It’s an hour before dinner and you have no earthly idea what you are making for the family. Is there any macaroni and cheese? Nope. Spaghetti sauce? Nada. Canned beans? Yep, but no cheese or tortillas. Ever been there? You won’t have to be once you learn how to dehydrate food!
Imagine always having on hand the items you need for a recipe. I’m not talking frozen or canned foods, but those are definitely helpful. I’m talking stuff like nutritious fruit and veggies, even out of season, that you can pull from your shelves when you need them.
Or how about having your very own prepackaged “just add water” foods that can rescue you in your dinner hour of need? You definitely can achieve this with canning, but let me show you a way that you can preserve food with minimal effort and maximum returns. Let me show you how to dehydrate food.
Is It Difficult or Scary to Do?
Neither! Learning how to dehydrate food is easy, and once you get the hang of it, you’re on your way to more dinner choices! Just think–you can have on your shelves, your very own home-dried ingredients, spices, and even prepackaged foods!
It doesn’t take a whole lot of expensive equipment, and really, it doesn’t take a whole lot of time. Once you learn how to fit it into your daily life, you will be all set with a way to quickly and easily “put up” your garden harvests. Or, if great deals from the store are your jam, you can dehydrarate those!
With very little effort, and no tension (like some people have with canning safety), you will be able to pull together a healthy, nutritious meal from your food storage pantry! Before I share how to dehydrate, let me share why I think that it’s a great way for beginners to start preserving food.
- it’s easy to learn
- you probably already know how to prepare the food, for the most part
- it doesn’t have any dangers associated with it like other preservation methods, so it feels less intimidating
Like I mentioned before, dehydrating has most all the benefits and none of the tension that is involved with making sure that you are following all the rules exactly. For instance, with canning, there is a definite science to it , and it can really go wrong if we are not careful to use safe canning practices. With dehydrating, there isn’t a lot of science to mess up. This eliminates any fear, specifically that feeling of “am I going to poison my family?” that is often associated with canning. Also,
- dehydrated foods take up 1/3 of the space that same food would canned, frozen, or in its original form
- dehydrated food doesn’t take electricity to keep it preserved, like freezing does
- dehydrated food has the same shelf life as canned foods, without the long process
- once you get all the equipment, the only cost to you is the food
- it doesn’t take a lot of hands-on time like other home food preservation methods
By the time you have read this post, you will have a basic understanding of what you need, and how to get started with dehydrating food.
Supplies You Will Need
- A dehydrator. There are many choices for dehydrators, and the prices range from very inexpensive to uber expensive. I use a Nesco square dehydrator ( <~~~Click the link to see it). It is not hugely expensive, and it works very well for my needs. I like the square shape because it’s easier to store, fits more on each tray, and the shape is just easier to work with in general. All of my examples will be using this type of dehydrator, because it’s the one I have used and loved for years. If you are looking to really settle into dehydrating because you know you are in this for the long haul (vs. just trying it out to see if you like it), you can go for one of the more expensive Excalibur line of dehydrators. They come highly rated, and have plenty of accessories to make dehydrating easy.
- Tray liners or parchment paper. Either of these items are awesome to have, especially when the item being dehydrated is sticky (like fruit), or will stain the trays (like tomatoes). Tray liners (pictured below) are inexpensive and reusable, and are quite durable. If you don’t have them handy, however, you can use parchment paper to line your trays. Just remember to cut a hole in the center to allow air flow if your trays are that type (no need with the Excalibur).
- Instructions for whatever you are dehydrating, like a book or printed instructions from a reputable source on the internet like National Center for Home Food Preservation, Ball Blue Book, or Shelle Wells’ Prepper’s Dehydrator Handbook. I like all of these sources, and they are all sources of safe and complete information for dehydrating food.
- Citric acid for pretreating certain foods. This will prevent discoloration from oxidization of your foods when you are dehydrating foods that are prone to this issue, like apples, bananas, peaches, pears, and potatoes. You can use lemon juice, or a product like Ball Fruit-Fresh Produce Protector.
- Something to store your dried food in. Some people use mylar bags for storing dehydrated food, but they can be pricey and are more fitting for long-term storage. I like to use mason jars in half-pint size if I have them available on the shelf. Since dehydrated food only takes up 1/3 of the space that hydrated foods require, this is a good size for long term storage. Using this size ensures that I will be able to use up the food more quickly, preventing spoilage. Don’t worry, though–if you only have pint jars available, those work too. They will simply just take up more space on the shelf. (This is where a Foodsaver really comes in handy–see the “optional” list below.)
Click over to take a look at these items. I use all of these things and highly recommend each one, save for the Excalibur. I don’t have one, but they do get rave reviews!
- Extra trays. In order to get good air flow in a stackable dehydrator like the Nesco that I use, it’s best to use 5 trays minimum, even if you don’t fill all the trays. The Nesco comes with 4, which is fine, but there are times when I need more than those 4 trays. Also, if I don’t fill them up completely, I still like to alternate the stack of trays with empty, then filled, then empty, and so on if I am not filling all 5 trays.
- Oxygen absorbers. These are definitely optional, but they are a great thing to have if you are dehydrating large amounts of the same type of food that won’t be eaten within a few months. Best when used inside of a well-sealed container where oxygen cannot penetrate. I usually use one 100cc oxygen absorber per pint or half-pint mason jar (though for the half-pint, you could probably use an absorber with fewer CCs).
- A Foodsaver system with mason jar lid sealer set. A Foodsaver system, if you aren’t familiar, is a vacuum sealing system which allows you to remove air when packaging food, which causes fewer instances of spoilage. It is typically used when freezing food, but with the mason jar lid sealer attachment, air can be removed from your jars. Add an oxygen absorber to remove any oxygen left in the jar.
