So many reasons to dry foods for preparedness!
Saves money, food takes up less space for storage at home or in a 72 hour pack, is convenient to use for camping or just taking on trips or even to work or school, does not take a lot of equipment, uses up leftovers, does not require power like a freezer so it makes sense for preparedness, you can tailor your foods to accommodate special dietary needs, and it’s FUN! It is also a good idea to have food stored in different ways. There is a place for canning, freezing, pickling and dehydrating. You will want to preserve your food in a variety of ways.
We are going to talk about 1) different dehydrators and their various features in order for you to find out which dehydrator may work out best for you. 2) a little bit about the dehydrating process, 3) how to make sure that your dehydrated food is safe to eat, 4) and how to store your dehydrated food.
Let’s look at some dehydrators first. Dehydrators come in a variety of types and price ranges. The less expensive dehydrators are usually round with stacking trays. Simple ones have just a heating element in the bottom and depend on heat rising to dry the food on the racks which are stacked. It is important to rotate these racks to dry the food evenly. Other inexpensive dehydrators have a heater and a fan. Food is placed on the racks and the warm air is circulated through the racks. Some instructions state that rotating racks is not necessary, however, it is probably still a good idea to maintain even drying. Some dehydrators have optional liners or solid sheets that fit over the trays to hold semi-liquid foods or very soft foods that would otherwise fall through the openings in the trays. These are necessary to make fruit leathers or to dehydrate some camping meals like spaghetti with a sauce. Some dehydrators have a thermostat to regulate the temperature. The more expensive dehydrators may be in a box shape with drawers to hold the food. Some dehydrators, especially the box style, have the heater and the fan at the back of the box. This arrangement allows the air to move evenly across the trays, and if food or juices drip onto the bottom they are easily cleaned up. Dehydrators can also be made at home to suit your particular needs. There are many videos and instructions available on the internet if you want to build your own. These can be simple and made out of a box, or they can be large enough to walk into!
I have asked a few sisters to bring their dehydrators and point out the various features and tell what they like and maybe what they do not like about their dehydrators.
( in the order they are arranged) THANK YOU! Always be sure to follow the instructions in your own dehydrator!
Foods can also be dried using an oven. This can be tricky as most ovens now cannot be set to low temperatures, and they cycle off and on, and it is necessary to strike a balance between heat from the oven, and having the oven door open enough to allow moisture to escape. This will take some experimenting as all ovens are different.
Some sun ovens can be used for dehydrating. Read your owner’s manual for ideas on your sun oven, or if you have made your own, you will want to experiment a bit. Again, there will be the balance between heat and allowing moisture to escape. An oven thermometer will be helpful no matter which method you use. A sun dehydrator can be made with a box and a piece of glass. Again, search the internet or watch some videos and see what will work for you. I always recommend watching all the videos you can find, and reading all the articles you can before trying something. This way you will learn that there are many ways to do something and you can pick and choose what will work for you.
Finally, there is the no dehydrator way! If we are lucky enough to have a warm sunny day with low humidity, you can simply dry food outdoors. Put parchment paper or plastic wrap or cooling racks on cookie sheets and place food in the sun. it is important to keep insects away from your food as it dries, so plan to cover the food and protect it on all sides using cheesecloth, or nylon netting or screening. Again, do some research and experiment to see what works for you. Use things you have on hand. When we lived in southern California I used to make fruit leather. If it did not finish drying in one day, I put it in the garage overnight and finished it the next day. The humidity is much higher here in North Carolina so you will need to choose the best days to dehydrate foods or make leather outside.
OK, let’s talk about the process itself. As with any food preparation, it is important to have your kitchen and equipment clean and to have all of the things you will need ready. It is also important to follow instructions for each food just as you would for any cooking or preserving process. Some foods are easier to dehydrate than others. Some can just be washed, sliced thin and put into the dehydrator. Strawberries are a good example of that. Apples, however, need an extra step. You will want to drop your apple slices into water to which lemon juice has been added in order to keep the apples from turning brown. Vegetables often need a blanching step before dehydrating, and meat may need to be cooked to an internal temperature of 160, then cooled before putting into the dehydrator.
- Do your prep work for the amount of food that will fit into your dehydrator. Don’t put some food in and then add more later. Put it all in at the same time. It is ok to put different foods in at the same time, but you will not want to put strong flavored foods in with mild flavored foods or spicy foods, as these flavors will spread around to all the food in the dehydrator.
- The pieces should be very close in size and thickness so they will dry at about the same rate.
- Place the food in the dehydrator so that air can circulate all around each piece. Add an oven thermometer even if your machine has a thermometer so you can double check the heat level.
- Make a note of the time the dehydrator is started so you will have an idea of what time the food should finish. Try to start in the morning when you are just learning, so you will be able to watch the food and be ready to take it out when it is done.
- Check the food and rotate trays about every hour so you can watch and learn the process. Monitor the two thermometers, especially as you get close to the end of the drying time. The dehydrator may start to get very hot as the moisture level in the food decreases. This may affect the flavor and texture of your food.
- Remove each piece of food when it has dried. Keep the pieces in a clean dry place to cool and prepare for the conditioning process.
- Condition the food after it has dried and cooled. Conditioning ensures that the food batch is evenly dried. Some pieces may be a bit over dried and some may have a bit of extra moisture. You want each piece to be dried evenly. Place that pieces in a glass jar with a tight lid. Put the jar in a cool dry place out of light, in a pantry or cupboard. Watch if for 3 or 4 days. Notice if there is any moisture beading up on the glass. If you see any moisture, immediately open the jar and place all the food back into the dehydrator for a few hours, then cool and recondition.
- Pasteurization of food is the next step. Sun dried food must be pasteurized before storing, as it is always possible that it has been contaminated by insects while outdoors. There are two ways to pasteurize dehydrated foods.
- 1) heat - Place the foods on cookie sheets an oven preheated to 175, Bake for 15 minutes, then cool and package for storage.
- 2) freezing – food may be frozen either before or after final packaging. The freezer must be at 0 degrees, so use a thermometer to check. Place food in containers and put in coldest part of the freezer for 48 hours.
- Dried food needs to be stored in tightly sealed containers like canning jars. You can also use jelly jars or peanut butter jars that have been thoroughly cleaned. Food does best when stored away from light and heat.
My recommendation is to get a good book on dehydrating, or do some research on the types of foods you plan to dry, and then download or print out or write up your own instructions and put them in a 3 ring binder with your other favorite recipes or preparedness information.