A couple of years ago, I started dehydrating foods. It takes some work, depending on the amount of food you are looking to preserve by dehydrating, but the payoff is definitely worth it. A while ago, organic farmer Dan Bodkin of Gill, Mass., taught me how to get started. More recently, he reviewed some tips and revealed his secret to perfectly dehydrated foods.
When asked why anyone might want to dehydrate fruits, vegetables or meats, Bodkin said, “All politics regarding sustainability aside, it’s just plain delicious. Dehydrated foods maintain the majority of their nutrition and color.” Bodkin has been experimenting and perfecting his methods of dehydrating foods for well over a decade. “If you cook, can or pickle, you will lose some of the nutrition and definitely color. If you have something like a beautiful heirloom tomato, it’s nice to keep the vibrant color,” he said.
Another reason to dehydrate foods is their value as gifts. “Every year during the holidays, I make up packages of dried fruits and veggies for my friends,” said Bodkin. Using a dehydrator, you can also dry or “jerk” meats.
If you are just getting started dehydrating foods, Bodkin said that your average, department store dehydrator is just fine. They generally cost about $40, but prices can vary widely for a basic dehydrator, which is round and has five shelving layers. They are run by electricity and have a heating unit. If you already have a basic dehydrator, you can also move on to more expensive models that cost upwards of $200. Bodkin uses what he refers to as the “Cadillac of dehydrators” — the Excalibur. Bodkin said that you can often find used dehydrators on eBay or other discount websites for a lower price.
What you are paying for is faster drying and greater consistency in the final product. Bodkin said in terms of where to start, he recommends apples, bananas and pears. “Asian pears, for example, have such a high sugar content, you basically end up with a confection.” He also likes widely experimenting and has dried watermelon, figs and kiwis.
Whatever you want to dehydrate, you want to have clean, undamaged produce that is not over-ripe, and meats that are fresh. You can experiment with thickness, but basically, you want to cut your product about an eighth of an inch thick, depending on what you are drying. You can add spices to the produce or meats, or in the case of tomatoes, you can brush them with a light coat of olive oil and herbs. The possibilities are endless. “Some tomatoes come out as rich as a steak," said Bodkin.
Less expensive models can produce uneven results. You want to make sure your product is neither too wet nor too dry. “You don’t want to end up with something you can crack a tooth on, nor do you want a gloppy mess,” said Bodkin. With less expensive models you will also need to check your dehydrating goodies at least once an hour until you get a feel for how quickly the process is moving. Plan on starting the process early in the day as it can take 10 or more hours for dehydration. The more moisture, the longer it will take to dry properly. Bodkin said that apples dry quickly which make them ideal to experiment with first.
So, here’s Bodkin’s secret: Take what you have dried off the trays when they are still slightly damp, and store in a rolled up, tightly sealed and stapled paper bag. The magic is that the items that are a little too moist balance out the items that are a little too dry. Bodkin recommends letting the product “cure” for about a week before transferring to storage containers.
Storage is critical. The one problem you can run into with dehydrated foods is worms and moths. Bodkin said even if you store your product in a glass jar, if the lid is compromised, moths can get in (he's seen it happen). Glass jars with good seals are best for storage. You can store jars in the refrigerator or triple-wrap the product in plastic and store in the freezer.
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