November 13, 2023
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Woo hoo! Your garden produced a bountiful harvest and you have an abundance of crops — everything from sun-ripe tomatoes to sweet strawberries to bushes of basil. Now, what do you plan to do with your harvest? If you find yourself giving away or wasting sizeable amounts of fresh produce, it’s time to start preserving the fruits of your labor. Every fall I end up with loads of jalapeño peppers and as much as my family and I love jalapeños, we can only consume so many. I like to share some of my excess peppers with neighbors and dehydrate the rest.
Dehydrating Food: What is It and Why Should You Do It?
Dehydrating or drying is an easy way to preserve your favorite vegetables, fruits, herbs, and meats at home. While there are many ways to preserve food (canning, freezing, freeze-drying, pickling, fermenting), dehydrating is my preferred approach. It is less expensive than most other methods and not as labor-intensive. Freezing is another straightforward and convenient way to preserve food; however, you run the risk of losing your perishables in the event of a power outage. Food stored long-term in a freezer is also susceptible to freezer burn. And while freezer burn is safe to eat, it can affect the taste and texture of the frozen food in a not-so-pleasant way.
What exactly happens to food when it’s dehydrated? During the dehydration process, 90–95% of a perishable food item’s water/moisture is removed to increase the food’s storage stability. Reducing the moisture content to low levels inhibits the growth of microorganisms, thereby dramatically extending the food’s shelf life. The process also shrinks the food, making it easier to store large quantities of the food item.
Dehydrating is one of the oldest and most common methods of food preservation. Ancient cultures used the sun (or wind in dry, warm climates) to remove moisture from food. You can still sun-dry food today; however, it is a slow process that can take days, sometimes weeks. It can be tricky to calculate the proper amount of drying time necessary when relying on the sun. Other disadvantages include unexpected harsh weather conditions, outside contaminants, and possible infestation from pesky insects. These days we have the luxury of using electric dehydrators to conveniently, accurately, and quickly dehydrate foods in the comfort of our homes. Electric dehydrators make the food-drying process virtually foolproof, thanks to advanced features like precise, adjustable thermostats and even airflow distribution.
Choosing a Food Dehydrator
When shopping for a food dehydrator, you want to pick one that best suits your budget and needs. Consider the machine’s cost, size, and features (number of trays, timer options, temperature controls, vertical vs. horizontal fan). Ask yourself: What foods do you plan to dry in it? Will you use it for multiple types of foods? Do you have room to store a large model when not using it? Is a built-in timer an important feature to you? For me, a dehydrator with an adjustable thermostat with a wide range of temperature settings is crucial. I enjoy drying all sorts of foods. Heck, I even use my dehydrator to dry flowers and other various items for crafts.
There are two main types of home dehydrators: vertical flow dehydrators and horizontal flow dehydrators. If you have limited storage space and don’t want to spend a ton of money, a vertical flow dehydrator may be the right choice for you. These units typically have stackable trays, are compact for easy storage, and are budget-friendly. One drawback to vertical flow dehydrators, however, is they provide uneven airflow due to the fan and heating element being mounted either on the top or base of the machine. When using this type of dehydrator, you will most likely need to rotate the trays throughout the drying process to prevent the bottom or top tray from drying out too quickly. Horizontal flow units dehydrate more evenly than vertical ones but tend to be bulkier and more expensive. In a horizontal flow dehydrator, the fan and heater are located on the back of the machine and push airflow back to front. It is not necessary to switch out trays in this type of unit. I use an Excalibur 9-tray horizontal flow dehydrator. It has an adjustable thermostat (ranging from 105°F to 165°F) and nine 15-inch by 15-inch trays, allowing me to dry all sorts of foods. The trays can even be removed to fit taller items, such as jars of homemade yogurt. (Yes, you can make homemade yogurt in a dehydrator as well!)
What Kinds of Foods Can You Dehydrate?
To the right are some of the best foods you can dehydrate, however, you can dry almost anything. Most fruits, vegetables, and herbs are suitable for drying. Foodstuffs high in fat, such as avocados and nuts, do not dehydrate well and will quickly become rancid after drying. For a healthy snack, make fruit and vegetable chips. Dried bananas, apples, cucumbers, and sweet potato slices are some of my favorites for snacking. Apples, pears, and other light-colored fruits should be pre-treated prior to dehydrating to prevent browning. You can easily treat fruits you intend to store long term with a solution of vitamin C and water, soak them in lemon juice, or use a sulfuring treatment.
