Dehydrating Methods

Introduction

Using Your Oven

If you have an oven (and who doesn’t?), you have a tool you can use to dry foods.

It isn’t the best choice when it comes to drying, but it’ll work in a pinch. The upside to using this method is it’s one of the fastest methods of drying food. The downside is you can easily burn or scorch the food you’re drying because it’s difficult to keep the heat as low as you need it.

You can only dry small amounts of food in a normal kitchen oven. If you’re planning on drying large amounts of food, buy a dehydrator and save yourself a lot of work.

You need to keep your oven temperature somewhere between 140 and 160 degrees F. To check oven temps, place an oven thermometer on the top rack and leave it there so you can monitor it. The temperature needs to be checked every 15 minutes to make sure it isn’t getting too hot.

Place the food in a single layer on the drying trays. You can usually fit a couple pounds of food on each tray. Since most ovens have two racks, you’re only going to be able to dry around 4 pounds of food at a time.

Here’s a little trick you can use to fit more food in the oven: Place a couple 1 1/2-inch tall wood blocks on the bottom tray and set the next drying tray on the blocks. Then add a couple more blocks to the second tray and place another tray on it. You can fit up to four racks in your oven using this method, which will effectively double the amount of food you’re able to dry at once. Since you’re not heating the oven up too hot, you don’t have to worry about scorching or burning the wood.

You need to prop the door open so there’s a gap of 2 to 6 inches during the drying process. If you have a fan, set it up so it’s blowing air into the oven through this gap. You need to keep the air inside moving so the oven doesn’t fill full of humid air.

Set Your Oven at Its Lowest Temperature

If you have a gas oven, you may be able to get away with just using the heat from the pilot light. Monitor the temperature to ensure it stays above 140 degrees F and below 160 degrees F.

The top rack is going to be a little cooler than the bottom rack. Additionally, the air isn’t going to be the same temperature in the front of the oven as it is in the back, especially if you’re using a fan to circulate air. For this reason, it’s important to rotate the trays every 20 to 30 minutes. Rotate the top trays to the bottom and flip the trays around so the food that was in the front is now in the back. You’re also going to want to periodically flip your food over or stir it on the tray because the side of the food that’s facing down will dry at a slower rate than the side that’s facing up.

The process used to dry foods in a toaster oven is same as with a conventional oven. Place the food on a tray and put it in your toaster oven. Set the oven on its lowest setting and prop open the door. If you have a fan, use it to circulate new air into the oven.

Since this sort of oven is smaller than a conventional oven, it’s going to dehydrate the food you’re drying faster than the larger oven. Make sure you watch it closely and soon you’ll have a small batch of dried foods.

Here’s a quick tip you won’t see in too many other books about drying: Open the door of your oven every few hours to let out all the damp air trapped inside. Sure, it will cause the temperature to drop inside, but it will let all the moist air inside escape, replacing it with dry air. The hit you take in temperature is temporary and it’s worth it to fill the oven with fresh air.

If you only dry occasionally, your oven will do the trick nicely. You may learn about pickling and vinegars.

Sun-Drying

A Sun-drying food is the oldest method used to dehydrate foods, predating ovens by thousands of years. This method is all-natural and doesn’t require use of electricity or gas (to preserve the food or store it).

All you need is a nice, sunny day or two (or 5) in a row and you can use the power of the sun to dry your food.

In warmer climates, you can dry food using this method year-round. In cooler places or in areas where there’s typically a lot of cloud cover, there may only be a handful of days a year this method can be used.

You need dry, clear weather with temperatures of at least 90 to 100 degrees F to sun-dry food.

If you live in an area where it’s typically cloudy or there’s a lot of moisture in the air, you’re probably better off using one of the other methods of dehydrating. It’s OK to move foods you’ve started sun-drying in and finishing the process in the oven or a dehydrator if it looks like inclement weather is on its way.

To sun-dry your foods, spread a layer out on a wood frame covered in cheesecloth. If you’re worried about bugs or other animals getting to your food, you can place a layer of cheesecloth over the top of your food as well. Turn your foods regularly to assure even drying or the side left exposed to the sun will dry at a faster clip.

Alternatively, you can run a piece of string through your food items and hang them out to dry. Items like meat can be hung from hooks.

Spread food out in a single layer with at least a couple millimeters space between each piece so air can flow around it. Set the tray out in an area that gets sun for most of the day and has good circulation. Now, all you have to do is leave it there until the food is dry.

Leave the food out during the heat of the day, and then move it inside during the evening and night hours.

This accomplishes two things. It prevents the food from rehydrating due to condensation and it keeps the critters away. Animals enjoy dehydrated foods as much as you do and have been known to raid backyards at night. You don’t want all of your hard work to be wasted at the hands of a marauding deer or raccoon.

Flip the food partway through each day. The bottom side gets less air and sun and will lose less moisture. Flip the food you’re cooking over regularly so both side get equal amounts of sun.

There’s no set time you need to leave food out to dry. All times shown in books and on the Internet are approximations of what it takes under “normal” conditions.

