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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.
- 1 Dehydrating Food - The Basics
- 1.1 Part 1 – Buying a Food Dehydrator
- 1.2 Trays, Fans, and Temperature Settings
- 1.3 Part 2 – How to Dehydrate Food
- 1.4 Dehydrating Food – Bottom Line
Dehydrating Food - The Basics
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:
Let’s talk about the pros and cons of each.
If 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 either the top of the device to the bottom (or bottom to top, depending on the model).
Although smaller than horizontal models, they’re also cheaper - these are the common circular types. 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 as you may have learned in science class hot or heated air rises. But there’s a downside: food drippings can fall onto the fan, causing it to malfunction.
Vertical dehydrators tend to eliminate this particular issue, but they too can be problematic. For instance, top fan models tend to dry out the ingredients on the top faster than they would dry foods toward the bottom. And although not a big deal (in my opinion), a vertical dehydrator can cause foods that are prepared together to begin to take on each other’s tastes.
When learning how to dehydrate food on a larger scale, horizontal models are recommended. They tend to be a bit bulkier, which allows you to dry multiple foods at once. The design allows for optimal heat distribution. Horizontal models have their principle drying element mounted in the back like this popular Gourmia GFD1950 model (also seen in the Amazon picture and link to the right).
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
If you’re making fruit leather or bark, buy a food dehydrator with a circulating fan. Of course you can also use your home oven (even better if you have a convection oven!).
I would also advise buying a dehydrator with settings that allow you to adjust the temperature. 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 that will go from about 90-160 degrees Fahrenheit, because this will address just about every food you’re going to be working with. For example most meats are dried at about 150 degrees Fahrenheit while other foods, like your veggies and fruits 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 – something you definitely want to avoid (see our feature about preserving meats). Conversely, if you are using a setting that is too high, you risk creating a situation where the moisture won’t be able to escape from the inside (and that is the whole point of dehydrating to begin with). 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 smaller ingredients (think corn, garlic, chopped onions, peas, etc), you’ll want sheets that are mesh so that you don’t lose the pieces. Since they’re pliable, it will be easier to remove food once it’s finished drying. For foods that you are “spreading out” that are pre-blended (think sauces, pureed fruit, mashed potatoes, etc.) make sure you buy a non-stick sheet.
Although I use parchment paper a lot in my cooking, some experts prefer the non-stick sheets because you can use them more than once. I personally don’t like stacked trays as these can make it challenging to check on your food as it’s processing – but of course you’re almost always likely to find these models at thrift stores, making them an affordable choice.
Overall, 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.
The first step is to slice your meats into evenly-cut, 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 strips about 1” wide.
Beef: Slice into strips about ¼” wide (this will make a nice beef jerky).
Chicken: Separate into smaller pieces (like pulled pork).
As a general rule, always precook and ham and chicken FIRST - before dehydrating it. This is for safety purposes. While it is pretty safe to dehydrate beef that is raw, (a.k.a. beef jerky), it is a different story if you eat pork that is raw before you dehydrate it. Why? Because you could develop something called “Trichinosis”. This is basically an infection that’s caused by eating under-cooked or raw pork.
On a similar token, when it comes to consuming raw chicken – even if you have dehydrated it – you can contract salmonella. This is very important to remember when learning how to dehydrate food (specifically meat).
The next step is to take the meat strips and arrange them 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 according to some guidelines.
Of course, these recommendations can vary slightly, but let’s play it safe, especially if you’re a beginner. Throughout the drying process, make sure that you’re using some paper towels to touch the surfaces of your meats to remove any moisture and excess oils.
STORING DEHYDRATED MEAT
Once you’ve finished dehydrating your meat, remove it from the dehydrator and place the food in airtight plastic or – preferably vacuum sealed - bags. Because air contains moisture, you want as little of it in your package as possible. If you try to store foods in the presence of air, they’ll go bad more quickly.
If you intend to store the food for the long-term, it’s a good idea to refrigerate or freeze it. 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 count on being able to extend this time-frame. Knowing how to dehydrate food isn’t enough- you also need to familiarize yourself with proper storage techniques. Why not enjoy the fruits of your labors once in a while, which can help you rotate some stock, and encourage you to make some more!
Dehydrating Veggies and Fruits
Start by washing your produce – that should probably go without saying. 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 the veggies. This will help keep the crisp texture and a fresher taste of your vegetables. Here are the remaining steps in order:
Step 1: Cut Into Even Slices: Just like meat, you will be slicing the produce 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 whole ear. With peppers, remove as many of the seeds as you can once you’ve sliced them (they can get pretty hard and tough).
Step 2: Lay Onto Tray: Place your prepared produce onto your racks or trays in a single (i.e. not “mounded”), even layers. What if you’re dehydrating many different types of produce at the same time? Then place each type on an individual tray. Limit how much food you dehydrate at one time so that the air can circulate evenly and not skew the timing. This goes for all types of dehydrators.
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 how much water content is in 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 have a brittle texture. Pineapples, pears, cherries, blueberries, peppers, and beats should have a texture that is more leathery. Strawberries, peaches, apricots, and apples should have a texture that is more pliable. And finally, tomatoes, potatoes, and onions should feel crisp.
Dehydrating 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.
- Food Dehydration FAQ (Dry Store)
- Dehydrating Food (Backpacking Chef)
- Dehydration – How to Dry Foods Instead of Canning or Freezing (Pick Your Own)