Everything you need to know about drying food at home – practical, solid advice on why, how and what to dehydrate.
You have wondered about drying food, haven’t you? Otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Get ready because this 5000+ word post should answer all of your questions and get you well on your way to dehydrating like a champion.
I’m not kidding – this is the in-depth guide to dehydrating your own food at home. We’re going to cover the essential tools for drying food, the types of food you can dry, a step-by-step outline on how exactly you do it, and a bunch of things that you can do with your dried food.
Are you ready?
Just about every season there is some kind of food you can dry, and the variety of dried foods is significant – from berries in the summer to wild game jerky in the fall – so you you can be drying food all year long. Vegetables like corn and green beans can be dried, and all sorts of fruits – including bananas and apples.
But why bother? Are there really any benefits to dried foods?
Table of Contents
- Drying Food is Economical
- Dried Food Has a Long shelf life
- Easy and Inexpensive to Prepare
- Do You Really Need a Dehydrator for Drying Food?
- Oven Drying
- Using a Dehydrator for Fruits and Vegetables
- Use the Air and Sun to Dry Your Foods
- How to Dry Foods Step by Step
- What Foods Can You Dry?
- Drying Your Own Herbs
- Make Your Own Dried Spices
- What You Can Do with Your Dried Food
Drying Food is Economical
Have you looked at the price of jerky and dried fruits and vegetables in your grocery or health food store? You might have had to look twice – they’re expensive. They are particularly pricey if they are healthful versions, free of preservatives and artificial colors and flavors. Drying food at home – your own wholesome food – is much less expensive, especially if you dry foods that are in season and/or on sale.
Also, bringing along some of your own dried foods on car trips and vacations can save you a lot of money on snacks and meals on the road.
Dried Food Has a Long shelf life
If you like camping, it’s great to take along – dried food is lightweight, doesn’t require refrigeration, and is high in nutrition. You can also store it for use in an emergency, and include it in emergency kits you may have for yourself and your family. If the power goes out during a summer storm or due to some other act of nature, you can still have fruit, vegetables, and meats available for a meal. (Okay, you probably need to have some water on hand, too)
There’s no doubt that dried foods are convenient. They are especially handy if you have children and need to grab a quick snack on the way out the door.
What if one of your children needs to go to the ER, and you don’t know how long you’ll be sitting there? (I don’t know about you but I’ve spent hours waiting in the ER!) You and the other children will need something to eat.
Even for running errands, it’s nice to have snacks in the car. In fact, you can have a take-along bag with dehydrated food that you always take with you in the car.
Dried food is also convenient when you can’t get to the store, such as during a snowstorm. It’s also nice to be able to have dried produce on hand for soups and stews and other recipes. You can serve up a fresh-tasting raspberry sauce with your holiday roasts without spending a ton of money on store-bought berries.
Dried foods retain most nutrients, except those that depend on the presence of water. All of the fiber is intact in dried foods. And it’s chemical free, devoid of preservatives and artificial flavors and colors. Think of being able to reap the nutritional benefits of, for example, raspberries in December when you feel a cold coming on.
Even when we are committed to eating seasonally, it’s great to grab a handful of immune-boosting dried berries that you picked and dried in the summer. Harvested in season and processed at home, they retain all the benefits you need.
Easy and Inexpensive to Prepare
Drying food at home is not particularly complicated. When drying food, you don’t need to fuss over sterilizing jars, using a pressure canner, and spending money on added ingredients like sugar and vinegar. (No, that stuff’s not incredibly difficulty, but drying food is definitely easier).
You just dry the food – it’s simple, and the food is not too far from its natural state. As my grandfather would have said, it still remembers where it came from.
Do You Really Need a Dehydrator for Drying Food?
Food dehydrators certainly do have some pros and perks. But then, so do air and oven drying. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of dehydrators and other methods.
These neat machines look a bit like air purifiers or humidifiers.
They work by circulating hot, dry air around food at a temperature of about 150F. They are priced anywhere from a budget-priced Nesco that works better than you’d think for that price (I have owned one) to the very amazing (but very expensive) Excalibur that doubles as a yogurt incubator, bread proofer and much more.
