As you likely know by now, being in control over your food supply is a vital part of self sufficiency. In an effort to provide my readers with as much information as possible, this Guide to Dehydrating Food is part of a series of posts on various methods of food preservation. There is a lot of information here so I have provided a clickable table of contents. Enjoy!
There is evidence that some cultures dried foods as early as 12,000 B.C. In those times people took advantage of the sun and the wind in order to dehydrate foods. In the Middle Ages the Romans built houses that were used specifically for drying foods using fire as a heat source. Fortunately with today’s technology we have much more efficient means of dehydrating food.
Dehydrating food is a great method of preservation. However, it can be a little labor intensive because a lot of time is spent cutting and chopping. In the end it is well worth the effort. Once dried and properly stored, dehydrated foods will last for months to years. (I have dried apples that have been in my root cellar for over 5 years.) Perhaps the one thing about dehydrating that appeals most to homesteaders and off grid folks is the simplicity.
Dehydrated foods are easy to store. As a result you can have dried fruits and vegetables easily available for snacks or to throw into a recipe. Furthermore, dehydrated foods make a great light weight addition to the backpack. Making your own will also save you a tremendous amount of money.
Equipment investment varies tremendously. You can spend as little as $100 for a small dehydrator. Or you can spend several thousand dollars for larger commercial models. Generally the size of the dehydrator, thus the capacity, affects the cost.
As with any method of food preservation, dehydrating has its advantages and disadvantages.
Overall, I think the advantages of dehydrating food far out weigh the disadvantages. No matter how you process food, you are going to use some sort of energy, whether that be electricity or propane. You are going to have to invest in some sort of equipment. The processing of food in any way is going to have some affect on nutritional value. Additionally, there is always going to be some work involved, there will be changes to taste and texture, and you are going to need a place to store the extra goods.
Prior to dehydrating many foods require some type of preparation. This is true for certain types of fruit and especially true for different vegetables. Blanching vegetables prior to drying is generally the best choice. Blanching is simply pre-cooking them in either steam or boiling water. The reason for blanching prior to drying is that it stops the natural enzymatic reactions within the vegetables and slows the decomposition process.
Benefits of Blanching
The natural enzymes in vegetables can survive the dehydrating process. This means that the dehydrated vegetables can still decompose. Blanching either stops or slows this process which means the final product will have a longer shelf life.
Some vegetables naturally have a tough outer skin. Green beans are a good example. Blanching softens the outer skin and improves the dehydration process.
Slowing down or stopping the enzymatic action in the vegetables also helps to retain their natural color and vitamins. Blanching also cleans the produce and reduces the presence of bacteria.
Two Ways to Blanch Vegetables
1) Steam Blanching
Use a large pot with a tight fitting lid. Fill with 1 to 2 inches of water. Use a colander, wire basket, or sieve to hold the vegetables. The produce should not contact the boiling water. Bring the water to a boil and then place the vegetables in the pot.
Once finished, place the vegetables in cold water long enough to stop the cooking process. Do not cool them to room temperature. Place immediately in the dehydrator.
2) Water blanching
Use a large pot with a tight fitting lid. Fill about 2/3 full of water and bring to a boil. Fully immerse the vegetables in the water for the recommended time. Remove and place in cold water. Pat dry prior to placing in the dehydrator.
Steam (minutes) Water (minutes)
Carrots 3 -3 1/2 3 – 3 1/2
Asparagus 2 2
Turnips 5 3
Egg plant 6 4
Potatoes 6 – 8 5 – 6
Peas 3 2
Corn Not necessary
Garlic Not necessary
Okra Not necessary
Horseradish Not necessary
Mushrooms Not necessary
Onions Not necessary
Parsley Not necessary
Peppers Not necessary
What Happens If You Do Not Blanch
Blanching prior to drying certainly creates more work and takes more time. If you want to dehydrate vegetables without blanching that is fine. Just know that they will have a shorter shelf life and may lack somewhat in color and texture.
There are several methods of dehydrating food. What method you use will ultimately depend on your lifestyle, the local climate, ability to invest in equipment, and your carpentry skills. The higher the moisture content in the food, the longer it will take to dry.
Four Things Needed for Proper Dehydration
Methods of Dehydrating Food
By far the easiest method is to use a professional dehydrator. By “professional” I am simply referring to a commercial product. That means something that can be purchased online or at a retail outlet.
These dehydrators are “plug and play”. They are closed containers with multiple drying shelves and adjustable temperature control. Some even come with timers. Best of all, they come with instructions and a guide book for dehydrating various foods. You can purchase smaller dehydrators for less than $100. Higher quality ones will set you back several hundred dollars.
I strongly recommend, as with any other method of food preservation, that you invest in quality equipment. The right tools and equipment make the job so much easier. Purchase something you will be happy with. Years ago I started with a couple of small dehydrators. I enjoyed this so much that I soon upgraded to a much larger model. It was not only more efficient but it also enabled me to process food in larger quantities. Consequently, I was able to make the most of my time invested in this whole process.
