Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Ancient Way of Food Preservation: Dehydration

Miss Ingrid had bought a "new" Kirby from a yard sale and needed to learn how to use it and its attachments. I wanted to learn how to dehydrate foods, but I needed a food dehydrator. My husband had sold Kirbys for a while and knew all the information Miss Ingrid needed, and Miss Ingrid had a five-tray food dehydrator she was not using since she had bought a bigger model. The swap was quickly made, and thus started my love-affair with dehydrating foods.

Dehydrating preserves food by exposing the food to heat and air, which forces the moisture out of the food and carries the vapors emitted during the drying process away from it. Bacteria and mold needs water to survive, so drying produce or meat, whether by using the sun, wind, an electric dehydrator, or the oven, is a safe, effective way of preserving food! It can be used in conjunction with most other methods of food preservation that we have studied as well!


Dehydrating food as a means of preservation has been used for centuries. Fishing settlements used the open air to dry fish. The Chinese dried tea leaves, and the Egyptians dried out their grains for storing, as in Joseph's day. The Native Americans dried fruit, meats, and vegetables by means of the wind and sun. The French dehydrated their food and are credited with creating the the first food dehydrator. People from all around the globe have used this means of food preservation since ancient times and still use it today. The Italians still bring us sun-dried tomatoes. Our jerky is dehydrated meat. We have sun-dried raisins from California, and the list goes on. Dehydrating always has been, and still is, beneficial, since it removes the water for storing, but leaves all the flavor and nutrients behind for our enjoyment.

                                      SUN AND WIND

You can set certain fruits and vegetables out in direct sunlight on windy day to dehydrate, providing the temperature outside is 85 degrees or higher and the humidity level is low, but to insure proper dehydration when using this method, I would recommend building a solar dehydrator. There are two  that I found blueprints for. One is a quick and easy and would take a few hours and about $10 to build. It is made with cardboard and plastic wrap and can be found here. The other is a more hard core dehydrator, which will take more time and effort to build, but will last longer. Blueprints for this one can be found here.


Although I do not recommend this method, it is possible to use your oven to dry foods. Ovens do provide a moisture-free, warm area to dehydrate in, but since they take more energy to heat due to their size, and since they take longer to dehydrate food since they do not have a fan to move the air, it is not a very economical way to dry food. It is also an unsafe method if you have small children or pets.

If you decide to use this method, set your oven to 140 degrees, prop the door open about two to six inches, and set a fan at the open oven door to aid in circulation. Place the food you intend to dehydrate in a single layer on a cookie sheet or tray that is smaller, both by length and width, than the oven racks and place them inside. The drying times will vary depending on the food you are drying and the thickness of each piece.


Yes, I said a homemade dehydrator. I personally would not use one of these. I would be so worried about burning my house down or it not working correctly that all I would get done is worrying! However, if you are adventurous or if you want to do a REALLY COOL SCIENCE EXPERIMENT, this might be fun to make. It seems simple enough. They can be made from cardboard boxes, aluminum foil, a light bulb, a light socket, and an electrical chord. For step by step instructions on how to build one , visit this website. This particular dehydrator is made with 2X2s, plywood, and nails, so it is a little bit more durable, but I am still iffy on the safety of it.


NOW, WE ARE TALKING MY LANGUAGE! There are many different brands and sizes of dehydrators out there to fit any number of needs. I could not find the specific dehydrator I use, but one similar to mine is the Deni 7100 Food Dehydrator. I only require a small one, since most of my food gets preserved through canning and freezing. There are larger dehydrators, like the LEM Products 10 Tray Food Dehydrator. If you need to dehydrate more food at one time, I would recommend a larger dehydrator to make the job quicker and easier.


Any fruits, vegetables, and most meats can be dried. Select foods that are ripe, as those that have naturally ripened dry the best. You also want your produce to be in excellent condition. If they do happen to have any spots or bruising, remove those before you begin drying. Any meats, herbs, or flowers should also be of high quality to insure good results.

