A great way to preserve surplus food items like vegetables, fruits, and even meat, is dehydration. It basically means to remove the water content from food to prevent a growth of microorganisms and decay of food items by natural or artificial methods. It is a great alternative to canning and freezing as dehydrating food is healthier, cheaper, requires less storage space and needs no freezer. So, do not worry if your family hasn’t been able to finish off the summer fruits and veggies; you can dehydrate them and have them in oatmeal, muffins, soups or like crisps all year round.
Before delving into the methods of dehydrating food, let us look at the fundamentals. Firstly, during preparation, it is important to select the freshest and ripest fruits and vegetables. Also, before the dehydration process begins, cut them up as you want them served; for meat the slices must be as thin as possible. Furthermore, even thickness and size are a must and most of these fresh foods must be washed properly to remove dirt. To prevent browning ‘sulphurize’ them, use steam or rub acidic juices (example: lime juice) on the slices. While drying, make sure you are using the right method and equipment: there are many ways to dehydrate food items including the Sun, ovens, commercial dehydrators and so on. Dabbing ham and beef with a tissue paper to remove water at regular intervals is considered a norm. It is also important to maintain a temperature between 130F and 140F with proper air circulation and know when the process is complete, as different items have different drying times. For fruits only, after drying, take care to leave them for conditioning (to further reduce a risk of mold growth) for a period of 4-10 days. Packaging is as crucial as the drying process itself. Using very tightly sealed air-tight containers, taking care not to let sulfurized fruits touch metal, packing the right amounts and as tightly as possible without crushing are very necessary to get the best results and for longer use. If you are storing meat then it’s better to use air-tight packets, instead of containers. Lastly comes the step of storing. These home-dried fruits and veggies should also be stored in cool, dark and dry places. It’s best to use them within a year and checking to see if they are dry, continuously, is also necessary.
Now, a difficult question: which technique do you use? Do you use a home-based method or just buy a commercial dehydrator? If you are looking for a cheaper and less ‘clunky’ method then just use the following alternatives to the electrical method –
- Oven-dry: This method produces the best results with fruits like apples and is amazingly easy. Use the lowest setting and put the finely sliced (0.25 inches thick) items on a lined sheet pan before sticking them into the oven for a period of approximately 7 hours. Although, the output would be less-than-satisfactory if compared with the traditional methods, they would still be good to go.
- Toast: Don’t want to use your oven, because you need it too frequently for other purposes? Then use your toaster. Just put it on the lowest temperature setting, remember to keep the door open to prevent condensation and check quite frequently. This method is very useful to prepare meat jerky (dehydrated meat snack).
- Sun-dry: This method is for the patient; sun-drying takes longer than other methods. Although, highly recommended for drying tomatoes and herbs, this method does not dwell well to dry other kinds of food, especially meat. This is one that is very prominent in the Eastern regions of the world.
- Nuke in Microwave: Don’t have time on your hand? Then this is the best method for you. However, this is one that needs quite a bit of trial and error to get right, but the results are very good indeed.
Now the thought arises, why buy an electronic dehydrator at all when alternate methods are available? Well, there are several important reasons. To start off, it’s a great way to get large batches of food items dried for the whole year in one go. Next, the settings and features are such that there is no need to check them regularly and the output is simply excellent. Also, it is quick and very simple to use. So, whatever the occasion, whenever the desire arises, you can just pop your favorite food in the electrical dehydrator and voila: you have a tasty and healthy snack to consume. However, before you go running to the departmental store to get this exciting kitchen appliance, it is crucial to note several things. Firstly, do you need a dehydrator at all i.e. are you going to use it frequently so that you get the worth of what you spend: these do not come cheap. Secondly, the price you want to spend matters. Thirdly, the type of dehydrator do you want that will satisfy your food needs – buy a vertical one is you are only interested in dehydrating one type of food, investing in a horizontal dehydrator if you are doing the opposite and put your money on one with fans if you prefer to dry bark or fruit leather. Fourthly, buy one with different temperature settings only if you need a variety, but always remember to buy the right kind of accessories (like trays and baking papers) for the best results. Lastly and fortunately, there are several brands to choose from including Presto, Nesco, Excalibur, etc. and here we have reviewed three of the most popular ones in three different price ranges.
- Under $100 – Nesco FD-75A Snackmaster Pro
Priced between $70 and $80, this is the most popular brand and model under the aforementioned price range. It is light-weight and measures 13 by 13 inches, and so, can be stored quite easily. It is the best choice for those who want a value-for-money product and use dehydrators only occasionally. Reviewers loved the fact that it comes with additional items like a dehydrating recipe book, solid and mesh sheets and jerky spice packets. Experts liked the fact that the trays are distinctly separated to prevent flavors from mixing. The best feature, reviewers have claimed, is the top-mounted which helps avoid messes and spills and also prevents the need to rotate the tray for even dehydration. The dehydrator can be stacked with up to 12 trays and even has an adjustable thermostat with a range of temperature settings. However, the lack of an on/off switch and timer caused many of the users to display dissatisfaction, but its longevity and other functions have had majorly positive reviews.
- Between $100 and $200 – Nesco FD-1040 Gardenmaster
An amazing machine with a 20 tray capacity, professional programmable settings for perfect dehydration, fully adjustable temperature settings and 1-year warranty this model costs approximately $150. It is suitable for people who want a moderate level budget and frequently have large parties/gatherings to serve snacks to. Flower petals, pine cones, grains, pasta and even milk powder can be dried in this, apart from your regular fruits, vegetables, and meat. Reviewers loved the opaque exterior and the fact that it is accompanied with a fine mesh tray, jerky cure, jerky seasoning, a fruit roll insert tray and a recipe book. Some users did have an issue with even drying, but that might just have been because of their inexperience in using it correctly as it boasts a Patented Converga-Flow Air Flow.
- Between $200 and $400 – Excalibur 3926TB
The best and most expensive one in this list, this dehydrator is available within $300 and $350 and is almost of a professional stance. It features an adjustable thermostat, built-in on/off switch, a range of temperature settings (95F- 155F), 15 square feet of drying space with 9 solid trays and horizontal airflow system for even drying. A great favorite amongst its reviewers was the fact that it has a 26-hour timer which meant that they could use it overnight and wake up to sweet-smelling dried snacks of meat, veggies or fruits, ready to be served the next morning. Others were amazed that this black appliance crafted from plastic had a 10-year warranty! Only some were unhappy with the large size but had no complaints about its functionality. So, this is the one to buy if you have money in your pocket and use a dehydrator regularly and/or for large groups.
More expensive brands and corresponding models are also available, but they are of a professional level and used for large-scale use in restaurants and cafes.
So, here’s the guide for all your dried food needs from the principles to the methods to reviews of the best electrical dehydrators for dehydrating foods. Hopefully, you will be able to make a right and more-informed choice concerning dehydrating your favorite food, next time.