If you are living off-grid and only use solar energy, this can produce a major draw on your battery bank and may not be the best method of food preservation. A solar dehydrator may be a better option. However, if you ran the dehydrator during peak sun hours the electricity being used would be coming directly from the solar array and not from the battery bank.
Conventional Oven Dehydration
This is a method that is easily available for anyone. Most people already have an oven. Consequently, there is only a small investment in equipment. After all, you simply need a low, steady heat source for drying any food. An oven provides this.
If you dehydrate food in this manner, you will have to invest in a drying rack. These are typically stackable, metal mesh shelves complete with a drip tray. They have the dimensions of the average cookie sheet except for the height of course.
Oven drying is a viable method to use. However, it does use a lot more energy and is less efficient than a professional dehydrator. There is also very little air circulation so you have to open the door periodically to compensate for this.
Dehydration with a Smoker
Smokers are a valuable addition to any home especially if you live off grid. Since I do live off grid, I have a propane smoker. This is a great way to make beef jerky. However, it can also be used to dry vegetables and fruits. You simply leave out the wood chips and do not put any water in the drip tray. Consequently, you end up with only dry heat.
Commercial smokers have insulated walls and an open bottom which draws in air. This is enough to produce a decent amount of circulation for drying. Even the inexpensive models have basic temperature control which is easy to regulate. For minimal investment you get a piece of equipment that is very versatile.
This is a method of dehydration that I have never tried. The primary reason is because of the local wildlife. Left unattended my solar dehydrator would simply be destroyed by the local bears. Consequently, a lot of work and investment would go to waste.
However, I have seen plans for solar dehydrators that are very impressive. They function the same as any commercial dehydrator. Low steady heat and air circulation are a natural part of the design. Due to the use of renewable energy, these dehydrators are very cost efficient. Consequently, they make a great addition to the off grid homestead.
Mother Earth News has a great article on Best-Ever Solar Food Dehydrator Plans
If you want something on a smaller scale, the Modern Farmer has a great article onHow to Build a Solar Dehydrator
Dehydration with a Wood Stove
This method of dehydration takes some patience and practice. However, if you heat regularly with a wood stove then take advantage of the heat source. Using the wood stove as a dehydrator is yet another way to save energy as well as utilize that dry source of heat.
Dehydration with a wood stove is somewhat similar to using a conventional oven. You will need the same type of drying rack. Just simply set it on top of the wood stove in one of the cooler areas. Otherwise, you will have a tendency to cook the food.
This method of dehydration will be a bit more efficient if you can close in the drying rack. I have done something as simple as surrounding it with heavy duty aluminum foil. However, a lite weight sheet metal box works much better. A friend of mine that works in a machine shop made one for me at no charge.
This method is viable but not as efficient as other ways. Additionally, you can only dry small amounts of food and your choices are limited. Your choices are essentially herbs and leafy vegetables Place them between two paper towels and microwave for 2 to 3 minutes. Add additional time as needed.
This method work best for foods with low moisture content such as herbs. When I harvest herbs I tie them together in small bundles and hang them up side down in the cabin. It takes a couple of weeks for them to completely dry. It takes less time if I have the wood stove going due to the dry heat. However, they stay good for years.
If you had to choose any one method to dehydrate food, a professional food dehydrator is by far the best choice. Why???
Take a moment to compare the different methods of dehydration.The end result is the same. Food gets dehydrated. However, each has distinct advantages and disadvantages. If I had to choose any one method, I would choose one that is less labor intensive, easy, convenient, efficient, and cost effective. The professional dehydrator provides all of that.
There is an endless list of food dehydrators on the market. The first reason for writing this section is to compare several models. The first two products on this list are ones that I own and have had for years. The remainder of the products are ones that I picked out of the lineup simply based on strong positive product reviews. The second reason for this section is to review basic electrical requirements in case you live off the grid and produce your own electricity.
The cost and electricity consumption of dehydrators can vary considerably. It depends on the model and the dimensions. This of course is directly related to how much food you can process at any given time. Electrical requirements may end up being one of the primary considerations if you live off the grid.
Here is a breakdown of several of the more popular models, including the two that I have.
Nesco had been around for many years. Their Snack Master dehydrator was one of the first products I purchased. I continue to use their products on a regular basis and I highly recommend them. Additional drying trays are available for purchase so that you can dry more product at once. However, I have learned from personal experience that adding too many trays decreases drying efficiency. Mostly likely this is related to lack of air flow. I simply resolve this by rotating the trays. A stack of 10 or 12 trays is going to be the limit. Even then, you have to rotate them on a regular basis. This is an excellent product if you are going to dehydrate smaller amounts of food.
Costs: $99 to $149 USD
Electrical requirements: 120 volts, 350 watts to 1000 watts
If you want to check out their line of products, go to Nesco.com
This is another high quality product that I strongly recommend. I have had one of their earlier models for about 6 years now. It is still going strong. I like the cabinet style of these products because it enables me to dehydrate food in larger quantities. So, I consider this an upgrade.