Take the time to look at your options. The more expensive ones tend to have better fans and air circulation as well as stronger motors, meaning they dry more quickly and evenly. But a small, round one may be all you need.
* Speed – There’s no doubt that dehydrators speed up the process of drying food, sometimes significantly. Fast drying means bacteria have less time to grow, and it also means that foods tend to retain their color better.
* Space – A dehydrator takes up a lot less space than spreading foods all over screens or stringing them on thread and hanging them in garlands.
* Convenience – When drying food in a dehydrator, you don’t have to carry your food indoors at night and put it back out in the morning. You also don’t have to worry about leaving an oven on all day if you have to step out.
* Expense – Dehydrators can be expensive. Expect to pay anywhere from $40 to $400 for various models. Price really matters – although the cheaper ones will do the job, the more expensive ones will do it faster and dry the food more evenly.
* Energy use – Dehydrators don’t necessarily use a lot of energy, but they certainly do use more household electricity than air and sun drying. We can not run a dehydrator when we are at our off-grid cabin.
* Storage – You won’t be using your dehydrator every day, so storing it when you’re not using it (which is most of the time) can be a problem. They are large and bulky. Then again, when you are using it, your dehydrator can take up a lot of precious counter space.
* Saves space – Since you already have an oven in your kitchen, you don’t have to make space for another appliance, or for homemade drying racks.
* Relatively fast – Oven drying is not as fast as a dehydrator due to the lack of circulating air; but it’s generally faster than air drying.
* Energy use – Oven drying is probably the most energy-consumptive method. Even on a low temperature, it takes a decent amount of electricity to keep an oven warm constantly.
* Inconvenience – You can’t cook or bake anything else in the oven until the food is dry.
* Unpredictable – It is very difficult to keep an oven at the right temperature for even drying and I have burned far too many trays of food that were supposed to dry. Unfortunately scorched dried food usually can’t be saved.
Air and Sun Drying
* Free energy – You don’t have to concern yourself with using electricity – sun and air are free!
* Flavor – Some claim that air and sun drying produces the best flavor in produce, and infuses it with “natural energy” instead of electrical energy.
* Pests – Bugs, rodents, and pets can spoil your efforts.
* Weather – If the weather turns wet and you can’t get your food inside on time, your whole venture may be ruined.
As you look at this list, it seems like dehydrators do stand out as the most effective means of drying food. But if you can’t afford one or if you don’t have a place to store one, or if you are just working with a small amount of food to dry, the oven and the air and sun can still work. You can also check at yard sales this summer and see if anyone is selling a used dehydrator for cheap.
So if you’ve decided to use a dehydrator to ensure that your produce turns out well? (It’s a good choice). Read on to find out how to use it properly. (And if you aren’t using a dehyrator? Yes, there’s more information about that, too.)
Using a Dehydrator for Fruits and Vegetables
Imagine being able to snack on healthy berries, vegetables, etc. in the middle of winter when you need an immune-system boost.
If you’re getting into dehydrating produce, you probably have a dehydrator or are thinking of getting one – but you may not be sure just how to use it. Here are some tips and ideas for how to use a dehydrator for fruits and vegetables.
As you start your dehydrating ventures, it’s a good idea to set aside a whole day or chunk of time to get it done. Produce is best if it’s bought/harvested and put in the dehydrator on the same day.
Before you begin to dry a particular food or foods, there are some things you’ll need to get started. Here is a basic list of equipment you’ll need in addition to the dehydrator itself:
* Sharp knife
* Cutting board
* Sugar, salt, herbs, spices, and other flavor enhancers (optional)
* Air-tight containers – I have always used glass jars
Choose Your Fruits and Vegetables
As you get ready to use your dehydrator, it’s important to choose the right produce.
First, make sure it’s at the peak of ripeness and flavor – don’t be tempted to buy overripe or underripe foods just because they are on sale or you’ve overlooked some produce from your garden and it’s gotten too ripe.
I know it’s tempting. Just like when you’re are putting food up in jars, though, the quality that you start with will greatly influence the quality of the finished product.
