Whether you enjoy the harvest from a large garden or you’re a shopper who buys produce in abundance when foods go on sale, food preservation is technique used by many. Canning and freezing have long been used to preserve foods. However, food dehydration is an alternative that is growing in popularity. There are many reasons to try dehydration over other food storage methods, and the process is not difficult.
- Enhanced flavor – Once the moisture of fruits and vegetables has been removed, the flavor in each slice of the produce gets naturally concentrated and becomes more intense.
- Healthy snack options – Pureed fruits are easily made into fruit leather. The healthier, sweet snack readily goes into kid’s lunch bags and is great for road trips or a quick pick-me-up during physical activities. Meat jerky is another popular snack which can be made from your choice of lean meats with a dehydrator.
- Fresh meat and produce are always available – Regardless of where you might live, farmer’s markets, conventional grocery stores, and cooperatives always have an abundance of foods which can be dehydrated. Many times you can find foods on sale. By processing the foods yourself, you save even more money.
- Dehydrating is easy – Electric dehydrators are available at mass merchandise chains, online, and anywhere kitchen appliances are sold. Unlike canning or freezing, you do not need a variety of tools or equipment to get started. Once the food is prepared, dehydrators do all of the work for you.
- Versatile – Virtually any food can be dehydrated in these appliances. Fruits, vegetables, meats, herbs, and sauces can all be dried for preservation. When needed, dehydrated foods can then be reconstituted for cooking.
- Preserves nutritional value – Dehydrated foods maintain their nutritional value. As only the water is removed, the nutrients remain. This is not necessarily the case when having to cook and process foods during canning.
- Conserves space – With the water content removed, foods take up less space. For example, 20 pounds of tomatoes require only two canning jars after undergoing dehydration.
- Staples always on hand – By dehydrating your own onions, garlic, potatoes, celery, carrots, and other foods that are commonly used in a variety of dishes, you always have plenty of food in your pantry.
- Food selection – As with other methods of preserving food, your final product is only as good as the quality of foods you use. Choose fruits and vegetables which are ripe and not bruised.
- Preparation – When preparing foods for dehydration, consider how you plan on serving the final product. You might want to cut fruits into chunks, rings, or slices. Pureed fruits are needed for leathers.
- Consistency – Slices should be no more than 1/8 to ¼-inch in thickness. All pieces of food should also be similar in overall size. In this way the drying process is quicker and more uniform.
- Food safety – Certain foods must be washed before the drying process. Berries, herbs, grapes, and other foods that are not peeled should be cleaned to remove chemicals or possible harmful microbes.
- Prevent browning – Apples, pears, and similar foods are prone to browning once peeled. Lemon juice or ascorbic acid containing fruit preservers prevent browning. Some ripe vegetables toughen during dehydration. Blanching or steaming these items prior to processing inhibits the enzymes which cause this problem.
- Drying times – Depending on the types of foods being dried and the model of dehydrator used, the drying time varies. Dehydrators typically come with an instruction manual which not only provides information concerning operating device but also gives the time and temperature setting required for different foods.
- General time requirement – Most foods dehydrate at between 130° F and 140° F. Lower temperatures may not sufficiently process foods. Higher temperatures may cause drying on the outer edges of food, which prevents moisture from leaving the interior cells. Except when it comes to meat. USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline recommends 160° F for making beef jerky and 165° F for making poultry jerky to avoid any food-borne illnesses.
- Dryness test – Once foods have been processed, they should no longer feel sticky. Fruits leathers are pliable and the majority of other foods become brittle. After dehydration, the moisture content is typically reduced to approximately 10 percent.
Storing Dehydrated Foods
- Cooling – After dehydrating foods, allow them to cool completely before storage. Otherwise, the heat from the food creates condensation, which leads to mold development. Once cooled sufficiently, store the foods in zipped storage bags or sanitized glass jars.
- Appropriate storage containers – Food storage bags, glass jars, or metal cans that are airtight are all acceptable for storing dried foods. The thing that matters most is that the containers have the ability to inhibit moisture or infestation by insects or other pests. Pack the container tightly without damaging the food.
- Special fruit consideration – Fruits which have undergone pre-treating with a sulfur-based product should not come in contact with metal. Add the chunks or slices to a plastic food storage bag before storing in a metal can or a jar with a metal lid. Otherwise the sulfur fumes from the fruit react with metal surfaces and alter the color of the fruit.
- Limit packing amounts – Consider packing foods in bags, jars, or other containers in quantities sufficient for use in one recipe. Each time a container is opened to retrieve foods, air and moisture enter, which leads to spoilage.
- Where to store – As food quality is often affected by light and temperature, store containers in a cool, dark location. Temperatures should hover around 60° F.
- Shelf-life – Dehydrated fruits typically last for 12 months. Vegetables are good for approximately 6 months.
- Monitor reserves – Check your dehydrated foods 2 to 4 times each month to ensure condensation and spoilage have not taken place. Clear plastic bags and glass jars are perfect storage containers for this reason. If you notice moisture, simply use the food or reprocess. Moldy items must be thrown away.