Yay summer! And you know what that means, it’s time to start preserving! Well, that or just making yummy snacks out of some produce for your summer camping trips. 😉
Dehydrating is the second easiest and handiest method of food preservation, right after your freezer. It gets this rating because it requires only one piece of equipment, which would be whatever you are using to dehydrate your food with. And why wouldn’t you want to? You can dry fruit for your own home-made muesli or trail mix, dessicate onions and garlic for powders, make your own beef jerky, or just astound your kid by proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that yes, raisins really were once grapes. And then you get to know that you used good, organic fruit and no sulphates in preserving, yes?
There are levels of commitment to home dehydrating which you should allow to dictate the kind of equipment you buy:
- You’re undecided about investing in a dehydrator and are really just after a cheap and easy source of banana chips. You can put your oven to work (if you can control your oven at really low temperatures, 90-150F).
- You’re a gadget person with a middling amount of enthusiasm for the project. There are reasonably priced dehydrators ranging from about $50 to $500. If you just want to play around and see how it feels to own a dehydrator, $50 isn’t an unreasonable price for a gadget that will get low use. Buyer beware, however, that some of the cheaper models can make your stuff taste like it’s been blow-dried to death, and the real cheapo ones have no fine temperature control.
- You could teach ancient cave men a thing or two about preserving. You’ve repurposed a fridge as a solar dehydrator and have herbs hanging from your kitchen fixtures. You don’t need any help from me.
Since you’re reading this article, you’re new to the game, and as such, are working with your oven or your $50 dehydrator with a fruit-rollup tray from Bass Pro. Or at least, aspiring to.
What other equipment do you need? A sharp knife, a cutting board, and some bleach. Yup, that’s it. A blender too, if you want to make rollups, and boiling water if you need to blanch vegetables or perforate fruit skins on some fruits like cherries. Equipment that you don’t need, but will help speed up things a lot: A good mandolin slicer, a coring tool, and a melon baller.
Now for the guidelines:
- Sanitation can save your life, and your wallet. When you practice any form of preservation other than freezing, your kitchen is your operating theater. That means sterilize your equipment with a bit of bleach and water. Wash your hands. Ok, it’s maybe not quite as life and death with dehydrating as it is with, say, lactofermentation or canning. But nobody enjoys food poisoning, and you can bet your bippy that, best case scenario, long-term storage will be severely hampered if you’re sloppy about cleanliness. That’s just wasteful of your time and money.
- RTFM. If you’re using a dehydrator, read and pay attention to manufacturers’ guidelines.
- There are no absolutes. If you’re looking for a guide that says: tomatoes take x long to dry at this temperature, you won’t find it. There’s dozens of variables that can affect the outcome of the final product and how long it takes to make it. Product quality, type and size, ambient humidity, pretreatment, and temperature will all weigh in on the making of your dried goods. Be prepared to work with a time range, test occasionally, and be patient.
- Quality in = Quality out. No bad-quality produce to my knowledge has ever been improved by dehydrating. Make sure you use good quality, clean, undamaged fruits and vegetables.
- Uniformity helps. Yeah I know cutting 20 apples into 1/2″ cubes gets a little tiresome after a while. But if that’s the way you started, you’d be better off sticking to it. It’ll keep your end product more consistent and make it easier to dry the batch.
- Pretreating with blanching, marinating, salting, or even sweetening can inhibit bacteria and enhance flavour naturally. It’s not always required, especially if you’re just going to eat things right away, but do a little research and experimentation. The obvious exception to this rule would be jerky: do not attempt to preserve meat without a preservative agent like salt.
- Don’t add to a partially dried load. I think this speaks for itself.
- Cure it. Cool everything until cool to the touch before you pack it. Newly dehydrated products also benefit from a curing process – place the foods loosely in one of those mason jars you’ve been putting aside in a cool, dark place in your pantry, and shake them up once a day for a week or 10 days. This helps balance the moisture level between slightly irregular pieces. If any condensation occurs inside the jar, the food isn’t fully dehydrated.
- Be prepared to store it. At the very least, you need airtight containers to keep your dehydrated food in. Good practices involve putting a date on your goods, and even a remark on the size cut and length of time it took to dry. This will help you in future dehydration projects if some things turned out especially well.