My bedroom closet houses clothes, shoes, a cat-clawed housecoat, my knitting needle collection and a food dehydrator. Too wide for our narrow pantry, this unit spends most of the year in a corner of my closet looking like an abandoned R2-D2 action figure on Boxing Day morning. For eight months of the year it quietly collects dust and cat hair without complaining. The remaining four months? It’s hauled out, washed off, and gets dizzy being shuffled between my office and the kitchen table.
While I’m guessing few people keep a dehydrator in their closet, according to cookbook author and Professional Home Economist (PHEc) Jennifer Mackenzie human closet dehydrators have been lurking in the shadows for years. It’s only recently they’ve stepped into the light — and the bookstores. Jennifer co-authored The Dehydrator Bible (Robert Rose) back in 2009, but says that in the past two years sales for the book and dehydrators are “going crazy.” Who’s suddenly drying food? Avid campers, overwhelmed CSA box recipients, Farmers’ Market addicts and panicked gardeners.
Now, I’m not about to give up my spirited peaches or apricot jam, but there is room in my culinary repertoire for dying food. Over the years I’ve dried tomatoes, cherries, strawberries, blueberries, pineapple and even made fruit leather. My latest passion? Dried peaches.
Is a dehydrator a good choice for you? I spoke with Jennifer about this preserving option and she generously shares her pros, cons and tips.
8 Benefits of a Food Dehydrator
Depending on whether you buy extra trays, a good dehydrator costs less than $100, lasts years and can be shoved in a closet when not being used. Beyond that food dehydrators:
- Save space: Yes, the machine itself takes up room, but it shrinks food significantly, allowing you to fit a lot of preserves into a small area. This is ideal for camping, large families, and anyone with little room and a big appetite.
- Extend shelf-life: The book says dehydrated food keeps for 1 year to be safe, but Jennifer has kept items for 2 years without signs of mold. I didn’t dehydrate enough food to test this time limit. Most of my preserves are gone before winter is over.
- Make bad food obvious: Unlike with canning, which can harbour invisible bacteria, when dried food is compromised you can easily see the mold.
- Create versatile results: Not only can you dehydrate fruits, vegetables, herbs and more, you can eat them dried or rehydrate them for anything from cobblers to pizza sauce.
- Are cost effective: Dehydrators are not outrageously expensive and allow you to save the harvest when it’s least expensive. Most units are expandable, so you can buy more trays and layers as needed — or not, if that’s the case.
- Are flexible to use: You can dry one peach or a basket. The unit can run for days on end or for just a few hours.
- Have a fool-proof technique: Because the temperatures are so low it’s almost impossible to over-dry. Jennifer assured me more than once that, “You can’t mess up!” So, I tested her theory. Yup. I forgot about my first batch of dried peaches when I left them to cool. Of course it was a very humid day and they partially rehydrated. I dried them again, and they’re fine.
- Create healthy food: Dehydrated fruits and vegetables require no added sugar or salt or preservatives. Plus you get all the fibre of the whole fruit and all the minerals.
Limitations of a Food Dehydrator
After reading the benefits, you’re likely wondering what can’t this thing do? Here are some things to keep in mind before purchasing a food dehydrator.
- Dehydrated food isn’t necessarily raw: Although dehydrators operate at temperatures much lower than a conventional oven, most recommended settings are well above the 104°F raw-food limit.
- They won’t make garlic and onion powder: Unlike commercial driers, home dehydrators aren’t going to dry your onion and garlic enough for powders. You can dry them for rehydrating purposes.
- They don’t contain smells. You’ll love the smell of drying apples, but the air can become quite pungent when dehydrating items like garlic or onions. If you’re going to be home during the process, dry these aromatics in the garage. Don’t dry them outside if there’s threat of rain.
- Don’t work well with high-fat foods: Because dehydrators simply remove moisture, you can’t dry high-fat food like avocado and have the results be shelf-stable. If you’re making jerky, blot the fat that comes to the surface. While the meat will be safe, the fat can go rancid. If you’re not going to eat the jerky within a week, freeze it to protect the flavour.
Jennifer’s Dehydrator Tips:
To get the most out of your dehydrator:
- Give it room to breathe: Make sure it has adequate ventilation. Dehydrators require air circulation to work.
- Don’t let food overlap: It might be tempting to squish a lot of food onto a tray, but items shouldn’t touch or they won’t dry evenly.
- Don’t mix sweet and savoury Because the air circulates, flavours can transfer. While you can dry similar items at the same time — strawberries and peaches, for example — don’t mix fruit with aromatics.
- Use the best quality food: Like with jam, use the best fruit you can for dehydrating. Remove any bruises or soft spots before drying.
- Don’t dry any fruit with visible mold. The drying process won’t kill the mold spores.
- Rotate trays: If you’ve stacked the dehydrator to capacity, rotating the trays on occasion will help even drying.
- Cut grapes and cherries in half: Once you dry your own grapes or cherries, you’ll never want to buy bulk versions again. However, the fat, round shape takes a very long time to dry (unlike blueberries). Cut them in half before placing them on the drying tray. It’s worth the extra step.
Ready to give dehydrating a try? Start with peaches.
- fresh, ripe peaches or nectarines, washed, and free of mold
- lemon juice
- If desired, peel the peaches before drying them. There is no need to peel nectarines. Be sure to cut out any bruises and soft spots.
- Cut the fruit lenghtwise into wedges about ¼ inch thick at the widest part.
- To prevent browning, dip the fruit slices in lemon water (1 tablespoon lemon juice to each cup water) as you slice them. Drain well.
- Place on mesh drying trays, making sure the fruit doesn't overlap. Dry at 130°F (55°C) for 10 to 12 hours or until the slices are dry and leathery but still flexible.
- Store in an airtight container or resealable bag in a cool, dry, and dark place. Properly stored, dried peaches will keep for a year.
This is adapted from The Dehydrator Bible by Jennifer Mackenzie, Jay Nutt & Don Mercer. Published by Robert Rose ©2009.