Whether you’re a camping pro, a hiking buff, or just someone looking to preserve your garden’s bountiful harvest, dehydrating food at home is a useful skill to have!
Campers and hikers usually like to take dehydrated (and freeze dried) food with them into the field or on a trek. It’s lightweight, takes up less room, and is easy to rehydrate when meal time rolls around.
Homesteaders and preppers are usually thinking about dehydration as a means of long-term food storage. Making sure your SHTF emergency food supply is full is paramount to all!
No matter the reason for wanting to learn to dehydrate food at home, you can do it!
As a student of self-reliance, I’m always looking for the next way to better my family’s situation. Food storage is a big deal to me because even though the human body can go up to three weeks without food, the human mind won’t want to go more than a couple of days.
This skill is relatively easy to learn, requires minimal equipment, but takes a long time (albeit unattended, for the most part) to actually dehydrate the food.
What Exactly Is “Food Dehydration”?
Approximately 90% of fruit and vegetable weight is made up of water. Dehydration is simply removing the majority (or all) of that water content. More specifically, it is removing the moisture from food in a controlled environment so as to retain its nutritional content. Less water in food means far less chance for the growth of microorganisms such as bacteria.
Dehydration is one of the oldest methods of food preservation. According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation:
In ancient times the sun and wind would have naturally dried foods. Evidence shows that Middle East and oriental cultures actively dried foods as early as 12,000 B.C. in the hot sun. Later cultures left more evidence and each would have methods and materials to reflect their food supplies—fish, wild game, domestic animals, etc.
Why You Should Be Dehydrating Food at Home
- Taste — Dehydrated foods have such amazing, concentrated flavors because they aren’t watered down.
- Nutrition — The food also retains almost 100% of its nutritional content as well as the alkalinity of fresh produce. Nutrients like Vitamin C, Vitamin A (Beta Carotene), and Iron are all retained through the process. Dried vegetables are also naturally low in fats and high in fiber. Dried fruits contain no cholesterol, no fat or sodium, and there are no additional preservatives used.
- Storage — Since the water is no longer plumping up and weighing down the food, it takes up a lot less space (about one-fifth the original size) and weighs less. Because of this, you can get much more food into a smaller space. An entire bushel of peaches, for example, may fit rather handily into a large glass bail-and-trigger storage jar. Dried food also lasts longer than fresh food, so you’ll have longer-term storage.
- Cost Efficiency — Food that you dehydrate at home is a lot cheaper than any store-bought dehydrated food (and contains no artificial ingredients).
- DIY — If you’re into backpacking or camping, you can dehydrate your own food to take into the field with you. You can also make your own dried soups and food mixes for the pantry as well as making homemade MREs for your bug-out bag.
- Sneaky Health — If you can dehydrate foods that you, your spouse, or your kids don’t like that have excellent nutritional value, you can introduce the health benefits of those foods into other foods as a dietary supplement.
- Stock Up — When you have a great year in the garden and grow a bumper crop, or you catch an awesome deal at the farmer’s market, you can take advantage by dehydrating loads of the food.
- Healthier Snacks — Dehydrated foods are all natural, so they make much better snacks than cookies or potato chips. A word of caution, though… since there is little to no water content in dehydrated foods, they will be very easy to overeat, so if you’re trying to lose weight, go easy on the nibbling.
Methods of Dehydrating Food
Raisins, prunes, and sun-dried tomatoes are three of the most widely known fruits dried in this method. Because fruit has such high sugar and acid content, they’re really the best foods for drying in the sun safely. Since vegetables are low in both sugar and acid, the risk of food spoilage is increased. Meat is protein-rich, so they’re welcome environments for bacteria growth when you cannot control the dehydrating conditions.
Perfect conditions for sun drying include:
- Hot days — at least 85ºF, preferably hotter
- Breezy — air circulation will speed the drying time
- Low humidity — below 60% humidity is best
Even with optimal conditions, it will take several days to properly dehydrate food. Even still, you have to cover the food and bring it under shelter at night to avoid dew and potential rainfall at night.
You might want to put that dehydrating food under one of these pop-up mesh screen food cover tents to keep the insects and birds from getting a quick snack, too!
This is the most readily-available method for those that don’t own a dehydrator, but want to dehydrate more than just fruit. A buddy of mine used to dehydrate venison for deer jerky in his oven all the time. You need little more than the oven itself with the racks inside (and possibly a cookie sheet or two).
The advantage of this method is most everyone has an oven. The major disadvantage is the oven uses a lot of electricity (or gas) to have to run it for hours on end. It also tends to heat your house during those hours because you need to have the door slightly ajar to allow the moisture to escape. This can be a good thing in the winter, but not so much in the summer.
Solar Food Dehydrator
Some of the first dehydrating rigs were solar dehydrators — not because they used solar cells to power anything, but because the dehydration was done via the sun (much like sun drying). The difference is, a lot of solar food dehydrators are more than just a couple of screens with food sandwiched between them left in the sun. They can be as simple as a hanging rig that holds multiple racks and is completely enclosed in screen mesh (like this one you can buy on Amazon), or as elaborate as a homemade wooden box with a solar collector made of aluminum cans feeding hot air through the bottom (like the one my friend Rick made in this video).
Again, like sun drying, this method could take a couple of days or more to do its job completely. Some people who build their own solar food dehydrators don’t use fans. When I can get around to building one, I will use a fan in mine — constantly moving air will help the drying process through convection.