Prepare the Produce
Wash your fruits and vegetables first unless you’re drying mushrooms. Mushrooms should just be wiped clean. Then cut and slice produce so that all pieces are about the same size and thickness (thinner slices are better).
For fruits that tend to turn brown as they dry, toss them with some lemon juice first. Vegetables should be blanched in boiling water for 3 to 5 minutes and then plunged into ice water. Pat them dry before putting them in the dehydrator.
At this stage, you can sprinkle produce with sugar, salt, herbs, or whatever you’d like. Apples might be enhanced by sprinkling them with cinnamon sugar, for instance, and green beans might be tastier if you sprinkle them with some salt and an herb like dill.
Loading the Dehydrator
Lay the fruit pieces in single layer on the trays. Make sure the pieces do not overlap, and that there is some space between the pieces.
Place the dehydrator somewhere that it won’t get in your way for the next day or so. It takes about 8-10 hours for foods to dry, and it may take longer. You can periodically check the produce – just remove a piece with tongs, let it cool, and see how moist it feels. Cut it in half – if it looks moist inside, it’s not done.
Cool and Store
Once the pieces are dry, turn the dehydrator off and allow the food to cool for about an hour. Then remove the trays and store the food in your airtight containers. Pack them loosely, and watch for condensation. If it appears, return the food to the dehydrator for a while.
Okay, so I’m clearly in favour of a dehydrator, but what if you have the climate to use the air and sun? Read more!
Use the Air and Sun to Dry Your Foods
People have been drying foods for centuries. Before refrigeration, drying was the primary means of preserving fruits, beans, and even meats. Drying herbs is a time-honored way to preserve these healthful plants, and drying garden produce in the attic is something early American settlers often did.
These days, one of the reasons people turn to drying foods is because it seems simpler – you don’t need the equipment and added ingredients that are necessary for canning, and even a dehydrator is optional. You can make use of nature’s basics – sunlight and air – to dry foods. Of course, while drying isn’t as involved as canning in terms of equipment, there are still some items you’ll need and some techniques to employ. Here are some tips on how to use the air and sun to dry your foods.
Sun and Shade
Some foods do fine in the sunlight – grapes and mushrooms, for instance – but others do not. Green beans, for example, lose their color if they are dried in the sun, but they do great in dry shade.
You’ll find that soft-fleshed fruits like peaches and pears tend to turn brown when dried, as do apples and bananas. One way to help prevent this is to toss fruit with lemon juice before drying, or dip it in a mix of lemon juice and water.
Here are some simple things you’ll need to dry your own foods using only the sun and air.
* Screens – You can use clean, old window screens or make your own with a simple wood frame and plastic screening stapled to the frame. (Plastic resists rust, but you can use metal screening as long as it does not contain lead.)
* Cloths and/or paper towels – You need these to cover the screens so that the food has a clean, dry surface on which to be placed, and you’ll need cloths or paper towels to cover the food lightly while it dries. Clean, thin cotton works well, as it allows air to circulate above and below the food.
* Upholstery thread and large needle – Some foods do really well when strung on thread and hung, garland-style, from your home’s eaves, in the attic, or other shady, dry places. Green beans do great with this method, as do mushrooms and apple rings.
* Oven – Even if you rely solely on the sun and air to dry your foods, putting them in a warm oven (about 175 degrees F) for half an hour after they dry is a good idea. This is to kill any insects and their eggs that may be lurking in the foods.
The basic air and sun method is to lay the food pieces on a cloth-covered screen, making sure they do not overlap and that there’s a little space between them, and covering it with another cloth. Then place it outside in an area where birds, pets, squirrels, other critters can’t get at them.
Leave the screens out during the day and bring them in at night.
String slices of apple, green beans, garlic cloves, tiny onions, etc. on upholstery thread and hang them in a dry, warm place such as an attic or outdoor shed. Once again, you’ll need to guard against pests and bring the “garlands” in at night.
Now you have the basics, the generalized guidelines, but what about the nitty gritty? Let’s have a step by step outline for drying fruits and vegetables.
