Dehydration is the scientific process of removing the moisture content from food in order to make it last longer. This method of food preservation has been around since ancient times when people would dry fruits and fish in the hot desert sun.
If you’ve ever hung up a few sprigs of herbs and watched them dry over the course of a few weeks, you’ve already done some form of dehydrating. It’s a great way to save some of your summer harvest so you can eat it throughout the year.
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Dehydration works by removing the moisture content from food. This slows down the process of food breakdown from natural enzymes and microorganisms. Some kinds of dehydrated and properly stored foods will safely store for up to one year, or at least long enough to get you through the winter and into early spring crops.
How do you dehydrate food properly so that it stores well and stays safe to eat? Here are 15 rules for dehydrating food to make sure it is safe and delicious.
1. Understand The Science Of Food Dehydration
When dehydrating food, you’ll need to make sure that two things happen correctly to ensure your food is safe to eat and still tastes good: you need the right air temperature and the right duration of time to properly dehydrate your food.
- Fruits should be dried at 140 degrees Fahrenheit and will take anywhere from 5 hours to 24 hours, depending on the type of fruit and how thin the pieces are.
- Vegetables can also be dried at 140 degrees Fahrenheit and should take anywhere from 4 to 24 hours.
- Jerky needs to be heated to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. This can be done by heating the raw meat in a marinade or heating the dried meat in a 275-degree oven after the jerky has been made. For full instructions, click here.
2. Choose The Right Method To Dehydrate Food
There are multiple ways to dehydrate food:
- Commercial Dehydrators – Commercial dehydrators are a significant financial investment, but they do offer consistent results. You’ll want to choose one with good customer reviews, such as the Excalibur Food Dehydrator.
- Air Drying – Air drying is a great way to dry herbs from your garden. It’s generally pretty simple, just rubber band a nice bunch of mint or some other herb and hang it upside-down in a warm room with lower humidity (such as a room with a wood stove, but definitely not in your bathroom).
- Sun Oven – If you live in a sunny climate, you can try to dehydrate foods in a Sun Oven. These are a great way to experiment with being off-grid. However, sometimes the drying time outlasts the amount of sunshine in a day. Make sure your fruits and vegetables are sliced extra thin to accommodate a shortened drying time and follow the manufacturer’s directions.
- Electric Oven Or Range – You can dehydrate in a regular oven by setting the temperature to 140 degrees, propping the oven door open, and blowing a fan across the opening for air circulation. This is a great way to experiment with dehydrating food without investing in a commercial dehydrator. Keep in mind that safety is going to be a concern in households with children and pets.
- Woodstove – You can purchase special racks to hang over or near your wood stove to dry fruits and vegetables. These racks are certainly less of an investment than a commercial dehydrator, but the results may not be as consistent since you’ll be depending on the heat from the woodstove. You’ll need to keep the woodstove fire going until the food is dehydrated. It helps to keep a thermometer near the food that is drying so you can work at keeping a more consistent temperature.
3. Dehydrate To The Right Moisture Content
There will still be a small amount of moisture left in your fruit after it is dehydrated, but the key is how much. Leaving too much moisture in the food leaves room for microorganisms to continue to break down the food, leading to faster spoilage.
Fruits should be dried to about 20% moisture content. They may be pliable but should not be sticky or visibly wet. Berries should rattle against each other when shaken.
Vegetables should be dried to 10% moisture content. They should be crisp and even breakable.
4. Choose A Safe Spot For Your Dehydrator
Dehydrating food takes time. While it takes hours and sometimes days to dehydrate certain foods, you’re going to need to make sure you pick the right spot to keep the dehydrator while you’re doing it.
Are you willing to use up precious kitchen counter space for a few days to dehydrate your foods? Is your kitchen too humid to dehydrate properly? Also, your dehydrator puts out a lot of heat.
In the summer months, you may want to consider dehydrating on your covered porch, in your garage, or basement, if they are clean and safe. This will keep odors and heat outside of your house. Don’t put your dehydrator anywhere that the heat could cause damage.
5. Dehydrate The Right Foods
Certain foods just don’t dehydrate well. Foods such as avocado, butter, milk, juice, and soda are not good choices for dehydration. Foods that are high in fat can go rancid or just not dehydrate properly.
Some foods, such as butter, have the potential to carry pathogens when dehydrated. Lean meats, fruits, legumes, and vegetables make a much better choice to preserve through dehydration.
6. If You Eat It Raw, You Probably Don’t Need To Cook It Before Dehydrating
Most foods that you can eat raw do not need to be cooked before you dehydrate them. For example, apples or tomatoes can be dehydrated without cooking. A few vegetables, such as broccoli and corn, taste better and last longer when blanched first.
7. Don’t Mix Flavors
Be wise when choosing what foods to dehydrate together. If you try to dehydrate onions in the same batch as say, strawberries, you’ll just end up with some oniony flavored berries, which are probably not very appetizing.
Keep your flavors separate. Stick with dehydrating all fruits together but keep tomatoes and onions or other strongly flavored foods on their own.
8. Keep It Clean
Both your food and your dehydrator need to be kept clean. Make sure you wash your food thoroughly to remove any contaminants. Wash your dehydrator before and after use according to the manufacturer’s directions, in order to cut down on flavor contamination and the growth of microorganisms.
9. Dehydrate Quality Foods
Dehydrating food does not improve its quality, so if you want good quality dehydrated food, stick with quality produce and meat, to begin with.
With that in mind, however, you may be able to push the limits on food that is overripe. Some fruits that are slightly overripe are no longer appetizing because of their texture and not because they are unsafe to eat. If this is the case, you can go ahead and dehydrate these items because the texture will be changed by dehydration anyway.
10. Cut Foods Into Thin Slices
It might be tempting to shove some whole fruits and vegetables into your dehydrator to see what comes out. But the likelihood of success is pretty minimal. Instead, slice your fruits and vegetables into thin pieces. The thinner the slice, the more quickly it will dehydrate and the better your results will be.
11. Treat Fruits To Prevent Browning
Some foods, like apples and bananas, will turn brown during the dehydration process. To avoid this, you can soak fruit for three to five minutes in a solution of absorbic acid and water. Just mix one tablespoon of Ball Fruit Fresh Produce Protector one quart of water and soak your fruit slices in it before drying. See the manufacturer’s directions for best results.
12. Cool Foods Completely Before Packing And Storing
If you pack and store food before it has cooled completely, it could sweat, which introduces moisture and the possibility of contamination back into the food you just dehydrated.
13. Store Food In Airtight Containers
Glass containers are great for storing dehydrated foods because you can see if moisture has collected inside. Vacuum sealing or freezing can extend the life of your dehydrated foods.
14. Use Food Immediately If It Reabsorbs Moisture
If you notice that your dehydrated food has attracted or reabsorbed moisture, use it immediately before it spoils. If you see signs of mold or spoilage, throw it away.
15. Store Dehydrated Foods In Cool Dark Areas
Dehydrated fruit can store between four and twelve months at 60 degrees. Vegetables can be stored for about half that length of time, according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
Choose a respected resource for more details on dehydrating food. Make sure you follow the recipes and rules for food safety from respected online resources such as the National Center for Home Food Preservation or the Penn State University Food Preservation Database.
Remember that in order to safely dehydrate food, you need to use a high enough temperature to remove moisture and destroy harmful microorganisms.
However, dehydrating at too high of a temperature will destroy the flavor, taste, and quality of your food. After drying, store your food safely and you’ll have nutritious quality food for you and your family.
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