- Cute labels for your jar lids, or for outside your packaging.
- Recordkeeping printables, like a pantry inventory sheets.
I have a kit with both the labels and printables available as part of an awesome dehydrating package deal at the end of this post, so hang out if you are interested in those. In the mean time, you can click on any or all of the below products to see some of the other items that I use regularly in my dehydrating.
How to Dehydrate Food
Some of this information was adapted from Shelle Wells’ Prepper’s Dehydrator Handbook, which I highly recommend, and is my go-to handbook for dehydrating food.
Clean and Prepare the Food
Organic foods: wash and dry. Cut according to the instructions for each individual item you are drying.
Non-organic foods: If you can’t afford organic food, don’t worry. I can’t always either, and if I don’t grow it or find an awesome deal, my choice usually not organic if my budget doesn’t permit that week. So if you are like me, you will want to treat non-organic foods differently than organic because of the pesticide load. Here’s how to do that:
- Fill up a clean sink basin with hot water.
- Add 1/2 cup baking soda and a squirt of dish soap (I use Seventh Generation).
- Soak veggies or fruit for 20 minutes.
- Scrub fruits or veggies that have a thicker skin with a vegetable scrub brush. Fruits and veggies with a thin (easily damaged) skin can be swished around in a clean sink full of cool water. Drain fruits and veggies well, pat dry if needed (I like to use flour sack towels for this–no transfer of fibers to my food).
- Cut like foods into uniform pieces so they dry evenly.
Pretreating Your Food
Some foods will need to be blanched or pretreated before they are dehydrated. These are foods that will oxidize (become discolored when exposed to oxygen after being cut). You will choose blanching or pretreating based on the type of fruit or vegetable you are working with.
Blanching is when you heat in steam or water for a specific time, then cool the food quickly. Because nutrients are preserved better with steam blanching, you may want to choose to steam your food. I’ll give instructions on water blanching, since that’s the method I normally use; however, the two methods can be used interchangeably.
Some of the foods that will need to be blanched are asparagus, green or wax beans, carrots, peas, sweet and white potatoes, pumpkin, turnips, and rutabagas.
Water blanching is pretty easy to do, it only requires a stock pot, water, a stove, a slotted spoon, and a bowl of ice water. Here are your instructions:
- Fill a soup or stock pot up about halfway with water. Bring to a boil.
- Add some veggies, probably just enough to form an even layer on the top of the water. The amount of time you allow the veggies to boil is relative to the food you are dehydrating, so you’ll want to follow specific directions for whatever food your are working with.
- Fill a large bowl with ice water.
- After the correct amount of time, remove food with a slotted spoon and allow the food to cool.
- Once cool, drain the food and allow it to dry on some paper towels, or even flour sack towels until dry. Pat dry if the food isn’t the kind that is prone to be crushed easily.
- Load onto dehydrator trays.
Dipping is when you dip your food in citric or lemon juice to stop the oxidization process, which causes nutrient loss and discolored fruit. Some of the fruits that will benefit from this type of pretreatment are apples, bananas, pears, and lighter-colored stone fruits like apricots, nectarines, and peaches.
Dipping is also easy to do. To pretreat this way, you will need citric acid or lemon juice, a large bowl or clean sink basin, and a slotted spoon. Here are the instructions:
- Mix your pretreating solution in a large bowl. If using citric acid, follow the instructions on the container. If using lemon juice, use 1 cup juice to 1 quart of water. Mix enough to use for your whole load of fruit.
- Soak your food for no longer than 10 minutes if using lemon juice. Follow soaking directions on container if using the citric acid.
- Remove with a slotted spoon and allow to drain.
- Dry with a paper towel or flour sack towel.
- Fill trays for dehydrating.
Dehydrating Your Food
Most fruits and vegetables will be dried at 135 degrees, but for best results, it’s best to figure out the exact temperature for each food. If you have the Nesco square dehydrator like mine, there is actually a general guide right at the temperature knob.
Since each food is handled a bit differently, it is best to have a dehydrating cookbook at the ready along with the rest of your supplies. However, there are some instructions that are pretty much the same across the board.
- All foods that you will be dehydrating will need to be arranged in a single layer on the trays.
- Vegetables and other items that are not sticky can touch each other on the tray, but sticky foods, such as fruit, should not touch.
- “Runny” or sticky items work best laid out on a piece of parchment paper so that they don’t drip on food trays below (if you are dehydrating more than one type of food), or stick to the trays (which can be very hard to clean).
- Use 5 trays for ample circulation in the dehydrator, even if you don’t use them all.
- Check on items about halfway through the dehydrating time until you get the hang of how your dehydrator behaves “on the job”.
- As a general rule, vegetables are done when they are brittle, and fruits are done when you can’t squeeze any juice out of them (they don’t need to be brittle). More specific information on doneness may be needed, which you can get from one of the books I’ve recommended above.
Rehydrating Your Fruits and Veggies
Dehydrated foods can be rehydrated and used as fresh inside of casseroles, salads, and other prepared dishes. Foods can be rehydrated before cooking, or as part of the cooking process of soups or baked goods. Each fruit and vegetable has different guidelines on how to rehydrate, but there is a basic method to it.
- Fruits: add just enough boiling water to cover, wait 10 minutes, drain, and serve or use in a recipe immediately.
- Vegetables: Add an equal amount of boiling water to vegetables. Because rehydrating time varies depending upon the size and thickness of the vegetables, plan 15 minutes to 3 hours for reconstituting. Use immediately in your dishes.