How to Dry Foods Step by Step
Generalized articles and recipes are fine, but sometimes you really just need some basic information that breaks a process down into doable steps. It’s also helpful to learn more than one technique for drying foods. Here’s a how-to guide for drying foods step by step, focusing on fruits and vegetables. Read through these steps before embarking on your venture.
Obtain Your Produce
Your produce may come from your own garden, a friend/neighbor’s garden, a local farmers’ market, grocery store, etc. The main thing is that you have fresh produce that is at its peak. Even though you’ll be drying it, you don’t want shriveled, dried-up produce to start with. However, fruit that is somewhat overripe can still be dried if you use it to make fruit leather.
Look for fruits and vegetables that do not have soft or mushy spots, and avoid hard, green, underripe fruit as well. The food does not have to look perfect; it just needs to be ripe and free of decay.
Prepare Your Produce – Wash and Blanch
If possible, obtain your produce and dry it on the same day. Wash it well and pat it dry. Then, bring a large pot of water to a boil and fill a large bowl or pot with ice water. You will also need a slotted spoon or steamer basket to get the produce out of the water quickly. You are preparing to blanch your produce – dip it quickly in boiling water, and then plunge it in cold water to stop the cooking.
Sources recommend that you do not skip this step, because it will make all the difference in the quality and shelf life of your foods. This is because blanching kills bacteria that cause decay. The exceptions to the blanching rule are mushrooms, which should just be wiped clean, and bananas, which will soften too much in boiling water.
Blanch vegetables for 3-5 minutes and fruits for 2-3 minutes.
After blanching, place your produce on cookie sheets covered with several layers of paper towels, and then pat it dry.
Slice and Cut Food
Slice fruits like strawberries, bananas, pineapples and apples into thin slices. Cut corn kernels off the cob. Halve stone fruits and remove the stones (pits).
Place Food in Dehydrator (if you have one)
Place the food in the trays with space between the pieces with no overlaps. Turn the dehydrator to the setting recommended by the manufacturer.
OR Place Food on Cloth-Covered Screens or String with Thread
Using old window screens (as long as they are lead-free) is fine, and so is stapling screening to a plain wood frame. Cover with cloth, place food on the cloth (close together but not touching), and cover with another cloth. Place outside in a dry, shady area and bring in at night. Repeat for several days.
If you string your food on thread, as with green beans or whole, small mushrooms, you’ll need to hang it in a dry, shady area as well and bring it inside at night. Both methods can be done indoors in a dry attic, too.
Got it? This is not hard and I know you can do it. But WHAT food can you dry? It’s all well and good for me to say “fruits and vegetables”, but we all know that they’re not all the same.
What Foods Can You Dry?
Have you ever been faced with a garden full of produce you weren’t sure what to do with? Or maybe the grocery store or farmers’ market had a sale, and you wish you could take advantage of that much fresh food but you’re afraid it will go to waste. Maybe you’ve thought of canning, but it seems too complicated and time-consuming. (It’s not, but not everything can be canned.)
Drying foods is a viable way to preserve a great many foods, and many children of all ages enjoy snacking on dried fruits and vegetables even if they dislike them fresh. But not all foods work well for drying. Here are some tips and ideas on what foods you can dry, and what to expect in terms of look and texture (dried foods are not necessarily as “pretty” as canned foods!).
Did you know you can dry these? The best way is to steam them for about 5 minutes first, and then use a sturdy needle and upholstery thread to string them. Hang the strings outside in a shady area during the day (sun causes the beans to lose color), then bring them inside at night. Or hang them in an attic. They will get leathery after a few days, and can be used in soups. Before storing, heat the beans in a 175-degree oven for half an hour – this kills any insects and eggs that might be hiding in there, waiting to come out in storage.
Don’t wash mushrooms first. Just wipe them off. String them on thread like the beans, indoors or out, but mushrooms can be hung in the sun. They will become crisp and brittle after a few days, so if you prefer them leathery you should keep a close eye on them. They should also be heated before storage to kill insect eggs.
Italian or Roma tomatoes work best for drying due to their lower moisture content. Slice them lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and air-dry them. You can string them or lay them on several thicknesses of paper towel placed on a screen. Turn them as they dry if they are lying on the screen. They are fully dried when they are leathery and fairly pliable. As with all dried fruits, place tomatoes in the freezer to kill any bugs.