What exactly constitutes normal conditions is anyone’s guess. What’s normal in one place would be out of the ordinary somewhere else. That’s probably why there’s such variation in the dry times in different literature. I’ve tried to provide ranges in this book, but even the ranges can be off. The only way to make sure you dry your food correctly is to keep a close eye on it. When it gets close to the bottom end of the range, check it periodically.

The drying time varies based on the heat applied to the food, the humidity and the circulation of air in the area you’re doing the drying. The hotter it is the faster food is going to lose moisture. The more humidity there is the slower moisture is going to be absorbed.

If you live in an area with a lot of vehicle traffic or high pollution levels, you shouldn’t air-dry your food outside. Pollution particles can land on your food and contaminate it. Over time, the particulates you’re eating can build up in your system and make you sick.

Dehydrating Equipment

Glass jars with preserved vegetables on wooden shelf

Dehydration is mostly about prep work, so having the appropriate tools will make your job easier. Make sure you have the following tools on hand.

  • Baking sheet: If you don’t already have one, a good-quality baking sheet that disperses heat properly and doesn’t buckle under high heat is a great addition to your kitchen. Use it for roasting vegetables and fish.
  • Blender: Blenders are great for making purées for sauces, soups, and fruit leather. A food processor or immersion blender also works for this purpose.
  • Four-cup measuring pitcher: These pitchers are good for measuring liquids and for measuring the yield of dehydrated foods (if you don’t have a kitchen scale).
  • Kitchen knife: Aside from the dehydrator itself, a kitchen knife is the most important tool for dehydrating. A good knife will make your prep work much easier. Perhaps you already have a favorite knife one that keeps a good edge, has a straight blade, and is comfortable to hold for extended periods. Good knives don’t need to be expensive. In our kitchen we use the same knives many culinary schools offer; they are inexpensive but great tools for the job.
  • Kitchen scale: An inexpensive digital scale is very useful for measuring ingredients with precision and is also helpful for measuring and portioning the completed and dehydrated meals.
  • Parchment paper: Line baking sheets with parchment paper to prevent food from sticking to the pan. It also makes for easy cleanup.

Dehydrating has the potential to be a great solution for many people who are trying to find a cheaper and healthier way to eat, store, and preserve their foods. After the initial investment that comes in the form of buying Dehaydrating supplies, canning your own food in the comfort of your kitchen can be a rewarding – and economic – experience. For beginners who are just trying to figure out whether they’d like to take Dehaydrating up as for the long-term, you do not have to go all out and buy all the supplies. There are many alternatives to the standard Dehaydrating supplies that you can purchase – they tend to be cheaper and just as effective as the original canning supplies.

You do need to know, though, that there are different methods for different foods. Some methods involve boiling water; other methods involve pressure cookers and other tools. With every method, there are different sets of supplies needed. If you are a beginner, you will struggle with finding the appropriate tools and selecting the right methods for canning and preserving your foods. Find out more about fermented foods.

When food comes out of the dehydrator, it looks vastly different from its original state. Hummus and soups can look as cracked and parched as a desert floor. Food can come off the trays in thin sheets, which you can break into smaller pieces. Properly dried pieces of fruit bend but don’t break, and they do not feel moist when you squeeze them. Other foods—vegetables, grains, and legumes—should be hard and dry.

It is possible to burn food in a dehydrator, so pay attention to both the temperature and timing recommendations given in the recipes. Also, when you’re learning how to dehydrate food, be sure to check the food every few hours. You may need to rotate the trays to ensure that the food dries evenly, and if you find that part of your recipe is dry before the rest, remove that part and store it while the rest of the recipe continues to dry. There is often one ingredient in each recipe that takes longer to dry than the rest, and that ingredient will be called out in the recipe as the barometer for when the food is dry. In the Red Curry Vegetable Stir-Fry , for example, that ingredient is the red bell pepper, which has a very high-water content.

Storing dried food is a crucial step to ensure the most extended shelf life. If not stored well, moisture, heat and oxygen decreases the shelf life and turn them bad sooner than expected. Store you dehydrated bounties in a cool and dry place, or in zip lock bags in the freezer to ensure longer shelf life. You can increase it by vacuum sealing the bags and then store them in the freezer.

Assorted pickled vegetables in jars with kitchen tools

The moral of the book is that before you get too enthusiastic about dehydrating batches upon batches of dried foods and pilling your pantry up with all your favourite foods, you need to look and practice all the rules of dehydration and have an idea for the space you have for storing; it will be of no use if you are drying more than the available space unless you intend to sell or gift them.

Remember, different foods have different timings and pre-treatments, so you must follow each step accordingly. Thoroughly drying the food is the key to successful dehydration. The presence of liquid in the dehydrated food turn it fetid and prone to many harmful bacteria such as E. coli. Also, selecting the best quality food ensures a healthy and perfect dried food. Always prefer farmer’s market for selecting fruits and vegetables as they provide the freshest food.

When you start to head off with your creative ideas for dehydration, try to limit it to one or two new ingredients. Occasionally what appears to be a great idea, can muddle the flavours or emphasise the taste of the original fruit, vegetable or meat. Limiting the ingredients to one or two possible suspects will enable you to distinguish the culprit quickly.

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