Drying out or dehydrating foods is one of the oldest food preservation methods out there. I first became interested in food dehydration when we moved off the grid back in 2013.
And I'm not the only one. Dehydrating fruit, vegetables, dried fish and even dehydrating game meat have all been making a bit of a comeback in recent years. What is food dehydration, and how does it work? Is it safe? And do you really need to buy a food dehydrator? If you are interested in finding out how to start dehydrating your own food, read on.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
What is Food Dehydration?
Dehydrating foods refers to removing as much moisture as possible in order to keep food long-term without spoiling. People have been dehydrating foods for hundreds or possibly even thousands of years. If you've enjoyed raisins, prunes, banana chips, dried cranberries, pemmican, beef jerky, or dried fish, you've eaten dehydrated food.
How I Got Started Dehydrating Foods
I first became interested in drying our foraged herbs, rosehips, raspberries, blueberries, and cranberries to last through our long northern winters. As we work to secure our family's food supply, it seemed to make sense to add food dehydration to the canning, freezing, smoking, and preserving skills we're learning. And with all the extra fall vegetables we're getting from our fall vegetable garden, I needed another food storage method.
However, one of the issues we soon began running into was a lack of food storage space. While we can freeze food out on our back deck from late October through the end of March, our outdoor "freezer" does take up a bit of space. And a larger homestead pantry is on my wishlist of homestead projects!
Why Try Dehydrating Food
Dehydrating foods seems to be the answer. Not only does it keep fruits, vegetables, and even meats from spoiling, drying it out also removes a lot of the weight and size of each piece of food. And this lets me store our large backyard garden harvest more easily. Since we're trying to store our harvest without a root cellar or basement, I need to get creative with storage space.
Food dehydration also provides easy-to-carry, lightweight healthy food on long road trips, hunting trips, and backwoods camping or canoe trips. While many dehydrated foods can be eaten as is, you can also soak them in water or another liquid to rehydrate them.
How Dehydrating Foods Works
Why does dehydrating works so well to preserve a large variety of foods? Well, it's because yeast and bacteria need water to grow. By removing all the water from the food, these microorganisms won't thrive. And then your food stays well preserved.
How long should I dehydrate apples? This was a question that led me to this handy dehydration chart from the University of Georgia's Extension Studies Program. It includes a long list of popular foods for dehydration. As it turns out, you use different temperatures for dehydrating different foods.
The Best Temperature for Food Dehydration
According to Clemson Cooperative Education's Home & Garden Information Center, the optimum temperature for drying food is 140F. Now, this can be a little hard to hold even on the lowest setting on your oven. I know it was tricky in the ancient propane wall oven that graces our rustic homestead kitchen. Especially because propane burns so hot.
So before you try your hand at dehydrating foods in the oven, I recommend you invest in an oven thermometer. It will help you determine your oven's actual temperature.
An oven thermometer also lets you turn the heat on and off as needed. And this helps you stay at or close to the ideal dehydrating temperature. Or you can do what I did. Just open the oven door when you need to cool it down some.
The same thermometer can also be very helpful when you're starting to experiment with solar drying. And that brings me to an important question. Is a food dehydrator really necessary?
Do I Really Need a Food Dehydrator?
The short answer? No. You do not need to invest in a food dehydrator to get started dehydrating foods you grow, shoot, catch, or buy.
Yes, you can dry food in the hot sun. Or in the oven. You could dry foods outdoors on racks. Just take a look at how the indigenous peoples of North and South America would dehydrate game meat, fish, corn, and berries on racks outside their villages.
I've even dried raspberries on cookie sheets on the dashboard of my Jeep when it was particularly hot and sunny out. Of course, the fact that we get almost 20 hours a day of sunlight here in June and July helps.
Admittedly, an electric food dehydrator does speed up the process. Although the oven, or an outdoor rack, or the dashboard could be a good place to start. or with a dehydrator. However, an electric dehydrator will give you better control and lower settings that result in tastier dried foods.
I was leery of investing in an electric dehydrator because of the power usage in our off grid home. We depend on solar panels, batteries, and generators to provide power. And when we had our old system I was always checking the power usage of various appliances. Until one day Dan turned up with a simple five-tray electric dehydrator someone was getting rid of for $10.00.
We gave it a shot and I dried rose petals, Labrador Tea, and even chamomile one day. I often take my kids foraging to teach them about what grows wild in our area. And to learn along with them.
Our simple dehydrator worked like a charm. I've since used it to dehydrate different kinds of apples and berries. In fact, I'm taking a look at a fancier (and more expensive) dehydrator - the Excalibur Dehydrator.
Electric dehydrators are easy to order online. You might even find you could pick one up at your local small appliance store, a thrift store, through a local Facebook buy and sell group or even through your local online classifieds.
I recommend you start with one of the smaller models and see how it goes. They cost less, plus they also take up a lot less space when not in use.
Play around and start dehydrating foods like fruits and vegetables. Get comfortable with the process and more importantly, see how you and your family enjoy the taste of the food. If you all like to snack on dried fruits and veggie chips, you might want to invest in a more elaborate dehydrator.
Also try cooking larger meals with rehydrated/reconstituted food, such as by adding dried meats to soups or stews. If you like prepping your food this way, consider upgrading your food dehydrator. That way you'll have two electric food dehydration machines to use come harvest and preservation time.