Dehydrating Food at Home: How to Get Started
It’s easy to see why food preservation would have been critical to our ancestors’ survival. Being able to store food to eat later meant they were protected against unsuccessful hunts and less-than-fruitful gathering. Moreover, they could migrate into regions where access to fresh food varied by season.
Drying was probably one of the earliest methods of food preservation paleolithic humans discovered, no doubt quite by accident. There’s evidence that our ancestors were drying food to preserve it as early as 10,000 to 12,000 BCE. Along the way, they also learned how to ferment, smoke, and use ash, salt, fat, and even peat bogs to keep food from spoiling. Each of these methods works in its own way by discouraging the growth of microorganisms that cause food to go bad. In the case of dehydrating, microbes require water to proliferate. No water, no rotting.
As food preservation methods go, drying, or dehydrating, has several advantages. Dehydrated food is shelf-stable and lightweight, making it a space-efficient and energy-efficient option—no refrigeration required. It’s perfect for homesteaders, parents, hikers, and backpackers who want to make portable, healthy snacks and meals to reconstitute later.
For DIYers, dehydrating is a great way to get started with home-preserving. It’s simpler than canning or fermenting (although those are easy to learn, too, so don’t be intimidated). Here are the basics to help you get started.
Methods of Dehydrating Food
By far, the most foolproof way to dry food is with a countertop dehydrator. Dehydrators work by using a combination of low heat and air circulation to remove moisture. An inexpensive dehydrator only costs about 40 dollars (USD), but you can spend ten times that or more on a top-tier model.
If you don’t want to invest in yet another kitchen appliance, however, you have options:
- Sun is nature’s food dehydrator. This is what our ancestors used, after all. Sun drying works best in hot climates with low humidity. Food safety experts only recommend sun drying for fruit and herbs. Vegetables don’t have enough naturally occurring acid or sugar, both of which help resist molding and spoiling.
- A related method is air drying, which doesn’t involve direct sunlight. Think bundles of herbs or hot peppers hanging from the rafters to dry. This method also requires low humidity and good airflow. Air drying is the preferred method for some types of dried meat like biltong.
- Use your oven. This isn’t the best method because most ovens don’t have a low enough heat setting. The recommended temperature for dehydrating food is 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius), but a typical oven won’t go below 170 degrees. Ovens also don’t circulate air unless they have a convection setting. Still, you can make it work in a pinch, but you have to pay attention to avoid cooking your food instead of drying it.
Choosing a Food Dehydrator
Overall, food dehydrator appliances will deliver the most consistent results, and they’re suitable for all types of food. If you’re thinking about making your own snacks or backpacking meals, it’s worth picking one up.
Besides price, you’ll also want to consider size and materials. Many dehydrators use plastic trays, but you can pay more for stainless steel. Alternately, you can purchase inexpensive silicone mats or use parchment paper to prevent your food from touching the plastic trays if that’s something you care about.
You might also want to pay more for a model that offers different temperature settings. Although you can dehydrate pretty much anything at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, you may find you get better results with slightly cooler temperatures for herbs and vegetables and warmer temperatures for meat and seafood.
What Are the Best Foods to Dehydrate? Anything You Can’t Dehydrate?
You can dehydrate just about anything, but fruits, vegetables, herbs, and meat are the most common for home-drying. Legumes and grains are also dry-able, but that’s probably not a big selling point for Primal folks. Dried legumes are already readily available, anyway.
Foods that don’t dehydrate well are those that contain a lot of fat:
- Fatty meats
- Dairy products*
- Nut butters
- Olives (When you see dried olives, they’re usually salt-cured and/or preserved in oil, not just dried in the traditional sense.)
*For backpacking meals or stocking your pantry, purchase commercially dried and pasteurized milk, cream, buttermilk, butter, and cheese powders. Dairy-free folks can look for dried coconut milk powder instead.
Eggs can be dehydrated at home, but salmonella is a concern. Because egg powder is also readily available online or at camping supply stores, this is another one I recommend purchasing.
And did you know you can also dehydrate dairy-free, egg-free, low-fat sauces? Great news for those of you who can’t imagine backpacking without your favorite ketchup to put on your scrambled eggs! Make “ketchup leather” to throw in your pack, and you’re good to go.
