A Beginner’s Guide to Dehydrating Food

Dehydrating is a common food preservation technique. Basically, it’s when you remove water from food (hence the “dehydration” part). By dehydrating foods, you allow them to go longer without spoiling. Foods that have been dehydrated are less likely to decay or accumulate deadly microorganisms. Finally, it’s a cheap and easy way to prep for any survival situation. In the following sections, I’ll show you everything you need to know about how to dehydrate food.

Part 1 – Buying a Food Dehydrator

A potential downside to dehydrating food is that you need a specialized piece of equipment called a “Dehydrator”. Don’t worry- you’ll quickly see why it’s a solid investment. As their names imply, a food dehydrator is the thing that removes the water content from food. In general, there are two main types. These include:

  • Vertical Dehydrators
  • Horizontal Dehydrators

Let’s talk about the pros and cons of each.

Vertical Dehydrators

How to Dehydrate FoodIf you’re only drying only one or two types of foods, a vertical dehydrator is probably the best option for you. In vertical dehydrators, heat travels from the top of the device to the bottom (or vice versa). Although smaller than horizontal models, they’re also cheaper. When learning how to dehydrate food, they’re solid options to consider. There are two types of vertical dehydrators: Top Fan and Bottom Fan. Let’s look at the main differences between the two:

Top Fan vs. Bottom Fan
Some vertical dehydrators come with a fan (or heating unit) on the top, while others have their fan on the bottom. The models with the fans on the bottom are most efficient. Why? Because hot air rises. But there’s a downside: food drippings can fall onto the fan, causing it to malfunction. Vertical dehydrators eliminate this problem, but they too can be problematic. For instance, top fan models tend to dry foods on top more quickly than foods on the bottom. And although not a big deal (in my opinion), a vertical dehydrator can cause foods dried together to adapt each other’s tastes.

Horizontal Dehydrators

How to Dehydrate FoodWhen learning how to dehydrate food on a larger scale, horizontal models are recommended. They tend to be large, which allows you to dry multiple foods at once. The design allows for optimal heat distribution. Horizontal models have their principle drying element on the back of the unit.

For this reason, you won’t need to worry about messing up your fan with food drippings. This also minimizes “blended tastes” between different foods being dehydrated at the same time (nobody wants their apple chips tasting like beef jerky). The downside? They’re expensive. But if you have the funds, and are serious about prepping, they’re a solid investment in my opinion.

Trays, Fans, and Temperature Settings

How to Dehydrate FoodIf you’re making fruit leather or bark, buy a food dehydrator with a fan. Some models use other heating mechanisms for drying food, however, they typically don’t work well in fruits. For example, a dehydrator that doesn’t use a fan can cause banana slices to dry unevenly.

I’m not saying that you can’t learn how to dehydrate food with a fan-based model. All I’m saying is that drying fruit can be inefficient and unpredictable when you take this route.

I would also advise buying a dehydrator with adjustable temperature settings. Why? Because not all foods dehydrate the same. A dehydrator with only a single temperature is not an effective strategy for drying many different types of foods. Here are some considerations to keep in mind as far as temperature is concerned:

  • Range: To learn how to dehydrate food properly, buy a model with a range of 90-160 degrees Fahrenheit. Most meats are dried at about 150 degrees Fahrenheit while most fruits and vegetables are dried at about 130 degrees Fahrenheit. So the range recommended above is more than versatile enough to do what you need to do.
  • Importance: Temperature is arguably the most important factor to consider when dehydrating food. For example, if your heat is too low, then it will cause your foods to spoil. If the heat is too high, the surface of the foods will harden, which will ultimately prevent moisture from escaping. Hopefully, you can appreciate the importance of flexible temperature settings.
  • Lower-Priced Models: Unfortunately, due to their low-priced nature, many cheap food dehydrators won’t give you much flexibility in the temperature department. While you’re paying less, you’ll be massively restricted in what you can and cannot dehydrate (plus, your final products won’t be as reliable). If you can afford them, more expensive models are the way to go.

When learning how to dehydrate food, you also need to buy the right trays. Unless you’re looking to dry huge amounts of food, tray size really isn’t a concern. For small vegetables like corn and peas, mesh sheets recommended. Since they’re pliable, it will be easier to remove food once it’s finished drying. For blended foods (fruit purees, mashed potatoes, etc.) make sure you buy a non-stick sheet.

Nesco Snackmaster Pro Food Dehydrator

They work better than parchment paper and are reusable. I personally don’t like stacked trays as these can make it challenging to check on your food as it’s drying. Sliding trays are better since you can slide out an individual tray rather than remove the entire thing completely. Now that we’ve covered what you’ll need, let’s talk about how to dehydrate food. We’ll start with meat, followed by fruits and vegetables.

Part 2 – How to Dehydrate Food

Dehydrating foods isn’t really a delicate process. By that, I mean you don’t need to get everything “perfect”. With that being said, you must follow basic directions. Otherwise, you’re going to run into some problems. Learning how to dehydrate food is incredibly rewarding, especially if you’re prepping for a potential crisis. Let’s start with meat.

