Drying foods is an ancient and simple technique. Before canning and refrigeration, it was an important way to preserve food, removing enough moisture to prevent decay and spoiling.
A food dehydrator is a small electrical appliance for drying foods indoors. A food dehydrator has an electric element for heat and a fan and vents for air circulation. Dehydrators are efficiently designed to dry foods fast at 140ºF. Dehydrators contain several stacked trays; heated air flows through all the layers and dries food evenly. An adjustable thermostat controls the temperature, and you can dehydrate slices of fruit, vegetables, herbs, or even meat to make jerky.
Costs vary depending on features; some models are expandable and additional trays can be purchased later. Twelve square feet of drying space dries about a half-bushel of produce. The major disadvantage of a dehydrator is its limited capacity.
Dehydrating takes a fraction of the storage space, weighs less, saves money, requires no refrigeration and can last for years (when stored properly and kept in a cool dry place, dehydrated foods can last up to 30 years depending upon the item).
Dehydration can either be an alternative to canning or freezing, or complement these methods. Drying foods is simple, safe and easy to learn. With modern food dehydrators, fruit leathers, banana chips and beef jerky can all be dried year round at home. Learning how to dehydrate food is simple, safe and easy. Drying food is also a great way to eat healthy and to save on your overall food costs.
How Dehydrating Preserves Food:
Drying removes the moisture from the food so bacteria, yeast and mold cannot grow and spoil the food. Drying also slows down the action of enzymes (naturally occurring substances which cause foods to ripen), but does not inactivate them.
You can be more confident that your food is safe – since it is dried, the botulism spores are inactive – if it is spoiled, it obviously looks and smells spoiled.
In drying, warm temperatures cause the moisture to evaporate. Low humidity allows moisture to move quickly from the food to the air. Air current speeds up drying by moving the surrounding moist air away from the food.
Because drying removes moisture, the food becomes smaller and lighter in weight. When the food is ready for use, the water is added back, and the food returns to its original shape.
Dehydrator Features to Look For:
Enclosed heating elements.
An enclosed thermostat from 85ºF to 160ºF.
Fan or blower.
Four to ten open mesh trays made of sturdy, lightweight plastic for easy washing.
UL seal of approval.
A one-year guarantee.
A dial for regulating temperature.
A timer. Often the completed drying time may occur during the night and a timer could turn the dehydrator off and prevent scorching.
How To Dehydrate Food in 10 Simple Steps:
1. Read the owner’s manual. (It’s amazing how many people DON’T do this when they purchase a product)
2. Start with fresh fruits and vegetables of the very best quality. Over-ripe, bruised and otherwise deteriorated produce will not yield good results when dehydrated.
3. Clean, hull and slice all fruits and vegetables, taking care to maintain consistency in the thickness of the slices. (This will ensure that everything dries at an even rate.)
4. If desired, treat apples, pears and other fruits prone to oxidation with citrus juice or ascorbic acid. This will help to retain the color of the fruit before, during and after the drying process.
5. Blanch broccoli, cauliflower, celery, carrots, corn, peas and potatoes to speed drying time and to help maintain color. Three to five minutes in boiling water should be adequate. Blanching is a necessary step in preparing vegetables for drying. By definition, blanching is the process of heating vegetables to a temperature high enough to destroy enzymes present in tissue. Blanching stops the enzyme action which could cause loss of color and flavor during drying and storage. It also shortens the drying and rehydration time by relaxing the tissue walls so moisture can escape and later re enter more rapidly. Vegetables can be water blanched or steam blanched.
6. Optional: Add salt, sugar or spices to flavor.
7. Load your fruit and vegetable slices onto the dehydrator trays, being careful not to overlap them, as this will slow the drying time.
8. Turn your dehydrator on immediately after loading to start the dehydration process. Consult your owner’s manual for recommended drying times, but expect the process to take between 8-12 hours on average.
9. As you reach the end of the drying time, check your fruits and vegetables frequently for dryness. To do so, simply remove a slice from the dehydrator, allow it to cool and then feel it with your fingers. If the slice feels dry to the touch, it should be adequately dried. To further evaluate the dryness of fruit: cut several fruit slices in half, and check the cut edges for moisture beads. If any are present, the fruit is not yet dry enough, and needs to be returned to the dehydrator. It is very difficult to give an exact time frame for dehydrating foods because of all the variables. Humidity in and outside the home, thickness and type of cut, how loaded the trays are, and even different brands of produce can all affect dehydration time. Also, the type of dehydrator you use plays a large role. If the fan is on the top or bottom of your dehydrator it will take longer for the food to dry because the circulation of air flow is disrupted by the other trays. If the fan is in the back of the dehydrator (where it should be) your food will dry faster and more evenly. Foods should be dry enough to prevent microbial growth and subsequent spoilage.
Dried fruits should be leathery and pliable. To test foods for dryness, remove a few pieces and let cool to room temperature. When warm or hot, fruits seem more soft, moist and pliable than they actually are. Squeeze a handful of the fruit. If no moisture is left on the hand and pieces spring apart when released, they are dry.
Dried jerky is chewy and leathery. It will be as brittle as a green stick, but won’t snap like a dry stick. To test for dryness, remove a strip of jerky from the dehydrator. Let cool slightly, then bend the jerky; it should crack, but not break when bent. When jerky is sufficiently dry, remove the strips from the drying racks to a clean surface. Pat off any beads of oil with a paper towel and let cool.
10. Package and store your dehydrated food.
TIP: It is so much easier to cut your dehydrated foods with kitchen scissors instead of using a knife. Some of the dehydrated foods you can simply crumble in your hands.
Wash everything down with an anti-bacterial cleanser of your choice. Just like when canning foods, it is important to practice good hygiene while dehydrating as well. This ensures a good end product with a longer shelf life.
Wear latex or vinyl gloves when handling the food!
There are natural oils and moistures in your hands which will contaminate your foods by reintroducing moisture. The whole idea to dehydrating foods is to maintain a good quality food with a long shelf life. Wearing protective gloves helps you obtain these goals.
Warm up your dehydrator. Air circulation helps eliminate the growth of contaminates, therefore it is best to start the dehydrator and get the air moving before putting your food in.
Whether you’re interested in drying food for health concerns, preserving the fruits of your own harvest or store bought, don’t have the proper equipment for canning, or just enjoy dried fruits and vegetables, then dehydration is the way to go. Enjoy the possibilities of drying different fruits, vegetables and meats that will last longer than in your refrigerator. Visit www.whatsupcooks.com to get your dehydrator and start dehydrating today. Let us know how it works for you.