Most vegetables should be blanched before drying. Blanching is a cooking technique that stops the enzyme action responsible for loss of color, flavor, and texture that can occur in foods that are dried. To blanch vegetables, place them in boiling water for a specified amount of time (depends on the veggie) and then immediately submerge them in an ice bath. The best meats to dehydrate for long-term storage are lean cuts. Dehydrated meats high in fat will spoil quickly. You can make jerky from whole muscle, scraps, or ground meat, just make sure the cuts are low in fat. Lean canned meat (like chicken) can also be dehydrated. Dried canned chicken is great for backpacking because it is lightweight and can easily be rehydrated and added to soups and other meals. Food drying times vary depending on the dehydrator’s temperature setting, item being dried, size and thickness of item being dried, your location, and humidity. Suggested temps and possible times are as follows.
- Fruit: 125°F to 135°F / 6 to 16 hours (Some fruits like apricots, cherries, figs, and grapes can take 20+ hours.)
- Most fruits are considered finished drying when pliable yet leathery. You can also dry them until crisp.
- Vegetables: 115°F to 130°F / 3 to 14 hours
- Herbs: 95°F to 115°F / 1 to 4 hours
- Meat for Jerky: 155°F / 4 to 6 hours (12–14 hours for fish)
- Ultimately, determining the best drying times and temps just takes practice. The more you use your dehydrator and better familiarize yourself with how your unit dries, the better.
For best flavor, dehydrate fruits and veggies during their peak seasons. In Colorado, for example, the perfect time to pick Palisade peaches is in the fall. This means fall is also the best time to stock up on delicious juicy peaches for dehydrating so they can be enjoyed all year long. Of course, a dehydrated peach does not taste exactly the same nor is it as refreshing as a fresh peach, but it still makes for tasty, healthy snacking.
Dehydrating Fruits and Veggies: Basic Steps
- Wash, scrub, and rinse.
- Remove any seeds and stems. Peel if desired.
- Slice 1⁄8" to ¼" thick. Small items, like berries and peas, can be dried whole.
- Pre-treat fruit with sulfur or citrus. Blanch vegetables.
- Set dehydrator temp 125°F to 135°F for fruit, 115°F to 130°F for vegetables.
- Lay fruits/veggies in one layer on tray, peel side down.
- Dry according to recommended drying times.
- Let cool.
- Store in airtight container.
Dehydrating Herbs: Basic Steps
- Wash and rinse herbs.
- Remove stems if desired.
- Set dehydrator temp 95°F to 115°F.
- Lay herbs flat on tray.
- Dry 1–4 hours. Herbs will be brittle and crumble when dry.
- Let cool.
- Store in airtight container.
Dehydrating Meat and Fish for Jerky: Basic Steps
- If using whole muscle meat, slice against the grain 1⁄8" to ¼" thick. For ground meat, use a jerky gun or roll meat ¼" inch thick and cut into strips.
- Add meat, marinade, and cure (if using) to a zip-top bag. Seal bag.
- Marinate in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
- Remove from fridge. Pat dry with paper towels.
- Arrange strips of meat on tray so they are not touching or overlapping.
- Set dehydrator to 155°F and dry for 5–12 hours.
- Let cool.
- Store in airtight container.
- Best Storage Practices / How to Store Dried Foods
Once newly dried food has completely cooled, package and store it immediately to prevent contamination and moisture from reabsorbing into the food. Pack dehydrated food in clean airtight containers and place it in a cool, dry, dark place. Acceptable containers include glass canning jars with airtight lids, vacuum packaging, plastic zip-top freezer bags, and mylar bags. When dried foodstuff is properly prepared, dehydrated, and stored, it can last weeks, months, and even years. Some preppers insist on packaging dried foods in vacuum-sealed bags or mylar bags with oxygen absorbers for maximum preservation. Storing dried goods in these ways is said to extend shelf life to as long as 30 years!
