Friday, March 8, 2013

Kathy Harrison: Dehydrating Facts

Two weeks ago Andrea Chesman wrote a post entitled Dried Kale Chips. Her recipe requires the use of a food dehydrator. In her post Andrea goes on to say, Dehydrators are great for wild mushrooms and all manner of snack foods, from seasoned seaweed to dried berries. Unfortunately, my dehydrator (bought at a yard sale for $10) is a small-capacity dryer and just doesn’t seem practical for serious food preservation.”

Many of us Storeyites and many of our readers are interested in serious food preservation. Andrea’s post sparked questions and inquiries about dehydrators.

I am a follower of Kathy Harrison’s The Just In Case Book Blog. And I know from reading her posts regularly that she is into serious food preservation and uses a dehydrator as one of her preservation methods. With that knowledge I contacted Kathy and asked if she would write a dehydrator post for us.

Kathy was happy to respond. Here is the post she wrote for us:

Dehydrating Facts

When talking about dehydrating, it is easy to become confused. We often use the words “dehydrated” and “freeze-dried” interchangeably, but they are in fact very different methods. Freeze-dried foods are first flash frozen; then heat is applied inside a vacuum chamber. Food treated in this way can be vacuum sealed for long-term storage and retains much of the color, texture, shape, flavor, and nutrition of the original product. This is not a process that can be duplicated in the home kitchen.

Most of us eat dehydrated food every day. Soup mixes, pasta, even that bright orange macaroni and cheese that kids are so fond of are all examples of dehydrated food. This is a process that can be duplicated in a home kitchen with the right equipment.

When I decided to add dehydrating skills to my food preservation repertoire, I first experimented with a couple of solar dehydrator designs but decided pretty quickly that drying food with the sun is something best left to my friends in Arizona and New Mexico. Here in Massachusetts we need some help from technology. That’s when I got my first dehydrator. It had a tall cylinder shape and a heat source located at the bottom, with trays above to hold whatever I was drying. While this worked well for something like herbs and leafy greens, drying anything thicker was quite a process. Because the heat came from the bottom, the trays above had to be rotated every hour or so. The holes in the drying screen were fairly large, so anything small fell through to the bottom. There was no way to regulate the heat, which meant that, while some things such as spinach dried pretty well, anything thicker, such as dried apples, took forever, and the results were never consistent. Consistency matters, as one piece of zucchini that has retained some moisture can cause an entire jar to mold. Needless to say, as is often the case when you buy an inferior product, I quickly got tired of the whole process, and my first dehydrator landed on a high shelf in the pantry, where it did nothing but take up valuable kitchen real estate and mock me.

Several years ago a friend showed me her Excalibur Dehydrator. This was not anything like my old dehydrator; it was far larger and had controls for both time and temperature. The heat source was in the back, so warm air was pushed over the top of the drying racks. Food dried evenly without trays needing to be rotated. It came with paraflex sheets, which made it possible to dry fruit leathers in large rectangles. The dehydrator did not come cheap. It cost nearly three hundred dollars — a lot of money for me — but our garden was huge, and many things are better preserved by drying than any other way. Each year I dry huge amounts of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, which I turn into soup mixes and teas as well as use in everyday cooking. In the spring, as the garlic and onions are thinking about sprouting, I slice and dry these as well, extending their useful life by several weeks. Dry food will last almost indefinitely if stored properly. I store mine in mason jars that are vacuum sealed with a FoodSaver attachment.

Stainless Steel Excalibur Dehydrator
Photograph courtesy of

There are, of course, some downsides. I found the Excalibur to be quite loud. It also pumped quite a bit of heat into my kitchen at a time of the year when extra heat was the last thing I wanted. I solved this problem by using the dehydrator out on the deck. It finally found a permanent home in my summer kitchen, a solution not granted to most people.

I love getting creative with my dried foods. I have concocted my own seasoning mixes and specialty teas, as well as soup and vegetable side dishes. Having these things on hand saves me time and money, both important commodities around here. When choosing any kitchen equipment, I think it’s important to remember that these are not frivolous expenditures but rather investments. The right tool for the right job is the difference between a successful food preservation experience and wasted food.

Kathy's blog:

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