Make your own raisins! Breaking the skin first helps the drying process along. You can dry these in the sun if you wish, laying them on a paper towel-covered screen and covering them lightly with a cloth or paper towel. They should be ready in about 5 days, but they might dry before that. Freeze before storing.
Dried strawberries have a hard texture that makes them fun to suck on to soften them. You can also slice them first. Strawberries can be dried on screen trays like grapes.
Drying Your Own Herbs
Drying your own herbs is an economical, healthful, and flavorful way to preserve the herbal harvest, and it’s a very practical part of drying food. Whether you have tried it before and not been happy with the result, or whether you will be trying your hand at drying herbs for the first time, here are some success tips and suggestions.
What Herbs Work Best?
An herb, when used as food and/or medicine, consists of the leaves, flowers, and/or stems of a plant. Sometimes the root is considered an herb, too, as in the case of ginger and valerian.
Some herbs lend themselves to drying better than others. Chives, for example, tend to wither into brown threads when dried; other herbs retain their shape and color nicely. Here is a list of some of the herbs that do well with drying:
* Echinacea (flowers, stems, leaves, and roots)
* Lemon balm (stems and leaves)
* Catnip (stems and leaves – but watch out! Your cats will raid it while it’s drying if you don’t have it out of reach!)
* Mints (stems and leaves)
* Bee balm (stems and leaves)
* Dill (seeds and leaves)
* Stevia (leaves)
* Ginger (root)
* Sage (leaves)
* Basil (leaves)
When you go to harvest your herbs, the best time of day and method of harvest depends on several factors. For one thing, it depends on what part of the herb you’re harvesting; for another, it depends on the time of day and season. (If you’re purchasing herbs to dry, such as ginger at the grocery store, you can do that any time of day or year.)
When harvesting roots, it’s best to do so on the fall, sources say. If you are cutting the aerial parts (stems, flowers, and leaves), then it’s considered best to do that in the morning. Most herbs reach their peak somewhere in late spring, depending on where you live – herbs are best harvested at this key point, when the blooms have just opened or the foliage is at its best. You can still harvest herbs after blooming, but they may not be as flavorful and the stems might become woody (as in the case of stevia).
To dry the aerial parts of herbs, the best method is to hang them upside down. Cut the stems close to the ground with sharp clippers, then tie the bundle at the base of the stems with twine. Leave a loop when you tie, and hang this on an S-hook or other convenient area. Herbs dry best in shady, dry environments like open sheds, attics, or under house eaves. You can also dry them indoors.
For roots, slice them very thinly and place them in a dehydrator or on a drying rack/screen covered with cotton cloth or paper towels. Cover with another cloth or another layer of paper towels, and leave in the open air to dry. It should take a few days.
Dried roots and aerial parts should be stored in airtight containers.
Okay, so that’s herbs. What about spices, though? Can you and your amazing dehydrator do anything with those?
Make Your Own Dried Spices
Have you ever gone to the store to buy a particular spice and were shocked at the price? Spices can get expensive – especially if they are organic – and making your own is more economical. It also makes your house smell really good! So that you have mastered the art of drying food, you can start drying spices!
First, it’s a good idea to reiterate that spices are not necessarily the same as herbs.
Spices are usually made from seeds or fruits of plants, while generally speaking herbs are leaves, stems, or blooms. Roots cross over into both categories sometimes, as with ginger.
What Do You Need to Make Your Own Dried Spices?
There are some basic things you’ll need to be successful at making your own dried spices. You’ll need:
* Glass containers, such as used spice containers or vitamin bottles (washed of course)
* Grinder, such as a coffee grinder
* Rice – you’ll need to grind plain uncooked rice in the grinder periodically to clean it between spices (and if you want to use it for coffee again!).
* Ascorbic acid – you can find this at most health food stores in powder form. You might find it near the sprouting supplies; it’s usually not very expensive.
* Fresh spices for drying
What Kind of Seeds/Fruits/Roots Can I Use?