Clean your produce carefully. Use a vegetable brush and running water to be certain all the dirt and bacteria has been removed from the outside of the food. If any is remaining, it can be pushed down into the fruit or vegetable when you slice it.

You can peel the fruits if you wish, but it is not necessary. Leaving the skin on will add to the drying time, but the skin is a highly nutritious part of the fruit. To peel, or not to peel... that is the question. This can only be determined by your personal preference.

Be sure to cuts the foods in each batch all the same size so that you do not have some of them dry and crispy while some pieces are still raw. Slices should be about 1/4 of an inch thick for best results. Your foods can be sliced, shredded, or diced. I use a food processor for this step. After the food is cut, quickly place them on the trays to dry to keep spoilage or browning from occurring.

Some fruits and vegetables are best when they are pre-treated prior to being dried. This will help the vegetables retain their color. Blanching helps them retain their color and helps to break down the waxy skins of some fruits. Instead of being blanched, some fruits can be soaked in lemon, orange, lime, or pineapple juice for two minutes, then patted dry immediately before they are placed on the dehydrator trays. Syrup blanching, a process that helps some tree-grown fruits (apples, apricots, nectarines, figs, peaches, plums, and pears) to retain their color and also produces a sweeter tasting, candied fruit can also be used.

       Mix 1 c of sugar, 1 c of white corn syrup, and 2 c of water in a heavy sauce pan. Add 1 1/2
       pounds of cut fruit. Bring to a boil, then remove it from the heat and let stand for 35 minutes.
       DO NOT STIR! Drain, and lightly rinse with water, then place on dehydrator trays.

When placing the food on the trays, do NOT let anything overlap, although they are fine to touch each other. Put all of your dehydrator's trays in place, whether they are being used or not, to utilize air flow, which is important to the drying process. Rotate the trays from top to bottom often while the food is dehydrating to insure even drying.

Drying foods, even the same foods, can take differing amounts of time. The time it takes varies depending on humidity levels, temperature, the number of trays used, what you are drying, and more. For ballpark figures on drying times, see your dehydrator manual.

Fruits will be pliable and leathery, but not hard and tough. When you tear a piece of dried fruit, no moisture should develop. If it does, your fruit is not yet dry enough.

Vegetables are hard and brittle with sharp edges when they are dry. Some foods, like tomatoes, will be more leathery. Beans, corn, and peas are hard and seed-like and will shatter when hit with a hammer. Leafy thin vegetables will be brittle, and larger chunks or slices of vegetables will be leathery when they are dehydrated.


Dehydrated food can be stored in ziplocks, vacuum-sealed, or placed in glass jars. They should be stored in a cool, dry, dark place. They can be frozen or refrigerated to increase shelf life. Do not forget to label the contents!

Most fruits, if properly dried and stored, have a shelf life of up to one year. Vegetables only last six months unless they are frozen as well. Jerked meats can be refrigerated for two to three months or frozen for up to a year. Dried fish can be refrigerated or frozen for up to three months.


Puree about 2 c of fresh strawberries. Strain through cheesecloth to remove some of the seeds. Pour onto the fruit roll tray. Spread 1/4" thick. Dry for 8-15 hours. (For variety, you can add apples to the strawberries or sprinkle cinnamon or coconut on the fruit puree after it is on the tray.)

Mix any combination of your favorite dehydrated vegetables with rice or noodles and your favorite meat bullion and place it in an airtight container.

Slice your preferred meat into thin strips or slices, cutting across the grain (Cutting it while it is frozen may make it easier.). Mix together 3 c of soy sauce, 1 c of brown sugar, and 1 c of liquid smoke. Let stand for 5 minutes. Add 1-2 pounds of meat, cut into thin strips or slices, and let it marinate for 3 hours or overnight in an airtight container in the fridge. Drain and place on the dehydrator trays to dry. DO NOT OVERLAP! Dry i a dehydrator until it cracks when it is bent, about 8-15 hours. Store in an airtight container for up to two weeks... if it lasts that long...

Happy Drying... and Nibbling!
Nishoni Harvey
Author of The Fanatics

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