Until recently, people had to think ahead if they planned to eat. A home food storage program wasn’t just a precaution against emergencies, it was a necessary and very prudent part of everyday life. The home maker couldn’t just pop down to the local grocer to pick up staples for dinner and fast food chain restaurants had yet become a a part of daily life. In-home cold storage was inefficient and many homes still relied on root cellars or spring boxes as the mainstay for storage of fresh vegetables and fruits. Additionally, most was produced locally and had to be either eaten or preserved before it spoiled and was lost. Nowadays, home food storage leans more towards emergency preparations. Where in the past a large part of a family’s food very likely came from down the block or even their own backyard; now it is estimated that the average distance food travels from farm to table is approximately 1,500 miles. Our modern food delivery system is reliant on fossil fuels, a well maintained infrastructure and kanban just in time inventory management. If any single link in the distribution channel breaks down shortages appear in quick order. If multiple linkages break down the results could be truly cataclysmic. Natural and manmade disasters can wreak havoc on what is, in truth, a very fragile system. To make matters worse, unpredicted and acute increases in demand can also overwhelm the system. We’ve all seen news reports showing empty store shelves as panic buying ensues following reports of the next big storm. Learning a few, simple food preservation methods can help you and your family not only build resilience, but can also help you affordably build a stockpile of food to nourish you if times are tough. Continue reading to learn more and discover the Top 10 Food Dehydrating Tips.
How man acquires and stores food has guided much of human history. From the days of the hunter gatherers to modern times how we grow, forage, harvest and store food has been at the very center of each person’s daily existence. One of the earliest, if not the first ways of preparing food for storage was by dehydrating or drying. Ancient humans would lay their bounty on sun warmed rocks or hang it in trees and allow the wind and heat of the day dry it out. As a result they had a preserved food store that could be cached for later consumption. The drying process limited both spoilage and waste and could quite literally make the difference between life and death as food sources became more scarce later in the year.As human culture developed, creativeness and ingenuity prompted the development of new ways of drying food for storage. The use of fire sped up the process and allowed us to dry food even in a moist environment. Hanging meat and vegetables on purpose-built racks, or in coarsely woven bags, allowed warm winds to more efficiently dry foods. Windowsills, stovetops and ovens allowed the process to be brought inside.
The more recent invention and marketing of personal use dehydrators powered by the sun, gas (natural or propane) and electricity has brought the process to a modern efficient state. Even with these ease of these modern conveniences, dehydrating at home is for many, a lost art. This ancient food preservation method is in resurgence though as more and more people are choosing to become more prepared and self-sufficient they are once again choosing dehydration as a food storage option. The first choice of many is the electric dehydrator. Electric dehydrators are simple gadgets which use heat and air to draw water out of food. Good electric dehydrators have adjustable heat and fan controls. Food is placed on trays, the device is turned on and the temperatures is set. After several hours the food is dried and ready for long term storage. The electric dehydrator is very reliable and it eliminates the guess work associated with using the sun, the oven, or a smoky fire while dehydrating food but it is reliant on a reliable source of electricity. Additionally, being able to dry food on your kitchen counter protects it from bugs and birds that could steal or foul your food as well. Dehydrators that have fans force warm air around the food. Ones without fans require tray rotation, in order to ensure that the warm dry air reaches all the food. Tray rotation takes time, and can be a chore, especially when it is needed at odd hours of the day and night. Some dehydrators have preset static temperatures, while others have variable heat. Heat control allow for a wider range of food preparation. Some foods require low heat, while others like meat require higher temperatures. Being able to regulate the temperature makes the whole process much easier and less reliant on your labor and attention…and an easier dehydrator will see more use than one that requires more work.
Electric dehydrators range in price from around $30 to $1,000 or more. The come in a variety of sizes and styles. A common shape for home use is round, with a lid and a base like the NESCO Gardenmaster Dehydrator pictured to the right. The heating element and fan for these round units are located in the lid or the base. These units are somewhat scalable for the size of your dehydrating job because they come with a number of stack-able trays that fit between the base and lid. The trays are perforated and warm air flows between them, drying the food.
Another variety is square and range in size from counter-top models to large cabinets capable of drying large amounts of food at once. Square dehydrators usually have doors and removable trays. On these models, the heating element and fan are usually mounted on the back. Warm air is pushed around the chamber, drying the food. Some things to consider when selecting the food dehydrator is right for you is that round ones tend to be smaller and more scalable while square dryers will let you more easily tackle the larger dehydration tasks. The square cabinet styles also tend to be more expensive. The square dehydration cabinets also tend to offer more bells and whistles. Each of these types of dehydrators will do the job so it largely comes down to personal preference.
Whichever style of dehydrator you choose, your dehydrator should come with a couple of useful accessories sheets. The first is a mesh sheet. The holes on your dehydrator’s trays may be too big to keep smaller pieces from falling through once they shrink from dehydration. The mesh sheet’s holes are much smaller than the trays, allowing you to do a wider array of foods. Also, foods high in sugar content like bananas and tomatoes tend to stick to the regular trays so the mesh trays make clean up easier. The mesh sheets also minimize liquids from dripping on to lower trays, or the base. The second sheet is called a “leather sheet”. The leather sheet is a solid plastic sheet that fits on the tray. It is used in making fruit leathers, and drying thick foods, or purees, like spaghetti sauce, ketchup, and pea soup. You can use the two sheets together when drying food with high oil contents. Place the leather sheet on the tray, then the mesh one on top of it. This allows oils to drip through the mesh sheet and collect on the leather sheet. Again, this makes clean up easy and quick.
The last thing to consider when getting into home dehydrating with an electric food dehydrator is storage containers. If made for long term storage, the food must be kept in air, and water tight containers. There are a lot of options available to keep your food in but I think the cheapest, easiest and most readily available in the modern kitchen are Ziploc style bags. Place your food in one, seal it up tight and then put it in the fridge or freezer to further extend the storage life. If properly dehydrated and stored your food will keep for years. Another good container options is recycled canning jars with quality lids. Kept on the shelf at room temperature, food stored in jars can last for a year which should get you through the next growing season. A method that is a little bit more expensive, but can save food for decades is vacuum sealed bags. Using a Foodsaver style vacuum sealer, you can remove air that will ruin your dried food over the long term. You can get a good vacuum sealer for around $100-$200 dollars. Over the long run, the money you save in food not lost to spoilage will pay for the purchase. The final option is storage is mylar food storage bags. While this method is costly and time consuming your dehydrated food stored with the use of oxygen absorber will last almost indefinitely.
In the end, no matter what motivated you to start dehydrating food, it is a beneficial skill to learn and practice. Not only will dehydrating help you save money on food but it will also encourage you to each much more nutritious food if preserve healthy, local fresh produce and meat.
Here are some useful links if you are interested in exploring more about dehydrating:
Ready to expand your dehydration skills to non-electric dehydration…if so check out this article at ThePrepperProject.com.