Simple Dehydrators and Other Ways to Dry Food
by Pat Veretto
Buying a Food Dehydrator
Video: Using Food Dehydration to Cut the Grocery Budget
Learn to Preserve Seasonal Fruits and Veggies
(Note: These methods are only for vegetables and herbs. Don't dry meat without treatment beforehand and a controlled environment.)
The basic concept of making dehydrated or dried food for storage is to remove the moisture that allows pathogens to live and multiply and to stop natural enzymes that cause spoilage. Removal of moisture is accomplished by exposing food to warm, dry air. Some dehydrators use moving air, but that isn't necessary, of course. Basically, a dehydrator is a place to put the food to keep it free from insects and dirt, and to help keep the temperature and humidity at a more or less even level.
To dehydrate food without use of electricity or sun-focused technology may not be practical where you live without making some adjustments.
If your climate is cool, or if you want to dry food during the cooler part of the year, put your outside drying racks or trays in the center of a sheet of black plastic, which will absorb the sun's heat. Only stack them two or three high to keep them close to the source of heat.
If you live in a high humidity area, food may sour or mold before it can dry out of doors or indoors. Better air circulation is the key. Put the trays out in an open area if possible. A solar powered fan will help move things along. Watch the food carefully, and as soon as it's dry, pasteurize it in a very slow oven for about 10 minutes.
If you live in an arid or semi arid area, the following dehydrating methods are simple and cheap to free:
A solar dehydrator takes no paid-for energy and it can be as simple as a screen in the sun. Your grandmother may very well have dried fruits and vegetables on a low roof, stump or table set in the sun. She would have spread the food on a cloth or tray, then covered it with cheesecloth or other light material to keep bugs off of it, then she would have anchored the corners of that cloth with something heavy enough to hold it down in a breeze. She would check the food a few times during the day and turn or move it if necessary. If it looked like rain, she took the food indoors.
Solar dehydrators can be a little more complex, making them easier to move and position. Most of them are made in box shapes with screen shelves within wooden frames. Usually, they're surrounded by screening of some sort to keep the food clean and free of bugs. If you're at all handy and have a few lumber scraps around, you can make your own quite inexpensively.
Another way Grandmother might have dried food was to string it on a thread and hang it from the kitchen or hot attic ceiling. "Leather breeches" are green or string beans, picked fresh, washed, and strung whole with a needle and thread, then hung to dry. If in the kitchen, they would be hung near the cooking stove where they would be thoroughly heated by the fire at least three times a day. If flies or other bugs were a problem, cloths or brown paper were wrapped loosely around the beans. She might have dried many other fruits and vegetables this way.
Thin-leaved foods, like spinach or other greens, celery leaves and many herbs, dehydrate satisfactorily indoors without added heat. You can simply place them on a plate or tray and cover lightly with a napkin or a piece of cheesecloth. Leave it there until the leaves are crispy dry, then store in airtight containers. If you live in a high humidity area, you can finish them off in a very slow oven. It should only take five minutes or less to finish the drying. Test a piece by crumbling it in your fingers. It should fall apart easily.
A plate or rack on the top of the refrigerator or water heater is great for foods that need just a little heat to dry out. Peppers, celery stems (sliced or chopped) and chopped onions usually dry within two to three days this way.
From a reader: "One way of speeding the drying of foods I never see mentioned is to put the screens or any flat container (I sometimes use cookie sheets for herbs) in a car parked in the sun. Herbs will be dried in an hour or so on a hot day."
This does work, but check the herbs often, as they can cook rather than dry in a very hot car. Open all of the windows a couple of inches for air flow. It's best to not use metal cookie sheets if you're drying delicate herbs because they may even burn.
Vegetables can be dried inside a car, too, but be aware that the car may smell like whatever vegetable you've dried in it.
Dehydrating doesn't take specialized or expensive equipment. If it did, our ancestors would never have survived.
Pat Veretto is a work at home grandmother who has homesteaded, homeschooled and happily lived frugally most of her life. She currently freelances and is the moderator of The Dollar Stretcher Community at http://community.stretcher.com/forums/.
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