Pam Jenkins and Bev Robertson are both avid gardeners and members of Local Food Connect. In March 2017, they ran some workshops on how to use a dehydrator successfully. Here are their notes. Click here to borrow Local Food Connect’s Fowlers Ultimate Dehydrator.
Do you want an easy way to preserve food at home which requires very little equipment?
Do you need a food storage method that doesn’t take up much space?
Are you keen on providing your family with preservative free healthy snacks to enjoy?
Are you looking for portable food for camping or backpacking?
Equipment needed for home food drying
Commercial dehydrators will give more consistent results with quick and uniform drying which preserves colour, flavour and texture.
Most dehydrators allow you to set the temperature for drying of different foods. For example, herbs are best dried at lower temperatures that don’t drive off volatile oils, while meats are typically dried at higher temperatures.
Sharp knife, mandolin or food processor for cutting food into thinner pieces.
Stainless steel saucepan for cooking and blanching.
Clean, sterilised jars/containers with airtight lids for storage of dried foods.
What types of food can be dried?
Just about anything – vegetables, fruit, herbs, meat. All work out to be much cheaper than supermarket dried goods.
Preparing food for dehydrating
Before you dehydrate anything make sure work surfaces, your hands, all food and equipment are thoroughly washed.
Generally food needs to be sliced or chopped in uniform pieces between 3-5 mm thick.
Pre-treating – some foods can be pre-treated before drying to help preserve colour and flavour. For example, apples, apricots, bananas, peaches, pears, nectarines may darken during drying and storage. Soaking fruit in a bowl of water with a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice helps to reduce browning; as does dipping the sliced fruit in other acidic fruit juices such as orange or pineapple.
Certain dried vegetables may become tough and strong flavoured after a period of storage. Steam blanching them prior to drying inactivates the enzymes and preserves the natural vitamins and minerals. After blanching, transfer the food to ice water to stop the cooking.
Fruits and vegetables can be dehydrated without pre-treatment as long as they are exposed to good air circulation and warmth in the dehydrator.
How long does it take to dry food?
Anywhere from a few hours to days depending on what is being dried, as the moisture content varies. Thinner items dry faster than thick. Each dehydrator works differently and the more you put in, the longer it will take to dry everything. Overnight drying is a good idea. Don’t turn up the temperature in an attempt to dry foods quicker as this will seal the outside, leaving moisture within, which will in turn lead to the food spoiling.
Spread the food evenly on trays keeping space between pieces and avoiding overlapping. It’s fine to combine different foods of a similar type and size in the same load; however, don’t dry strongly flavoured foods such as onions with fruits.
Rotating the trays occasionally will assist with drying.
How do you know when the food is dry enough?
Different foods will have different textures when dried. Some will be brittle, whilst others will be leathery and pliable. Check the drying tables in the dehydrator instruction book. Let the food cool. If the food feels squishy it isn’t dry enough. Continue drying. Note that individual pieces in a batch may dry at different rates. Simply remove pieces as they are done, cool, place in a jar and seal.
After the items are in a tightly sealed jar at room temperature, check for condensation on the inside of the lid after a day or so. If there is condensation then you need to dry it more or put it in the fridge/freezer to prevent mould.
Storing dried foods
Airtight dry containers should be used to store dried foods.
You can re-use jars with undamaged well sealed lids.
When storing large quantities divide it up into smaller batches in case problems develop in a particular batch.
Label with the name of the food and the date it was dried.
Keep the containers in a dark, dry, cool place.
Herbs that are to be used within a few months may be crumbled to save space. However, for best flavour retention in long-term storage, herb leaves should be intact, then crumbled.
Fruit roll ups can be rolled in plastic wrap and stored in glass jars with a tight fitting lid. They can be refrigerated or frozen to retain freshness.
Using dried foods
Many dried foods, especially fruits, are ready to eat as snacks and can be used in baked goods and other recipes.
Re-hydrating is the process of adding water back to the dried food. Most vegetables can be re-hydrated by soaking for several minutes to hours or just added to soups and casserole dishes.