If you have access to them, there are all kinds of plant spices you can use. A popular first one to start with is ginger root. Here are some other suggestions:
* Citrus peel
* Hot peppers such as cayenne, seeds removed (you can save and dry the seeds for topping pizza and other foods)
* Celery seeds (celery can be grown in your garden)
* Mustard seeds (mustard is also easy to grow)
* Dill seeds (another garden favorite)
To dry these plant parts for grinding, slice onions, garlic and ginger very thinly and dry in a low oven or on a drying rack/screen. You can also use an electric dehydrator, of course. The seeds should also be dried in the air for a few days before grinding. For hot peppers, you’ll need to remove the seeds first (wear gloves!) and dry your peppers in low oven. You can also string peppers on thread to dry them before grinding.
Use your airtight containers and jars to store your spices, either whole or pre-ground. Some people prefer to keep spices whole until used to retain optimal flavor. You can also give these as gifts – people appreciate them, and they are affordable to give!
You have learned a LOT if you’re still with me. This is almost a course in dehydrating foods, isn’t it? So now that you’ve dried a whole bunch of foods, what are you going to DO with those jars of dried food?
Keep reading for a few recipes and ideas!
What You Can Do with Your Dried Food
Of course, one of the easiest ways to enjoy your dried foods is to eat them out of hand. They are convenient as take-along snacks when running errands or camping. But there are other creative ways you can use your dried foods that you worked so hard to preserve. Here are some ideas and recipes for what you can do with your dried foods.
Yogurt and Oatmeal Topping
Dried fruits like grapes, plums, and apricots make excellent toppings for plain or vanilla yogurt. You can chop them up small if you prefer, and maybe sprinkle some nuts on top. You can also stir them into oatmeal or any hot cereal.
Soups and Stews
Dried vegetables are great in soups and stews. Dried green beans, tomatoes, peas, corn, etc. can be added to simmering broth or water. The vegetables will absorb the liquid and plump up, so definitely use more liquid. For quicker cooking time, rehydrate the vegetables first by pouring boiling water over them and soaking them for several hours. Dump the rehydrated vegetables and their soaking liquid into the stewpot.
You can use dried veggies in Spanish rice. Here’s a very, very simple recipe.
4 cups cooked brown rice
1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil
1/3 cup chopped dried onion
1/3 cup chopped dried bell peppers
1/3 cup chopped dried tomatoes
2 fresh garlic cloves, minced
1 cup tomato juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients and bring to a boil; simmer for 10 minutes.
Rehydrate your dried vegetables and use them as pizza toppings (drained and patted dry first).
Pork and Apples
Rehydrate dried apple rings by soaking in boiling water for about an hour. Then, brown boneless pork chops in a skillet, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Place chops in baking dish, cover with rehydrated apple slices, and pour the apple soaking liquid around the pork chops. Bake at 350 F for 45 minutes to an hour.
Really – you can make your own instead of buying them at the grocery store.
And they’ll be much better and fresh – not to mention less expensive. Dried onions can be minced and sprinkled on rice, noodles, beans, and pretty much anything that needs an onion flavor. You don’t even have to rehydrate them first.
If you’ve never used dried onions, it’s easy to get started. Add a tablespoon or two to baked beans prior to baking, or sprinkle over a roast before you cook it. And if you want to make onion chip dip – dried onions are a must!
You can make a nice, simple cranberry sauce using dried cranberries. It’s a bit different than the Cranberry Fruit Sauce in A Cabin Full of Food. Try this recipe for 6 servings:
1 cup cranberry juice
3 ounces dried cranberries
Half a cinnamon stick
3/4 cup sugar
1 sweet apple, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon cornstarch
In a saucepan, simmer the cranberries in the juice, cinnamon, and sugar for 5 minutes. Stir in the apple pieces and continue to simmer, stirring, for 5 more minutes. Take about 1/2 a cup of the liquid from the saucepan and stir the cornstarch into it. Stir the cornstarch mixture back into the cranberries and simmer for another 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cool, and refrigerate. Goes well with turkey or pork roast!
So what do you think? Do you have a good idea now about what you need for dehydrating, what foods you can dry, how to go about drying food, and what you can do with the dried food when you’re done? I hope so!