(September 2005)
Dehydrating and preserving the harvest

The Dictionary defines dehydrating as “ To remove water or moisture from vegetables, fruits and other foods”. This might sound like a modern invention, but actually has been around for thousands of years, for as long as man has known how to hunt and cook his meals. Game was hung out to dry to preserve it as well as Grains dried to store for winter months.

Canning, freezing and dehydrating are three ways to preserve fresh fruits and vegetables and enjoy your garden surplus all winter. Plus, you may discover that you enjoy preserving your harvest as much as you do growing it. When you have bushels of extra tomatoes, canning is usually your first choice. You can can lots of tomato ketchup and soup, and delicious salsas. Also cucumbers, peppers, zucchini and strawberries, Some things are even better when frozen or dried (dehydrated). Zucchini turns to mush when canned as a vegetable unless it's pickled or transformed into a tasty relish. Peppers somehow keep their magical crunch when diced and then quickly frozen (no blanching necessary) into convenient servings just right for a steaming pot of chili or sizzling stirfry. Knowing which variety you're growing will also help you decide on which method of preserving to use. Canning, freezing and drying your garden surplus also gives you lots of choices. If you don't like frozen green beans, then can them instead with a nice sprig of fresh basil added to each jar. After all, it depends on what you and your family want or enjoy the most.

The oldest method of food preservation is also one of the most convenient. Since 80 to 95 percent of the moisture is removed, dehydrated foods take less storage space than frozen or canned foods. Flavors also become concentrated, so use your fresh, vine-ripened and mature produce for drying.

Sun drying is free, though not always readily available. Other factors such as heat, dry air and air circulation are also variable outdoors. That's why a good dehydrator is well worth the investment -- then these factors are easily controlled. Celery leaves, onions and parsley season soups and stews. You can dehydrate corn and sweet peppers or even make your own fruit leather. Dehydrated tomatoes create a thick sauce in a snap, and thinly sliced and seasoned zucchini make tasty chips.

There are several ways to dehydrate, low tech and more advanced high tech. It all depends on your individual needs and preferances. From one site I found this information http://syndication.getoutdoors.com/go/golearn/304

Low-Tech/No-Tech Options

1. Sun-drying - the original solar technology. Prepare food as for any dehydrator and lay it on screens. Place the screens at least 8 inches off the ground in direct sunlight (south-facing exposure) where air can circulate freely around the food. Keep an eye out for insects, birds, and neighborhood pets. (Netting may be required.) Turn the food 2 or 3 times during the day. If the food isn't dry by nightfall, bring it inside to protect it from dew.

2. Oven-drying. Nothing wrong with using the same oven you bake in as a food dryer. The racks are already there, and you can use cookie sheets for liquids. Most ovens can be set as low as 140 degrees F, which is a little too warm for fruits and veggies, but okay for liquids, meats, and dairy. Use an oven thermometer to check the setting. Prop the oven door open several inches to encourage some air circulation and moisture release, place the tray of food in the center, and you're in business.

3. Room-drying. Some things, such as herbs, chilis, snow peas, and green beans, will dry nicely if you simply hang them in the open air indoors. A fan to circulate air is helpful, but not essential.

4. Buying a Dryer. Over the long haul, the advantages of a store-bought dehydrator make the burden of its initial expense seem pretty puny. For $50 to $300 you can purchase a dehydrator with all the hardware to handle years of food processing, and bypass many of the shortcomings inherent with other methods.

Advantages of (high tech) Commercial Dryers.

  • Efficient airflow pattern powered by a fan.
  • Exact temperature settings over a wide range.
  • Even temperature distribution.
  • Minimal need to rotate trays or turn food.
  • Solid trays, mesh inserts, yogurt dishes, and other made-to-fir accessories.
  • Fast drying without regard to weather.
  • Energy savings: as little as 3 cents an hour to run.

    Tips and tricks

  • To speed up drying time, if possible with the type of dehydrator you are using remove all water from the collection bin or coils and all condensation off the surfaces of the interior.
  • To get even drying rotate your food every so often during the drying process. This also helps in speeding the drying time up.
  • If using a solar dryer clean off all interior and exterior dirt on the top and all other places sunlight gets to the food from.
  • Clean the drying racks every day or so when drying foods to make sure you do not get cross-food tastes. *Cross contamination might also pose a problem if you are drying foods with salmonela or staph bacteria. even when moisture is removed and the interior of the dryer becomes nothing but an oven you still have mabey 1% survival rate of bacteria.
  • If you have normal spring summer fall winter cycles and are running a solar dryer the best time of year is to dry during summer. The heat becomes more intense and dries foods faster. This is not a good idea however if water is scarce in your area. If this is the case a solar dryer can become a solar still to collect water from almost any edible grasses.
  • After slicing, dicing, peeling, coring and halving, remove any bruises on all fruits and vegetables as the bruises will inhibit quicker drying and decay the food more quickly in or out of storage.
  • Salting the more liquid based vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, ect...) will promote quicker drying and even make their storage longer.
  • Some underripened fruits (green bananas, tomatoes, ect..) dry more quickly than their ripened counterparts. This does not improve the taste any, but I have seen quicker drying times and longer storability.

    Home-food dehydrators fall into two categories: those with stackable trays, and those constructed of a rigid box with removable shelves. Size is a factor; most fit on a countertop, but larger models are freestanding and require more space. Some models have base-mounted fans that move hot air vertically; one has a rear-mounted fan for moving air horizontally; yet another uses convection drying, with no fan at all. Uneven heat distribution in the stack means that the trays closest to the heat element and fan dry much faster than those at the top of the stack. Diligent tray rotation is critical, especially if very fleshy foods are being dried. If you're considering drying speciality items, investigate which models can accommodate your needs. Stick-proof fruitleather sheets, tray screens, jerky spices or kits. Living Foods markets a heavy-duty tray to support weightier jobs like yogurt-making; a grow box for starting seeds; a sprouting tube kit; and their food dehydrating handbook, Dry It—You'll Like It!

  • In My personal experience with dehydrating I have found cheaper units do not have temperature control and so they are limited on their uses. I like to dry herbs, parsley, onions, bell peppers, mint, I don’t make leathers, though my meat cutting husband does like his jerky. Maybe someday I will experiment with dried fruit granola type mixes. I feel it is better to invest with a good unit you can do several different things with, than buy a cheap unit you are limited with and have to turn around and buy another one down the road,.