How to use a food dehydrator to preserve your harvest
As Get Rich Slowly readers know, J.D. and I have a thriving garden with maturing fruit trees, monstrous berry plants, and an annual vegetable garden. Much of the time, I turn the garden bounty into:
These foods are canned in glass jars for future use. This allows me to take advantage of large quantities of fresh, organic produce to make food we'll enjoy later.
But another tool in my kit is the food dehydrator. The food dehydrator has quite a few advantages over preserving food by canning, and is sure to be in use at our house as the summer crops ripen.
The Food Dehydrator
Dehydrating food means that low heat is used to remove most of the moisture from a food item. By evaporating most of the water, the food is much less likely to spoil over time, even stored at room temperature.
As an added bonus, reducing the water content means you are also reducing the volume — and now the food takes up a lot less room to store. Earlier this summer, I pitted and dried about ten pounds of cherries from our neighbor's tree. Once dry, they fit into a single quart (4-cup) jar. That jar can be stored on a pantry shelf, rather than taking up valuable freezer space.
A food dehydrator is an easy, low-cost investment. Canning with pressure or boiling water can be intimidating and time-consuming to a beginner. There are jars and lids to buy, recipes to check for safety, and a number of necessary pots and tools. With drying, all you really need is the dehydrator itself — and a knife.
I like my Nesco-brand food dehydrator (about $45). But regardless of brand, look for a dehydrator that has an adjustable thermostat and stacking trays. If you have an oven that can run at a low temperature of about 140 degrees Fahrenheit, you can even do this in the oven with the door propped open. In my case, I run the food dryer on the covered front porch so I don't add more heat to the kitchen in the summer months. At first I was worried that this would attract insects, but that hasn't been a problem.
The cherry harvest, before and after the food dehydrator.
I love canning, but preserving fruit by that method often means adding large amounts of sugar. Drying fruits takes advantage of the fruit's natural sugars to make snacks that taste like candy without anything added. If you like dried fruit, give it a try.
I dry large quantities of pears and Italian plums each autumn, and sweet cherries when I can get enough of them. The pears and prunes are eaten out-of-hand, and the cherries are delicious mixed in with my homemade maple-almond granola.
Apples, apricots, peaches and other fruits dry well, too, if you have a cheap source to make it worth the effort. You can even make your own raisins — but be sure to use seedless grapes! I tried one year with our seeded green grapes; that was not a success.
One of the top reasons I like making my own food is that I control the ingredients. I have total control about what I'm eating. Commercially-dried fruit often has sulfite preservatives; this is an allergen for some folks (such as my sister). With food you dry yourself, you can make it preservative-free, or treat fruits that tend to turn brown (such as pears) with ascorbic acid crystals to keep them more attractive.
You can also choose to peel your fruits, or, as I prefer, leave the skins on for added texture and nutritive value. You can choose organic produce or local goods that haven't been coated in wax, picked unripe, or shipped across the continent (or globe).
Not Just Fruits
Among my favorite discoveries in recent years is how easy it is to make zucchini chips. Once you're sick of zucchini bread and zucchini brownies, and you've given away all the zucchini you can, and you've grilled more zucchini than you can enjoy — and the zucchini plants are still producing…after all that, try drying some zucchini.
Sliced thin and sprinkled with a bit of salt or seasoning, then dried until crisp, these zucchini chips are great for snacking! Be prepared, though, for the aforementioned loss in volume. Three medium zucchini resulted in two cups of chips. It's a great way to get your vegetables in!
Food dehydrators can make it easy to create your own “sun-dried” tomatoes. One year, my holiday gifts were jars of dried cherry tomatoes immersed in olive oil. (These did need to be refrigerated, and I had added minced herbs to the jars.) Pretty much any vegetable can be dried for later use in soups or casseroles; think onions, green beans, celery, mushrooms, carrots… They'll re-hydrate as you cook. Again, this is practical if you have more food than you can use before it might spoil.
Are you a jerky fan? For people who hunt or fish as a way to supplement their food budgets, drying meat in a dehydrator is a great option. You'll need a few more tools for this, and some spices and other ingredients, but game meats and fish are viable starting ingredients. You can also make fruit-leather with a dehydrator, but I've never tried this.
You can also dry herbs. While fresh herbs are preferable, your own dried herbs are probably higher-quality than those available in the store. I've successfully dried oregano, rosemary, sage, lemon balm, bay leaves, raspberry leaves, and lavender from my garden. I try to do only enough to get me through one winter so it doesn't deteriorate with long-term storage. Herbs need to be dried at a lower temperature than other foods — around 105 degrees Fahrenheit. If your summer temperatures approach that, you can simply lay the herbs out between screens to dry them: No dehydrator required.
Food Dehydrator Hints and Tips
There are dozens of sites with detailed dehydrating instructions, but here are a few basic tips from my experience:
- The thinner you slice, the quicker the drying so it's helpful if all the food in a batch is of consistent thickness. That way, it's all done at the same time. A mandoline can come in handy. I like this inexpensive mandoline.
- When is it done? It depends. If you want something crisp, keep going ‘till it's dry enough to snap. With juicy items like plums, they should still be pliable, like leather. To test to see if fruit is dry enough, try tearing a piece in half. If no moisture beads along the edge of the tear, you're probably done. Most food dehydrators come with a booklet that gives recommended temperature and drying times. You can often start the dryer in one evening and it will be done the following morning. If you're worried that you might still have too much moisture in your first attempts, you can always store the dried food in the freezer.
- Store your dried foods, loosely packed, in jars or airtight plastic bags. If you pack it too tightly, you may get a moisture-pocket that encourages spoilage. Store in a dark, cool place if possible, to make it last as long as possible.
- Dry what you have! It doesn't make sense to go out and buy food in the store to dry (or preserve by any method, really), but if you grow your own food or have an inexpensive source for fresh food, consider drying a portion of it.
- If it doesn't work, don't sweat it. Try a small batch first if you're uncertain. I once tried drying several pounds of figs given to us by our neighbor, Tom. Everyone loves fig newtons, right? They were terrible, spiky things (apparently you need a certain variety of figs for drying) that I ended up putting out for the birds — who also rejected them!
- Cleaning the racks can be a tedious job. I suggest soaking them overnight either in a utility sink or the bathtub (they are too big for my kitchen sink) so the dried-on foods scrub off easily.
Ironically, J.D. does not share my affection for dried foods. When he was a boy in the 1970s, his father manufactured food dryers. J.D. says that because of this, he ate more than his fair share of dehydrated food as a child. That's okay — more for me!