There are a lot of good reasons to invest in a food dehydrator. Those include:
- Increasing the shelf life of garden-grown foods
- Easy way to dry meat and make jerky
- Having better control food quality
- Overcoming dependency on local food distribution systems
While the list of why a food dehydrator is a good addition to your survival toolbox, it is important to realize that not all food dehydrators are the same. As such, we offer this guide on how to choose the right food dehydrator for your food storage needs.
The Different Types of Food Dehydrators
Drying food is an ancient way of preserving food that goes back to the dawn of humanity. It was one of a few ways to store food for long periods of time even before we stopped being hunter-gatherers and began to farm.
Drying food is still a solid and viable traditional way to prepare foods for storage and is still used by many cultures including many Native American. Other choices include pickling and salting foods.
In the modern world, salting has pretty much-lost favor, but drying foods remains a viable way to store food. Below is a short list of different drying methods.
1. Stackable Electronic Dehydrators:
Perhaps one of the most common and easy to use dehydrating options, the stackable units feature round or square plastic trays that sit above a fan with a heater. These units work by blowing warm air over prepared foods until the food is dry.
You can easily add a stackable (vertical) food dehydrator to your home food preparation toolkit. Units cost anywhere from a few dollars at thrift stores to several hundred dollars at high-end kitchen supply shops.
You can pick up a brand-new unit in the $25-$50 range without any issues at most department stores.
2. Shelf Electronic Dehydrators:
These are somewhat like stackable dehydrators, but instead of stacking, the trays sit on shelf slots much like the shelves in your oven do. Again, warm air is blown over prepared food until it is dry.
Whereas a stackable food dehydrator blows air from the bottom of the unit upwards, shelf dehydrator blows warm air across the food. One benefit of this method of dehydrating is that food dries more evenly and with a reduction in the need to turn food over.
[Pictured: Flexzion Food Dehydrator]
With the stackable units, food tends to dry from the bottom upwards. So, when drying a slice of squash, the bottom of the slice dries first, and the top dries last.
The shelf units do not remove all the requirements to flip food over, but they do help reduce the labor involved.
Price wise, shelf dehydrators are range from around $100-$600 for the home models and upwards of $5K-10K for the commercial units.
There is a happy medium in there for everyone, and the cost of the home models is easily recaptured by the savings of not having to buy extra food.
3. Manual Food Drying:
Air drying is a very viable option and something that many DIY type people utilize. There are many resources available on the web that show you how to build an air-dry food method.
Below is a list of resource to learn how to dry food naturally and plans to build solar food dryers.
- Solar Food Dryer – no electricity needed – fully screened, holds multiple food trays.
- Sun Drying Food Techniques – Mother Earth News
- Sun Drying – National Center for Home Food Preservation
Sun drying food is the most economical way to dehydrate food.
You can set up units for as little as $5 or build a larger system for as little as $150. The key is also food safety, and that means preventing contamination of foods by insects and environmental sources, such as dust.
Key Considerations when Choosing a Food Dehydrating System
There are five basic things that should become considerations when you sit down to figure out if a food dehydrator is right for your food storage needs and which type you of dehydrating method you should use.
I also include in the fifth point a few extra considerations that make life easier with a food dehydrator.
1. Ease of Use
I often find stackable food dehydrators at thrift stores because people like the idea of drying their food and then discover that they never get around to doing so. I have three stackable units, and at least one of them is always in use.
- Am I really going to dry food?
- How much food can I dry and use each year?
- Will other people in the family take on this chore?
These questions help you determine if food dehydrating is right for you. Around here, the food dehydrators become part of the general meal preparation process. We dehydrate meals such as all the vegetables in soups and then store those in meal kits – Our own dehydrated soup mix.
When we want to make soup, we just dump in a bag of dehydrated soup mix. You can also process meat, and we do. These become part of our own stew mix. In short, we use the dehydrators as tools that help us create healthy and nutritious meals that we enjoy throughout the year.
There is another side of food dehydrating, and as an organic gardener, I fully embrace including dehydrating as a means of decreasing dependency on local food distribution systems.
Dehydrating food turns part of the food I grow into an annual food source I can use all year long. I cannot grow tomatoes in January, but I can dehydrate them. I cannot grow collard greens in August, but I can dehydrate them.
Both options give me access to seasonal foods all year long.
Based on your response to #1, you can determine how valuable this process is to your food storage operation and then make a more informed decision about how much to invest.
Unless you are running a community-based food storage program, the commercial dehydrators are probably not worth the cost. However, you can consider offsetting their cost if you are willing to prepare and sell dried foods at farmers markets – that is another blog entirely.
Because I am an avid proponent of upcycling, my three food dehydrators each cost less than $10 and one of those cost $3 and I have had it for years.
This is all about what types of foods you are going to dry.
Do you need the vertical or the horizontal unit?
If you plan on drying more complex foods, such as meats and thicker vegetables, then you probably want a horizontal unit as they dry food more evenly. If you are going to primarily use your food dehydrator for simple foods such as thinly sliced vegetables and fruits, then you probably only need a stackable unit.
If you are planning on dehydrating a lot of food, a self-unit is probably the best option.
Which unit is best for you comes down to air-flow. Horizontal units pass heated air over the food evenly or utilize convection air flow to dry foods evenly.
Stackable units blow heated air from the bottom of the unit to the top, so foods towards the bottom tend to dry quicker, especially if you have a lot of trays stacked up on the blower.
4. Size of the Dehydrator
We addressed part of this consideration in #2, but size does matter. If you are planning on drying a large portion of your food, then invest in a larger unit. A larger unit allows you to dry more foods at once and that’s important.
I would invest in a larger shelf unit, which would be more appropriate for the volume of food we process here, but I have made three stackable units work. Below, I explain why I have not yet invested in a horizontal food dehydrator.
I love the versatility that three smaller units give me, but there are a few times of year when they are all three running, and I need more food drying space. Determinate tomato crops are a perfect example of why a shelf unit works better than three stackable units – I can pick 30 pounds of tomatoes per day for a short period of time.
Fortunately, we can and stew tomatoes for freezing to offset the burden of harvesting so many tomatoes at once. Other crops include corn and beans and fruit such as watermelons.
Carefully consider how much food you want to process and the size of the dehydrator you buy.
5. Thermostatic Control
This is a must. Drying large volumes of food requires more heat than drying a unit full of basil or herbs. You want to have as much control over the drying process as possible to preserve flavor without burning food as it dries.
Choose a unit with a thermostatic control dial so you can adjust the temperature based on the load.
Other features that make dehydrators more efficient include auto shut-down features that work with a timer and the cord length. I have one unit that the cord is 1.5 feet long. It will not even reach from the table to the outlet directly under the table. Be sure to check the cord length.
Another feature is the noise level. Be sure to read a few reviews before you buy a unit to see if people are complaining about the unit’s noise level. Some units are very quiet, and some that are not.
All three of my units work in the kitchen and are quiet. I have a friend with a shelf unit, and as it heats up, the metal sides pop outward with a loud bang. Not such a great thing to live with, though it does a good job of dehydrating foods.
Resource for Getting Started with Dehydrating Food
- How to Dehydrate Fruit in a Dehydrator – Epicurious dot com
- Dehydrating Meat – The Backpacking Chef
- High on Dry – Vegetarian Times
Dehydrating your own food is a viable and economically friendly way to increase your food storage capabilities while taking better control of using the foods you grow or purchase. Like all food storage considerations, food safety is a key issue.
Be sure to read up on how to dehydrate foods and their proper storage options before jumping into this ancient food saving process.
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