Food Dehydration Made Easy: Best Ways to Preserve the HarvestAug 31, 2022 ● By Sheila Julson
Drying food is the oldest known method of food preservation. Middle and Far Eastern cultures have used the sun and wind to dry foods since 12,000 B.C., according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP). Today, the easy availability of food dehydrators offers a convenient way to preserve the fall harvest.
When done correctly, dehydrating food is a safe method for maintaining its original state, says Tracey Brigman, NCHFP associate director and University of Georgia clinical assistant professor. “Dehydrators remove the water content in foods, resulting in a low risk of bacteria and spoilage.”
Unlike other food preservation methods such as canning or fermenting, dehydrating food does not require lots of special equipment, tools or skill. “Dehydrating food is super easy to do,” says Carole Cancler, the Hawaii-based author of the Complete Dehydrator Cookbook. “Drying food is more forgiving. You can’t make a lot of mistakes. Canning, if you do it wrong, can make everyone in your family sick.” The only caveat, Cancler says, is that food not thoroughly dried will get moldy. In humid environments, dehydrated foods must be kept tightly sealed to keep out moisture and prevent mold from forming.
Julia Skinner, founder and director of Root, an online fermentation and food history company, adds that when foods are dehydrated, they shrink and therefore take up less storage space. “They’re great to pack for traveling or for small kitchens. Dehydrating can also concentrate some flavors, such as with dried tomatoes.”
Almost Anything Can be Dehydrated
Many types of food can be dehydrated, including fruit, veggies, meat, fish, herbs and nuts. “It’s easier to say what can’t be dehydrated,” Cancler says. “The general rule is you don’t want to dehydrate food that has a high fat content, such as fatty meats or avocados.” They go rancid quickly during storage. While there are dehydrated, high-fat foods sold commercially such as cheese, peanut butter and eggs, these are processed using special equipment and techniques that can’t be copied in a home kitchen.
Sliced strawberries, chopped onions or celery are good foods for beginners. “People tend to throw those foods away a lot. They buy them and don’t use it all up before they spoil. Dehydrate leftover strawberries for snacks and dehydrate vegetables to use in soups or stews,” Cancler suggests.
Starter model home food dehydrators, often found at resale stores or rummage sales, can be purchased for about $50. Some have adjustable temperature settings for different kinds of foods. When purchased new, most food dehydrators include recipe booklets.
When using a dehydrator, Skinner advises, turn it on to the appropriate setting and lay the food in a single layer on the trays provided, then let the dehydrator run for a few hours. She usually turns food halfway through to prevent sticking.
Cancler says that in some cases an oven can be used to dehydrate food, but it isn’t the most cost-effective method. “I don’t recommend continued use of the oven, because depending on where you live and the type or size of food being dried, drying can take anywhere from eight to 36 hours. Running an electric or gas range for that long uses a lot of energy.”
She says that ideal temperatures are 125 to 135 degrees, but most standard ovens only go as low as 170 degrees, which is too warm to dehydrate fruits or vegetables. “Then you must do wacky things like prop the door open to cool down the oven.” The exception, she says, is jerky: “It must be dried at a higher temperature, and lower-end food dehydrator models don’t get hot enough.”
Sun-drying foods outdoors is risky, Brigman cautions, due to varied weather conditions. In addition, insects and air pollution have to be considered. “For safety reasons, consumers should really purchase a food dehydrator. While it may be a high cost when you begin dehydrating, if you are a serious food preserver, it will save you money in the long term,” she says.
Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines throughout the country.