Dehydrating Food How-tos
Where to Start: Dehydrating Basics
The whole point of drying is to discourage bacteria and mold, so make sure to start with clean food, utensils, and work surfaces.
Optionally peel fruits and vegetables, then remove any damaged or bruised spots. Slice produce and meat into thin, uniform slices no more than ¼-inch thick (about 6 mm), or dice produce small. Either way, keep the pieces as consistent as possible to ensure even drying.
Place food in a single layer on the dehydrator trays. While you can put more than one type of food into a dehydrator at one time, keep them separated so that you can take them out at different times depending on how quickly they dry.
Make sure you remove as much moisture as possible without cooking or overdrying the food. Be patient. Dehydrating takes anywhere from a few hours for something delicate like kale chips to 24 hours or more for jerky or dehydrated bone broth.
Once your food is fully dried, let it cool for about an hour, then transfer it to an appropriate container.
Below are tips for drying different types of foods. I recommend looking up instructions the first time you dehydrate something new to double-check technique and timing. Note that these guidelines assume that you’re going to be consuming your dried food within a matter of months. If you’re stocking up for the apocalypse, you’ll need to follow additional steps to prepare your food for longer-term storage.
How to Dehydrate Vegetables
Before drying vegetables, blanching is recommended to preserve flavor and texture. This involves briefly exposing the vegetables to hot water or steam to deactivate enzymes that lead to spoilage. This step is not necessary if you are starting with frozen vegetables, as they were blanched before freezing.
After blanching, dry the vegetables using a clean towel. Optionally season them at this time—if you’re making kale or zucchini chips, for example—but use a light hand since flavors get concentrated during dehydrating.
Table 2 here offers recommended times for blanching and dehydrating various types of vegetables. You’ll know your dried vegetables are ready when they become very crisp and you can easily snap them.
Make homemade greens powder: Dehydration is a fantastic way to use up spinach, kale, or chard, plus greens that might otherwise go to waste such as carrot tops, beet greens, and broccoli leaves. Thoroughly dehydrate and cool the greens, then blitz them in a blender or food processor. Store the powder in a jar and add it to smoothies, soups, and baked goods.
How to Make Dried Fruit
For best results, pretreat fruit with a quick dip in an ascorbic acid (vitamin C) solution. Pick up vitamin C capsules at any store and mix 1 teaspoon of ascorbic acid powder per 2 cups of water. (One teaspoon equals six 500mg capsules.) Soak fruit for 3 to 5 minutes, then drain, dry, and dehydrate. A similar method using a sulfite dip is recommended for long-term storage.
Fruit can take anywhere from 6 hours to 48 hours to dry depending on the size and type of fruit. You’ll know it is dry when it becomes tough and leathery. Dried fruit won’t become brittle like dried vegetables.
Dried fruit needs to be conditioned before storage. This extra step helps distribute any leftover moisture evenly between the pieces of fruit to deter molding. Place the cooled dried fruit into large glass containers, leaving some space at the top. Set the containers in a warm, dry place, and give them a shake once or twice per day to keep the fruit from sticking together. If you notice any condensation in the container, the fruit needs to be dehydrated further. After a week, it will be ready to store.
Make fruit leather: Blend your fruit(s) of choice into a puree with a squeeze of lemon juice to preserve the color. You’ll need solid plastic or silicone tray liners to dehydrate the puree. Pour the puree into a thin layer and spread it as evenly as possible. Dehydrate until you can touch the fruit leather without leaving a dent. It will still be sticky.
How to Make Dried Meat and Beef Jerky
Drying meat is a little finickier, so I definitely recommend following a recipe, but here are some things you need to know to get started:
- Start with lean cuts of meat and trim off as much visible fat as possible. Slice meat thinly.
- The USDA recommends precooking meat to 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71 degrees Celsius) before drying to reduce E. coli risk. For max flavor, marinate the meat before drying.
- For poultry or fish, it’s easiest to start with canned options, which are already precooked. Otherwise, cook thoroughly before drying.
- You can dehydrate cooked ground beef or turkey, but typically you’d add breadcrumbs to keep the meat from becoming too hard. A Primal-friendly option is to use gluten-free breadcrumbs.
