Dehydrating food is an ancient technique that has improved thanks to the modernization of the process. Food that is Dehydrated has undergone a process by which the moisture level of the food drastically decreases.
From ancient times to just a few hundred years ago, the dehydration of food was by air drying or smoking. In ancient Egypt, food lay on hot rocks in the sun until it was dry. That process, well simple, is the essence of what dehydrating food is all about. Today, we have other options than just hot rocks. In my home, I use three electric food dehydrators to help me with the gigantic task of processing garden harvests into a viable and sustainable food source.
In this article, we go over the process of dehydrating food for the modern world.
Methods of Dehydrating Food
There are four primary ways you can dehydrate food. They range from simple to complex, and some are more sustainable and cost-effective than are others. They include air drying, smoking, electric dehydrating, and drying foods in your oven. Below is a closer look at each of these methods.
Sun-dried or Air-dried Foods
Sun-dried foods include familiars such as sun-dried tomatoes. The heat to dry the food comes from the sun and moisture is evaporated from the food, leaving behind a leathery hide-type food. Fruits are very popular air-dried foods.
Sun-dried or air drying is the same thing. Generally, food is placed on mesh trays and then placed in the sun. In terms of food safety and producing quality, clean food, many people use a mesh cover over the foods they dry. Drying racks are available commercially, or you can build your own. My air drying trays are constructed using tools. They are cheap to make, and they last for several years before they wear. You can also use a galvanized screen so long as the foods are not acidic. Acids react to many metals. That is why I chose to use tools and make my own.
Fruit, vegetables, and some types of meats are excellent choices for air drying.
Most foods lend themselves to dehydration via an electric dehydrator. These are one of the easiest ways to process foods, but they are limited in size and load volume. Food is placed on square or round trays and then stacked on top of each other. Once on the dehydrator, warm air is circulated from the bottom to the top of the racks where it exits the dehydrator. This process of food dehydration is relatively easy. The trick to mastering all dehydrated food sources is cutting the food into even thicknesses and keeping the heat source is uniform.
To dehydrate food using an electric food dehydrator slice the food into strips or rounds and then place them on the trays. Leave room around the food so that air circulates evenly. If the air is not able to circulate evenly, the food will not dehydrate evenly. For example, if you are drying banana chips and the chips touch, then the edge where air circulates will be crisp but the edges where the chips touch will still be wet or leathery. For food storage and safety, the food must dry uniformly.
Some foods require a dip in some preservative or anti-oxidation substance. For most fruit, that means a dip in lemon juice. Some foods need salt to help maintain food safety. The anti-oxidation substance helps food to look better too. Some foods turn brown without an anti-oxidizing substance. The food is still good, but not always pretty.
Oven Drying Food Process
Drying food in your oven is perhaps the least efficient process by which to dry food. Space is limited, and the cost is often more expensive based on the volume of food you can dry per load. To dry food in your oven, you can place food directly on the oven racks, but that method is messy, and you will have to clean the oven more often. Instead, use baking sheets with a metal screen or tray similar to bread racks. The food is placed on the racks and drippings, if any, fall onto the baking sheet. Foods are dehydrated at various temperatures. In my opinion, this is the least desirable way to dehydrate food. Instead, use an electric dehydrator rather than an oven.
Smoking food is not about applying heat. It is a slower process that uses the drying properties of smoke produced from burning wood. The idea is to create a smoldering type of fire without flames. We have a smoker, and we use aged alder wood which holds moisture and smolders rather than burns. The food is over the smoke, not the fire. This process is more complicated, but at the same time, it is relatively easy and straightforward.
Smoking is a type of dehydration where the smoke dehydrates the food rather than the heat. This is an ancient form of food preservation that can have a very positive and modern presence. Smoking is a sustainable way to dry food because you only need wood to create the process whereas, with an oven or electric dehydrator, you need fuel such as gas or electricity. Both types of fuel are limited during an emergency.
Common Foods that Dehydrate Well
“Dehydrate well” is a phrase that is ultimately influenced by how you later use the food. Most foods rehydrate into a usable form while others are meant for consumption in their dry form. A good example is bananas. In chip form, bananas are delightful but rehydrated they are a mess that is best used in banana bread. To that end, you can create blends of dehydrated vegetables that rehydrate well for stews, soups, casseroles, and so forth. So, which foods dehydrate the best? The answer is straightforward – Those foods you use the most.