Dehydrating Meat

How to Dehydrate FoodThe first step is to cut your meat into smaller pieces. Try to make your slices as evenly-cut as possible. This will ensure that all pieces dry at an equal rate. Here are some slicing considerations for specific types of meat (I’d recommend writing these down):

  • Ham: Slice into 1-inch wide strips.
  • Beef: Slice into ¼-inch wide strips (for beef jerky).
  • Chicken: Separate into smaller pieces (like pulled pork).

As a general rule, always precook your ham and chicken before dehydrating it. This is for safety purposes. Raw, dehydrated beef (a.k.a. beef jerky) is safe to consume. However, if you eat raw dehydrated pork, you could develop something called “Trichinosis”. This is basically an infection that’s caused by eating under-cooked pork. On a similar token, eating raw chicken that’s been dehydrated can give you salmonella. This is very important to remember when learning how to dehydrate food (specifically meat).

The Dehydrator Bible: Includes over 400 Recipes

The next step is to place your strips of meat onto a tray and then place the tray inside your dehydrator. Make sure that none of the pieces are overlapping one another. Dry your meat at 150 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately 6 hours. These recommendations can vary slightly, but I recommend these when learning how to dehydrate food- especially if you’re a beginner. Throughout the drying process, make sure that you’re dabbing beef and ham slices with paper towels frequently. The moisture that rises to the surface will be mostly the fats and oils from within the meat.

Storing Dehydrated Meat
Once you’ve finished dehydrating your meat, remove it from the dehydrator and place the food in airtight plastic bags. Remember, air contains moisture. If you try to store foods in the presence of air, they’ll go bad more quickly. For long-term storage, place your meet inside a fridge of freezer. For short-term storage, place your meat (inside the airtight plastic bag) in a dark, dry place at room temperature. Be sure to check your meat every few weeks to make sure they aren’t accumulating moisture or bacteria. You can store dried foods for up one year. However, if you vacuum-pack and refrigerate, you can literally double or triple this timeframe. Knowing how to dehydrate food isn’t enough- you also need to familiarize yourself with proper storage techniques.

Dehydrating Fruits and Vegetables

How to Dehydrate FoodStart by washing your fruits and vegetables. I know it sounds cliché, but this will help remove any foreign debris prior to dehydrating. With the exception of mushrooms, peppers, and onions, blanch all vegetables. This will help preserve the texture and taste of your vegetables. Here are the remaining steps in order:

  • Step 1: Cut Into Even Slices: Just like meat, slice your fruits and vegetables into small, thin, and even slices. If you want to learn how to dehydrate food as a hobby, you need to get comfortable with a knife and being able to do this. For corn, make sure you remove the corn from the cob rather than dehydrating the entire vegetable. With peppers, remove the seeds once you’ve sliced them.
  • Step 2: Lay Onto Tray: Place your sliced fruits and vegetables onto your tray in a single, even layer. What if you’re dehydrating many different types of fruits or vegetables at the same time? Then place each type on an individual tray. I’d recommend limiting the number of fruits and vegetables that you try to dehydrate at a time. This applies even if you have a horizontal dehydrator.
  • Step 3: Dry at 130 °F for 8 Hours: These guidelines are only approximations. If you’re dehydrating smaller vegetables, then maybe it will take less time. It really depends on the water content of the fruit or vegetable. For example, vegetables like peas, mushrooms, broccoli, and corn all contain relatively low amounts of water. For this reason, they’ll generally dry in have the time as other vegetables. When learning how to dehydrate food, this is important knowledge that you must remember.
  • Step 4: Check Texture: Texture will tell you a lot about how close a fruit or vegetable is to being finished drying. Zucchinis, mushrooms, peas, corn, carrots, and green beans should all feel brittle. Pineapples, pears, cherries, blueberries, peppers, and beats should all feel leathery. Strawberries, peaches, apricots, and apples should all feel pliable. And finally, tomatoes, potatoes, and onions should feel crisp.

Once finished, store your dried fruits and vegetables in a similar fashion as storing dried meat. If you’re storing for less than a month, place your finished products in vacuum sealed containers. Then, place these containers in dark, dry areas. For periods over a month, place your finished products in freezers.

Important Note: Keep fruits and vegetables that are rich in Vitamin A away from direct sunlight (or any light for that matter). Why? Because vitamin A is sensitive to light. Fruits that are abundant in vitamin A include mangos, bell peppers, and carrots. If you place the dried final products of these fruits in direct sunlight, they’ll degrade quicker than normal.

How to Dehydrate Food – Bottom Line

Knowing how to dehydrate food is an important skill to have as a survivalist. There’s no better peace of mind than knowing you have a stockpile of food that will keep you alive in the event of an emergency. But it all starts with knowing how to dehydrate food in the first place. I’m not an expert in this department. However, I do dry my own food on a regular basis, and I currently have a stockpile that should last me for quite some time. That’s what self-sufficiency and self-sustainability is all about. If I missed something, be sure to let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

Resources 

  1. Food Dehydration FAQ (Dry Store)
  2. Dehydrating Food (Backpacking Chef)
  3. Dehydration – How to Dry Foods Instead of Canning or Freezing (Pick Your Own)
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