Dehydrated food used to be something functional and practical in certain situations. It was valued as a lightweight, compact, nutritious way to preserve food for hiking, survival kits, or even military meals. While some people dehydrated for home use, it wasn’t as common as freezing or canning. That doesn’t mean it’s new though! Dehydrating is an ancient method of food preservation, which historically utilized the sun and wind instead of an oven or fancy dehydrator.
“Dehydration is one of the oldest methods of food preservation and was used by prehistoric peoples in sun-drying seeds,” says Encyclopedia Britannica. “The North American Indians preserved meat by sun-drying slices, the Chinese dried eggs, and the Japanese dried fish and rice.”
Dehydrating food at home is becoming much more popular for both convenience and health reasons. Probably the most common reason is to have healthy alternatives to snack foods, such as banana or kale chips. Even less healthy foods, like jerky and fruit leather, are more healthy when made at home using better choices and less chemicals (such as artificial colouring, flavours and preservatives). The popularity and expense of dehydrated pet treats has resulted in more pet parents opting to make their own as well.
Dehydrating food is just that – removing moisture. Water content is what allows bacteria, mold and other organisms to grow. You can remove the moisture without compromising the nutrient content. In fact, nutrients are more concentrated when the moisture is removed from fruits and vegetables. You can use your oven, a dehydrator, or a sun/solar dryer to dehydrate food.
Dried food can be safely stored for long periods and then eaten as is, or be rehydrated. They’re great for mobile snacks or to quickly throw into your Instant Pot with other ingredients for a fast, nutritious meal. You can make your own dried herb mixes too!
The most common error people make when dehydrating food (especially meat) is not maintaining a high enough temperature to prevent spoilage during the dehydration process. In fact, many cheap dehydrators don’t reach a high enough temperature to dehydrate meat at all, and are only meant to be used for fruit and vegetables.
As a general rule, if there is no temperature control on the dehydrator it probably doesn’t get hot enough to use for meat. With so many recalls due to contaminated produce in recent years, a higher temperature is also advisable for vegetables and fruit. Your dehydrator (or oven) must be able to maintain a temperature of 145°F, preferably higher. It can’t hurt to run a test using a thermometer without food to ensure your dehydrator is hot enough.
For added safety, use extra-lean meat sliced to no more than 1/4 inch thick. You’ll find cold meat is easiest to thinly slice. Place it in the freezer for about half an hour and slice immediately.
It should be noted that while you can save a lot of money in electricity by using a solar food dryer, it isn’t as versatile due to safety concerns. We recommend you stick to fruit when sun drying, as the sugar and acids protect it from spoilage as it dries.
How long can I store dehydrated food?
Jerky lasts for 2-6 months if stored in a cool, dark place. Fruit and vegetables last even longer if stored properly. You can freeze dehydrated food for 6-12 months and this is the safest option.
For a longer shelf life, consider using a vacuum sealer or store in an air-tight container or mason jar. There’s no need to spend a fortune on a vacuum sealer. I’ve had a basic Seal-A-Meal for years and it still works like a charm. The best thing about a vacuum sealer is it can be used to preserve any number of foods and is particularly useful for preventing freezer burn.
There is more detailed information available that will teach you about the best foods to dehydrate, drying times, preventing browning and retaining colour, safe storage, and so on. I picked up a book a couple of years ago that covers it all, called The Beginner’s Guide to Dehydrating Food: How to Preserve All Your Favorite Vegetables, Fruits, Meats, and Herbs, by Teresa Marrone.
How to Make Fruit Leather
- Choose your favourite kind of ripe fruit.
- Wash, remove peel, seeds and stems as required.
- Cut fruit into cubes if necessary. You’ll need about 2 cups of fruit for each 13″ x 15″ inches of fruit leather. Add 3 TBSP of sugar if desired. Puree until smooth.
- To prevent browning, add 2 tsp of lemon juice for each 2 cups light colored fruit (such as apples, pears or bananas).
- For oven drying, use a 13″ X 15″ pan with edges. Line pan with parchment paper or plastic wrap and smooth out wrinkles. Don’t use waxed paper or aluminum foil.
- Spread puree evenly onto the pan without touching the edge of the pan.
- Place in the oven at 140°F for approximately 8-12 hours.
- While still warm, peel the fruit leather from plastic wrap and roll or cut into shapes. Store in plastic wrap for up to one month at room temperature, or one year in the freezer.
I find a square dehydrator works best, but a round one can be used too.
- Spread puree evenly onto tray lined with parchment paper.
- Set dehydrator temperature to 140°F for approximately 12 hours. This can vary widely depending on the efficiency of your dehydrator. When it’s done, it should feel smooth to the touch and not stick to your fingers.
- Cut and roll in parchment paper.
Play with this beef jerky recipe until it’s the perfect taste for you.
3/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
3/4 cup soy sauce
1 TBSP smoked paprika
1 TBSP honey
2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
2 pounds beef (thinly sliced or ground meat)
- Whisk together Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, paprika, honey, black pepper, red pepper flakes, garlic powder, and onion powder in a large bowl.
- Add beef to bowl and mix until the beef is completely coated. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for at least three hours.
- Preheat oven to 175°F.
- Line a baking sheet (with edges) with aluminum foil. Place a wire rack over the foil.
- Remove the beef from the marinade and place on paper towels to dry.
- Place beef slices in a single layer on the prepared wire rack over baking sheet. Bake until dry and leathery, approximately 3-4 hours.
- Cut to desired size and store in a cool, dry place or freeze.
Place marinated meat strips on dehydrator tray and dry at 145+°F until they reach preferred dryness.
How to Make Banana Chips
Sea salt or Cinnamon
- Peel the bananas and slice them very thin. Brush with lemon juice to reduce browning.
- Bake at 250°F for approximately 1½ – 2 hours, turning about halfway through. If you’re using a dehydrator, start drying at 150°F for a couple of hours, then reduce temperature to 130°F.
- Season with sea salt or cinnamon.
How to Make Zucchini Chips
- Slice zucchini into very thin, uniform slices.
- Lay the slices in a single layer a dehydrator tray or baking pan for the oven. Sprinkle with seasoning of your choice.
- Dry at 125°F until dry and crispy. Check often and remove slices that are done while leaving the rest to continue drying.
Tip: I can tell you from experience that hand slicing food so thinly is difficult and tedious. Thin, uniform slices are SO much easier to create if you use a Mandoline Slicer on firm fruit and vegetables.
Your New “Normal”
Once you start, you may be inspired to get more and more creative with the foods you dehydrate. You’ll find lots of recipes online and there are some fantastic cookbooks out there too.
Preserving your own food is healthy, rewarding, practical and addictive! Check out some other methods of preserving food and make it your new way of life.
??? What are your favourite ways to use a dehydrator to preserve food? Please share your recipes or questions in the comments below.
✔ You may also be interested in reading:
Food Preservation Guide III – Jam, Jelly and Fruit Preserves
Food Preservation Guide II – Canning and Pickling Tips and Recipes
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