Drying food may seem complicated or unsafe to those unfamiliar with dehydrators. But compared to canning or freezing, drying food is simpler. There’s no hot water or extensive preparation, and very little space is needed since dehydrators are compact, with produce set on closely spaced shelves. Dried and bagged produce does not need to be stored in a freezer, which saves electricity and valuable freezer space, and keeps just about forever!
And food dehydrators are also great for urban dwellers, who can buy cases of ripe fruit in the fall at farmer’s markets and preserve the fruit through winter. Instead of buying expensive dried plums, for example, a case of ripe plums is cheap, especially at the end of the day from fruit vendors. Split the plums and set them in a dehydrator, which takes up about the same space as a microwave, and you’ll have a good supply for your own treats or to give as winter gifts.
The 3 Basic Ways to Dry Food:
The key to food drying is to have good air circulation and to do it quickly. Any of these basic drying methods will be effective, but some are more convenient to use, faster to process and can be used indoors.
Warm, dry days in summer and fall are ideal for sun drying, since sun drying is done outdoors. You can set your fruit halves or slices out in the sun directly on screens or on drying trays in an area protected from insects and moisture. If there is any dew, take the trays indoors at night, or set them in an area that has a covering to protect them from the dew – such as an open greenhouse or covered porch. To protect the drying trays from insects, cover your tray unit with remay or cotton netting. If your dryer has racks, cover the opening in front with any screening material.
Avoid placing a sun dryer in any area where air pollution could taint your drying fruit or produce. The ideal temperature for sun drying is between 85 – 100 degrees. Rotate the shelves in a dryer unit so things dry evenly. You may want to turn thicker items like split plums occasionally so both sides have similar drying conditions. I used my green house last year to dry plums – screening the door and windows, turning the plums every day or so – for about 5 days. They lasted all winter and were delicious!
If you plan to do a lot of drying, electric dehydrators are a good investment. Gardeners can make the most of their harvest since many items such as fruit, beans and tomatoes ripen all at once and it can be difficult to process them without much waste. Electric dehydrators come with built-in fans which speed the drying process. Some models are equipped with timers which help make multiple batches more consistent. Most electric dehydrators are compact sized, with varying number of shelves for capacity needs.
When choosing an electric food dehydrator, look for low-wattage units with a good thermostat and low noise fan. Locate the dehydrator in a room which you can let get warm, since these units release into the room as they operate.
The most popular electric dehydrator is the Excalibur, available in both a 5 and 9 tray size. Excalibur Dehydrators differ from other dehydrators because the fan is mounted in the rear of the unit instead of the base like other models. This allows the heat to move horizontally across the trays, making tray rotation unnecessary. The basic model Excalibur is made of polycarbonate plastic, and the shelves are made of the same material. Excalibur also has a 156-page, illustrated book, Preserve It Naturally II: The Complete Guide to Food Dehydrating, which contains many unique recipes.
If you want to avoid plastics, Excalibur makes 5 & 9 tray stainless steel units. These are also available with timers and a choice of cabinet finish. A friend who just dried both cherries and kale said she was very pleased with the results. It was very quiet but hot, so they moved it to a room where they didn’t mind about the extra heat it let off. They dried halved cherries in 24 hours and the kale for 8 hours. She is excited to try more. Her final note to me was, “The whole process and the quality of the dryer has us feeling confident about the food we are putting into our bodies.”
Oven drying can be an effective method for small amounts of food drying – but mostly in the later cooler temperatures of fall. The challenge is maintaining an even low temperature – maximum 150 degrees, so the food doesn’t cook. Put an oven thermometer where your top tray is so that you can monitor the temperature and keep the door open. Rotate the racks for even drying. You can also dry fruit, such as apples and later fruit crops, over a wood stove on a hanging tray. This works well, as long as you keep the insects off and turn the fruit at least twice a day.
Tips for Successful Food Dehydrating
- Harvest the fruit at peak flavor – i.e. at perfect ripeness.
- Wash and peel if needed. Cut pieces into quarters, or slice about 1/4” thick. Spread your fruit in a single layer on the trays, allowing room for circulation.
- The higher the temperature (up to 100-120 degrees for fruit) the faster it dries, but avoid cooking it!
- Turn drying fruit 1-3 times daily – more often speeds the process up. Move the trays around – top to bottom for enclosed units as they dry, and move the fruit on the outer edges to the inside area, as the pieces on the outside dry first.
- The fruit is dry enough when it becomes leathery or brittle.
- You can pre-treat fruit to prevent discoloration if you like by dipping it in ascorbic acid (crushed vitamin C tablets) for 5 minutes. This is usually not needed for darker fruits, such as cherries or plums.
Once you’ve experienced your first batch of dried fruit or vegetables, you imagination will awaken to the many possibilities available through this food preservation technique. Dried cherries, apricots, pineapples, pears and plums are favored winter treats and special ingredients for all kinds of holiday fare. And dried vegetables are easy to store and perfect for adding to soups and stews, in crockpot cooking or just for snacking.