Cost: $200 to $1000 USD
Electrical requirements: 120 volts, 440 watts to 600 watts
Check out their products at Excaliburdehydrator.com
LEM 10 Tray Stainless Steel Dehydrator
This product has received a number of great reviews. What I like best about this model is the stainless steel design, which adds a lot of durability.
Cost: $199 USD
Electrical requirements: 120 Volts, 770 watts
Home Depot sells this product here.
Presto Digital Food Dehydrator
Presto products have been on the market for many years. They are backed by a good warranty and the company offers great customer service.
Cost: $83 USD
Electrical requirements: 120 volt, 750 watts
Presto offers a stackable dehydrator at gopresto.com.
Hamilton Beach Food Dehydrator
Hamilton Beach is another name brand that has been around for decades. They produce a digital dehydrator that is rectangular. This design can certainly save some counter space.
Cost: $60 USD
Electrical requirements: 120 volts, 550 watts.
Weston 24 Rack Food Dehydrator
This is a much larger, cabinet style dehydrator. If you are serious about dehydrating a lot of food, this may be the perfect model for you. It is made of steel, has a glass door, and a digital timer.
Cost: $450 USD
Electrical requirements: 110 volts, 1600 watts.
There are numerous models of dehydrators on the market to choose from. If you are new to this type of food preservation it will be a little difficult to decide on just what type of dehydrator to choose from. Here are 9 features to consider when purchasing a dehydrator.
There is an extensive list of foods that can be dehydrated. In fact, there are numerous books written on this topic. However, if you are new to dehydrating foods, here is a brief list of things to get you started.
I have been dehydrating food for over 3 decades. I have tried just about every thing you can imagine. I’ve made some mistakes and I have certainly had to throw some things out. But, I learned a lot in the process. Here are some tips to make your dehydrating experiences more successful.
How do dehydrators work?
Food dehydrators provide low, steady heat and air flow, typically using a fan, in order to reduce and remove the water content in food. The end result is drying and dehydrating.
How do you use dehydrated food?
Most dehydrated food can be eaten as is. Foods can also be reconstituted with water and added to recipes. If you are making chilis, soups, stews, or anything else with a high water content, dehydrated food can be added directly to the pot.
What are the benefits of dehydrating food?
It is easy to make nutritious snacks. It is cost effective. Once dried, food can be store without using electricity. Also, dried foods require little storage space. Dehydrating food also helps to eliminate waste.
What is the time required to dry food?
There are several factors that affect the drying time of food.
At what temperature are foods dehydrated?
The instruction manual with the dehydrator should have a reference chart. Most vegetables are dried between 90 and 110℉. Meats are dried from 160 to 165℉.
Does dehydrating affect nutritional value?
Dehydrating has little affect on nutritional value. When you home can or freeze foods, the food is exposed to extreme temperatures, which can affect nutritional value. The low heat level used during dehydration is not sufficient to affect most nutrients. However, Vitamin C is very susceptible to air and heat exposure.
What is the most effective way to dehydrate foods?
A commercial dehydrator is by far the most effective way to dry food. These dehydrators provide the perfect balance of heat and air circulation. I listed 7 different methods of dehydrating food. You can use any one of these depending on your living situation. The end result of these methods are the same. However, a food dehydrator is the most effective method.
How do you store dehydrated food?
Any type of air tight container can be used. I prefer glass. You can purchase canning jars if you wish. However, I recycle lots of glass jars. For example, pasta sauces are often sold in jars that have a rubber ring on the lid. These form a nice air tight container. They are not appropriate for canning but they are certainly useful for storing dehydrated foods.
What is the difference between dehydrated food and freeze dried food?
Dehydrating food removes about 90 to 95% of the moisture content. Freezing drying food removes about 98 to 99% of the moisture content. Consequently, freeze dried food is going to last much longer.
What is more cost effective, dehydrating or freeze drying?
You can purchase a good quality dehydrator for a couple of hundred dollars. Most models will easily fit on a counter or table top. Freeze dryers are cabinet style appliances. The smaller models start at around $1200 USD. They do produce a product with a very long shelf life. However, in my opinion, who really needs to store food for 25 to 30 years? I have kept some dehydrated food for up to 8 years with no problem. In my opinion, dehydrating is more cost effective and much easier to start with for the average person.
1) The Beginner’s Guide to Dehydrating Food, by Teresa Marrone
2) The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Dehydrating Food, by Jeanette Hurt
3) The Dehydrator Bible, includes over 400 recipes, by Jennifer MacKenzie
4) The Ultimate Dehydrator Cookbook, includes 398 recipes, by Tammy Gangloff, Steven Gangloff
5) Excalibur Food Dehydrator Recipe Book
6) The Jerky Bible: How to Dry, Cure, and Preserve Beef, Venison, Fish, and Fowl, by Kate Fiduccia
7) The Dehydrator Cookbook for Outdoor Adventurers, by Julie Mosier
Go off grid and live well,
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