the produce is abundant, so is humidity! Sun drying needs a dry, breezy, sunny day to be successful.
Now for oven drying, the fact is that most ovens don’t have a low enough heat setting and you will be tying up your oven for long periods of time and heating up your kitchen in the process…not something we usually want to do in the summer! In the old days, gas ovens didn’t ‘cycle’ as they do now, so that is also a quality concern. (Cycling is when the heat goes off-on,off-on.) But you can make oven trays or stretch cheesecloth over oven racks and dry things at 140 degrees, if your oven goes that low. Any higher and you’ll just be cooking your food. Drying in the oven also requires you to be there keeping an eye on what’s going on. Ug.
My choice for convenience’s sake has been a factory-made home dehydrator. I chose, after much research and talking with friends with big families who dehydrated a lot, the Excalibur 9-tray model. I honestly can’t say enough about how I love this appliance! I am popping things into it continually and it has surely enabled me to reduce waste/compost volume. (Not that that’s so bad for making dirt, but I’d rather have dried foods in my pantry than more dirt!)
Many times, things come out so tasty in their dehydrated form, that the trayful never *quite* makes it into a jar! You can make green chips from kale, spinach, and lettuces or red chips from beets that are incredibly healthy snack foods and satisfy as well as a potato chip! I recently had some extended family to our home and they were skeptical to try the nacho kale chips I had just pulled out of the dehydrator. Suffice it to say, I made converts of this McDonalds-loving bunch! You can put together purees of nuts, seeds, etc. to make crackers, too! Again, creativity is an asset to maximizing your dehydrator. Today I plan on curing my first batch of yogurt in it. I love that I can walk away from whatever I have in there and forget about it.
WHEN: When you have a bumper crop of something you don’t want to lose a bite of, or if you have produce you want to salvage – throw it in the dehydrator! You can even dehydrate overripe bananas for a really sweet, nutritious treat. If you can or freeze the best of your produce, pureeing the “seconds” for use in fruit/vegetable leathers is a fabulous idea! If you’re too tired from your other work, just freeze the puree until you’re ready to deal with it.
WHY: Besides what I have already told you, there’s a great history to dehydration!
I would guess that it was by chance that some person, once upon a time, happened upon some grapes that had dried in the sun and thought, “Wow! These are great!” and took the new-found ‘technology’ home with them. Probably no one knew really why these dried foods lasted so long, but it became a popular and preferred method of preservation through the centuries along with salting, smoking and pickling.
When Pasteur demonstrated the spoilage of foods because of microorganisms in 1857, suddenly people could understand why drying and canning worked. (Canning began around the late 1700s in France.)
During the Depression, in the 1930s, people dried their garden surplus because they couldn’t afford canning supplies. Again, during WWII, homemakers were dealing with sugar rationing and the literal disappearance of canning jars and lids. What did they do? They dehydrated!
Then home freezers made their big appearance, and by 1975, 40% of homes had separate deep freezers for food storage. But nowadays, with energy consumption being a headline topic, many people are thinking about what they can do to preserve food in the event that electricity becomes unavailable.
Finally, you can’t overestimate the compatibility of dehydrated foods with camping! We have dehydrated even meats to take along on camping trips and they have been delicious when rehydrated in a stew over an open fire! Mmmmm! Dehydrated food is so easy to pack – with such a reduced volume and when you’re hiking with a pack, the reduced weight is a true blessing on your feet and your back! It’s a real bonus, too, that when done correctly, all of the nutrients are ‘locked in’ to the dehydrated food and every bite is full of life!
So, there are very many variables to home drying – it’s rather a fun, experimental thing. How high should the heat be? Do you pretreat or not? What is the best way to store dehydrated foods? We’ll cover all these questions in a subsequent post, so come on back for the answers!