- Dehydrate meats at 145 degrees Fahrenheit (63 degrees Celsius). Depending on the thickness and type of meat, this could take anywhere from 6 to 12 hours or longer.
In addition to the drying methods offered above, I’ve seen recipes for making jerky in an air fryer. I haven’t tried this myself, but I’m interested to know if it works. Leave a comment if you’ve tried it.
Herbs are quick and easy to dry in a dehydrator. They don’t require any special prep except a quick wash. Removing the leaves from the stems isn’t necessary, but you can if you want.
If your dehydrator has different settings, use a lower temperature for herbs, ideally between 95 and 125 degrees Fahrenheit (35 to 50 degrees Celsius). They’ll only take a few hours to dry.
Yes, You Can Dehydrate Bone Broth!
If you’re starting with homemade broth, cool it first and remove any excess fat from the top.
Place the broth in a saucepan and boil it down until it becomes the consistency of gravy. Transfer it to the dehydrator using silicone sheets, like when making fruit leather. Spread it into a thin, even layer, then dehydrate. Because you’re starting with something so wet, it can take two or three days, or even longer, to dry completely. Check it periodically to smooth out any thicker spots, and optionally flip it once it is solid enough to handle.
Once it’s fully dried and cooled, use a high-speed blender or food processor to grind it into the consistency of coarsely ground coffee, then store in a jar in the freezer.
How to Store Dehydrated Food
Once your food is dried and cooled, it’s time to store it. The name of the game is keeping air and moisture out. You can do that with food-safe silicone bags, mason jars, metal cans, vacuum sealers, and so on.
The National Center for Home Food Preservation states that dried foods should be used within four months to a year. I’m aware that many homesteaders and survivalists store theirs for years—sometimes a decade or more. That’s probably safe under ideal conditions (food is properly pretreated, dehydrated, and stored in airtight containers at cold or moderate temperatures). Researchers at BYU say, for example, that dried apples stored in airtight cans or foil pouches with an oxygen absorber can last 15 to 30 years.
Do your own research here, but whatever you do, don’t mess around with meat. The USDA states that homemade jerky is only good for one or two months. Commercially made jerkies stay fresh for up to a year, and canned meats will keep much longer.
To extend your dried food’s shelf life even more, stick it in the freezer. As with any frozen foods, make sure everything is tightly sealed in freezer-proof wrapping or containers, as trapped air leads to freezer burn.
For long-term storage, you can also purchase desiccant packs—you know, those little paper packets that come in your store-bought beef jerky and say “do not eat.” They are usually filled with non-toxic silica gel that absorbs some of the remaining moisture. Preppers and survivalists apparently store food in mylar bags with desiccants for many years with no issues. That’s beyond what we’re discussing today, but desiccants can be useful for extending your dried food’s shelf life even if you’re not stocking a bunker.
Just Try It!
Now that you know the basics, give it a try for yourself. The National Center for Home Food Preservation is a great resource for beginners. Start with one or two simple items like dried apple slices or kale chips. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll want to start preserving all that extra produce from your garden or CSA box.
Let us know in the comments what your favorite thing to dehydrate is. Favorite appliance? Any foods we simply must try dehydrating?
Dehydrating Food FAQs
Is dehydrated food as nutritious as fresh food?
Evidence suggests that, similar to freezing, dehydrating largely maintains the nutritional value of the original fresh food, with a few minor differences here and there. It may even improve the bioavailability of certain nutrients. Drying does concentrate any sugars, though, so pay attention if you’re counting calories or carbohydrates.
What are the best foods to dehydrate? Worst foods to dehydrate?
You can dehydrate most foods: fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, seafood, nuts, legumes, grains, and even things like bone broth, ketchup, and marinara sauce. Fatty foods aren’t suitable for drying at home because the fat will become rancid. These include fatty meats, avocado, nut butter, olives, and dairy products.
How does a dehydrator work?
Dehydrators work by using low heat and circulating air to remove moisture from food without cooking it. Moisture allows harmful microorganisms to grow and cause the food to spoil. Removing the moisture causes those microorganisms to go dormant so food stays fresher longer.
How long does dehydrated food last?
The answer depends on the type of food and storage method. Dehydrated fruits and vegetables will last from four months to a year, while homemade beef jerky should be eaten within a month or two. They all last much longer when you keep them in the freezer.
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