- Vegetables – Root vegetables are fantastic as dried foods. Carrots, beets, potatoes, parsnips, and most others make excellent foods for dehydration.
- Leafy greens – Again this is based on how you will use the food, but leafy greens such as kale and collard greens are great dried as a substitute for potato chips. These can sometimes be used in soups and stews too.
- Lean Meats – Lean meats make fantastic jerky, but you can also use them for stew starter, in soups, and other recipes. The difference between jerky and dehydrated meats is simply flavoring. Fatty meats tend to go rancid faster, and that process affects the taste. For that reason, consume dehydrated fatty meats soon. Fatty meats can be a great form of jerky.
- Fruits – Most fruits are amazing as dried foods. They make wonderful snakes and drying them is a great way to put fruit away for later when it is in season and cheaper. Strawberries, blackberries and other berries are excellent choices for dried fruits, as are apples and stone fruits. Melons make better fruit leather than they do dried fruits. Leather is a pureed form of the fruit that is dehydrated in puddles rather than chunks.
- Corn, Winter Squash, Summer Squash – All of these make excellent dried foods. However, they need to be modified. Summer squash only needs to be sliced, but winter squash should be cubed and corn removed from the husks. Corn is one of those foods that I prefer to dry on the cob rather than in an electric dehydrator. Air drying corn is relatively simple. I remove the husks and place the ears on a screen in a sunny spot. It takes about a week or so. I set up my drying racks so that there is a middle layer where the food sits and a bottom and a top layer that keeps flies and other insects away from the food.
- Tomatoes and Tomatillo – Tomatoes and tomatillo dry well. I dry buckets of tomatoes and tomatillos each year. Cherry tomatoes are the most challenging and time-consuming because they need to be cut in half. Larger slicing tomatoes work well because you can slice them on a mandolin slicer or an electric slicer. The key is getting the slices to be a consistent thickness; The goal is that the food dries a lot at the same rate. Both tomatoes and tomatillo also make fruit leather, which is good as an ingredient in soups and stews. While tomatoes are easy to dehydrate, they are also easy to can. I prefer to can the bulk of my tomato and tomatillo harvest rather than to dry them. High acidic foods, such as tomatoes have a shelf life upwards of five years, whereas the longer a dehydrated food sits on a shelf, the more the taste of the food is impacted. Except in a dire situation, I would not want to eat a tomato that was dehydrated five years ago.
Foods that Do NOT dehydrate Well
There are not many foods that do not dehydrate well. For most of these foods, it is just easier to can or freeze them than it is to dry them. These include juices. While you can make juices into leathers, it is just simpler to can them. Fatty or marbled cuts of meat are also easier to can, and they store better. Avocado is one of those fruits that is nearly impossible to dry and have a decent outcome.
How to Dehydrate Food
The steps to dehydrate food is relatively consistent from one type of dehydrator to the next.
- Pick the best foods. Foods should be at the peak of ripeness.
- Clean the food – Inspecting and trimming in the case of meat and washing in the case of fruits and vegetables.
- Slice – The key is to slice the food in uniform thicknesses. For meat, cubes are acceptable, but they take longer to dehydrate than do strips. For fruits, halving stone fruit is fine, but you can also cut them into pieces, or make purees. For smaller fruits such as grapes, you can leave them whole or cut them in half. A good tip for smaller fruits that you are drying whole is to pierce them with a paring knife so that the liquid can evaporate quicker.
- Find a guide on dehydrating food that is specific about temperature and time, especially if using your oven or an electric food dehydrator.TIP: When you buy a food dehydrator only buy one that has an adjustable thermostat so that you can regulate the drying temperatures. Also, test the accuracy of the thermostat with an oven thermometer.
- Most dehydrated foods store well in an air-tight container. I line the bottom of storage containers with a layer of paper towels to help combat humidity in the container.
- Label each container with the date of dehydration and the type of food. This will help you use foods that are the oldest first. I use the FIFO method – First In First Out method for food storage so that I am always using the oldest food first.
Learning how to dehydrate food is a wonderful way to increase your food stores for daily use and emergency preparedness. The process is easy and safe so long as you follow food storage and safety protocols. Foods like seafood can be more dangerous to dry, but many types of seafood lend themselves to smoking or canning rather than drying. A good tip for getting into drying foods is to look closely at what you eat. Start by drying foods from your garden or that are in season at your grocery store.