Electric Food Dehydrator
Most homesteaders have (or want) an electric food dehydrator. They’re easy to use, convenient, and do the job much more efficiently than any other method.
There are many different types, brands and models of electric dehydrators on the market. You can get a basic model that you just plug up to turn on which would do most dehydrating jobs just fine. You might splurge for a deluxe dehydrator that has 10 stainless steel trays, clear glass doors, temperature control and a 99 hour timer.
To be honest, the only feature I really care much about right now is just a temperature control. As long as I can set the temp to whatever I want it to be, I’m happy for now. Besides, I tend to check the food fairly regularly, anyway. We have this Nesco Snackmaster with 4 trays. We’ll be getting more trays and some other accessories (like fruit roll sheets and mesh sheets) so we can expand our food dehydrating foray!
Tips for Dehydrating Food at Home
When you get into dehydrating, you’ll learn little tips and tricks that will make life a little easier. Here are the tips I have learned so far:
- When using an electric dehydrator…
- Be sure there is at least a couple of inches clearance all around to let the hot air escape.
- Rotate the trays to allow food even drying. Remember that some food is closer to the heat source initially.
- When dehydrating in the oven…
- Leave the oven door ajar so the moisture can escape.
- Turn the food every couple of hours so the parts on the bottom get exposed to the warm air.
- Don’t let food overlap. Overlapping parts will take longer to dehydrate than the parts that are in a single layer.
- Dehydrate pungent foods outside (onions, garlic, etc) so the smell doesn’t overwhelm you.
- Dry like with like. Fruit with fruit, veggies with veggies, herbs with herbs. Flavor does transfer!
- Even slices ensure the food will dehydrate at the same time so everything is done at once.
What Kinds of Dehydrated Foods Can You Make?
- You can dehydrate fruits in small cubes to add to trail mixes. Apples, peaches, and apricots are good candidates for trail mix fruits.
- Fruit chips are a healthy replacement for potato chips and other snack foods. Apple chips and banana chips are a favorite for my family.
- Raisins (from grapes) and prunes (from plums) are delicious options (though, admittedly, I’ve never tried to dehydrate either yet).
- Beef Jerky can be made in the oven or in a dehydrator… and you can even make jerky from ground beef!
- If you make a huge batch of mashed potatoes, you can dehydrate them and make potato flakes to use as instant mashed potatoes, or as a gluten-free sauce, soup, and stew thickener!
- Puree some fruit with (or without) some honey, spread it thin on a sheet, and dehydrate it. When it’s done, you’ll have some healthy, homemade fruit leather (like the Fruit Rollups you used to eat as a kid)!
- Dehydrate anything enough, and you can grind it into a powder. Peppers will make chili powder, but you can also make onion powder and garlic powder. My friend Jane actually makes vegetable powder to add to foods as seasonings and smoothies as invisible ingredients.
Because water is needed to aid digestion, it is highly recommend that you either rehydrate your food with water or steam, or drink plenty of water when eating dehydrated foods in their dried state.
Storing Dehydrated Foods
Now that you have your foods dehydrated, you need to pack them in something airtight and moisture-proof so they’ll keep. There are a number of options available.
- Mason Jars — Most of us keep Mason jars on hand, anyway, right? With Mason jars, you can store small amounts of food in the pint, half-pint, and quarter-pint jars, and larger amounts in quart and half-gallon jars.
- Bail & Trigger Jars — You probably know someone that has a few of these if you don’t have any yourself. They’re the glass jars that have a flip-top lid with a rubber seal (like these). Like Mason jars, they come in all different sizes (some larger than a gallon, even).
- Saved Food Jars — If you buy food already in jars (like those big pickles), you might wash and save them when you’re done and store some of your more used dehydrated foods in those jars.
- Plastic Zip Bags — You can get Ziploc (or any other brand) bags literally anywhere (even the Dollar Store). They’re lightweight, disposable, and always handy for storage!
- Vacuum Sealed Packages — If you’re looking to really store your food for a long time, you can use a vacuum sealer to store them completely air tight in plastic bags. Just be sure none of the pieces of food have any sharp edges that might poke through the plastic.
- Plastic Containers — You may even store some of the dehydrated foods (again, some that you’ll use more frequently) in these kinds of plastic disposable containers (or even Tupperware containers if you can still find any).
For added storage capability, combine methods! Put some of the vacuum sealed packages into larger plastic containers (like Sterilite containers or 5 gallon buckets). Heck, throw some silica gel packets in the bucket to reduce any chance of moisture infiltrating the packets. Maybe you have mylar mags and can seal those vacuum sealed bags in them, too. Get creative!
Once you have your final packaging, store them in a cool, dark area such as a pantry, cupboard, basement, or root cellar. If you’ve stored your food properly, you can get up to a couple of years storage out of some of them! My best recommendation here would be to test this yourself. It will depend a lot on what type climate you live in. Someone in a tropical-type environment will never get as long of storage as someone in cooler, drier climates.
Learn More About Dehydrating Food at Home
I’ll have more and more posts about dehydrating coming up, and as I do, I will link them here. They will be getting more focused, to the point of how to dehydrate specific foods. Be sure to sign-up for the newsletter so you don’t miss a post!
The best way to learn anything is to do it yourself, really. Start dehydrating! Learn what you can from me, read a couple of books (I recommend The Ultimate Dehydrator Cookbook and The Dehydrator Bible), and experiment! Feel free to share your photos on my Facebook page too! I’m excited to see other people practicing self-reliance!