How to Consume and Use Dehydrated Foods
There are no hard rules when it comes to how you eat dried foods. You get to choose how you want to eat your dehydrated creations. Dried fruits, vegetables and herbs can be eaten as is or rehydrated. They are useful whole or in powdered form. Add dried fruits to cereals, trail mixes, ice creams, and baked goods. Use dried vegetables in soups, stews, sauces, casseroles, and dips. Dehydrated herbs can be used in tea, dips, salsas, seasonings and more. Use your imagination and get creative with how you use your dried foods. Put them into a blender or coffee grinder and grind them down to a powder. Use the powders to create your own seasoning blends; add them to homemade pastas, salad dressings, and smoothies. Go ahead and sneak a tablespoon of spinach powder into the pasta sauce when your kids aren’t looking — they’ll never know!
Bringing dehydrated food back to life is simple. All you have to do is add dried foods to liquid (water, broth, whatever liquid you choose) and let it soak overnight. To quickly rehydrate food, in 20–40 minutes, add boiling liquid to the dried food. You can also add dried food to simmering soups and stews, letting them rehydrate as they cook. In general, you’ll want a 2:1 (water to dried food) ratio to properly rehydrate food. So, at least two times as much liquid as you have food.
Benefits of Owning a Dehydrator and Dehydrating Food
There are many advantages to having a dehydrator to dry food. It’s great for emergency food storage, backpacking, and daily use. Once you realize all of the possibilities that come with dehydrating your own food, you’ll wonder why you haven’t been doing it sooner. Below are just some of the benefits. DIY Dehydrated Food lasts longer than fresh food. Foods that have been dehydrated can be stored long-term, allowing you to stock your pantry with healthy fruits, veggies, meats, and herbs for use any time of the year. Did you know a whole raw carrot can stay fresh up to 3–4 weeks whereas dehydrated carrot slices can last up to 3 years! For best flavor, dehydrate fruits and veggies during their peak seasons. It can save you money. When you have a dehydrator, you can skip the pre-packaged dried fruits, veggie chips, and packages of jerky at the supermarket and make your own at home. Drying your own food is not only more rewarding than buying store-bought, but also much cheaper. For the best bang for your buck, buy foods bulk when on sale and dehydrate them into dried, storable food you can eat later.
DIY Dehydrated Food can make healthy snacking more convenient and affordable. Snacking becomes less expensive and healthier when your pantry is filled with your favorite dehydrated fruits and veggies. I like to think of dried foods as “make-ahead” snacks! Rather than reaching for a chocolate bar or bowl of ice cream, snack on some dehydrated fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth. When you munch on nutrient-dense dried snacks instead of ultra-processed sugar-laden snacks (aka junk food), your body will thank you! It eliminates food waste. Having a dehydrator means there is no reason to let fresh produce expire. When your garden harvest yields plentiful fruits and veggies, dehydrate some to add to your pantry. Dry any foodstuffs you won’t get around to eating so they don’t spoil and the food is not wasted.
DIY Dehydrated Food requires less storage space. With a dehydrator, you can transform your favorite foods into a form that’s easier to store. The weight and volume of food is reduced significantly when dried, making it more convenient to stash for later use. Dry foods can be stored in any type of airtight container such as a jar, zip-top freezer bag, or vacuum sealed bag. As a general rule, one cup fresh food is equal to approximately ¼ cup dried. That’s one-fourth the space needed to store dry food compared to fresh foodstuff! Imagine all of the food you can keep in your pantry, and it means fewer trips to the grocery store. Picture this: You are making a vegetable casserole for dinner and realize you don’t have any fresh or frozen veggies for the dish. You don’t have time to run to the store. Luckily, this is not an issue because you store dried ingredients in the pantry for just this occasion. You calmly substitute approximately ½ cup of dehydrated carrots, peas, and corn for the 1 cup of fresh vegetable mix. Your self-sufficientness saved dinner and prevented an unnecessary trip to the store! As you can see, having dried ingredients in the pantry is extremely useful. So, what are you waiting for? Get yourself a food dehydrator and start drying your own foodstuffs today! Trust me, once you master the skill of dehydrating foods, you will want to dehydrate everything!
The articles was originally published in Be Ready! Magazine. You can find an original copy at OSGnewsstand.com. If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.