One of the best problems a gardener can have is a crop that yields more than they can reasonably eat. It’s a sign of a job well done. That being said, it is still important to find ways to keep those extra fruits and veggies from going to waste.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to do this. You could simply give the uneaten produce away, or perhaps sell it at a farmer’s market. If you would prefer to keep it for later, you could always try canning. Or, even easier, you could try dehydrated food storage to preserve your extra fruits and veggies.
While modern dehydrating machines are relatively new, the act of dehydrating food has been around for ages. And there are numerous benefits to going this route. In this guide, we will talk about the advantages of dehydrating food, as well as how you can go about using this process in your own home.
Benefits of dehydrating food
The most obvious reason to try dehydrating food is to preserve it for later. Dehydration removes the moisture content from food which ultimately results in a longer shelf life. A tomato, for example, may last in the refrigerator for a week or two. A properly stored dehydrated tomato, on the other hand, can last up to 18 months. It’s also quite tasty in dehydrated form, although you can easily rehydrate it in water, as well.
Furthermore, dehydrated food packs a huge nutritional punch. It is more calorie-dense, so you don’t have to eat as much of it to feel full. And it retains many of the same nutrients as its non-dehydrated counterpart. If you are an avid backpacker or are looking for a healthy snack for an active day, dehydrated food is an excellent option.
Dehydrated food also minimizes your exposure to bacteria. If your dehydrated food is properly prepared and stored it creates an environment in which many harmful bacteria can’t grow. This helps reduce your risk of foodborne illness.
How to dehydrate food
Dehydrating food is easy, but it is a bit more involved than simply popping a whole cucumber on your dehydrator tray. Let’s take a look at how it’s done. There are many ways to dehydrate food, such as using the sun or your oven, but in this section, we will assume you are using a dedicated food dehydrator.
There are all sorts of dehydration units on the market. Basically, you are looking for one that is large enough for the amount of dehydrating you plan to do and that fits comfortably within your budget. Different units will have different features, such as thermostats, timers, automatic shut-off, and overheat protection. Some units are made entirely from plastic, while others use mold-resistant stainless steel. One option that features many bells and whistles while staying within a budget-friendly price range is Magic Mill’s 10 Tray Food Dehydrator Machine.
For more ideas on choosing a food dehydrator, see my article “Choosing the Best Food Dehydrator”.
Storage is key to extending the shelf life of your dehydrated food. While you could use a standard sandwich bag to preserve the food for a short while, a food-grade mylar bag will extend the shelf-life even further. Ideally, your bag should be completely sealable and come with an oxygen absorber. Tanzfrosch’s Mylar Bags are one such option. Best of all, you can add water right into the bag when it’s time to rehydrate.
To dehydrate food, you need to cut your ingredients as finely as possible. A thin apple slice is going to dehydrate much more uniformly than a huge chunk. With that in mind, a good knife is priceless. If you don’t already have a few lying around your kitchen, Home Hero Chef Knife Set is a great option. It even comes with a sharpener so you can keep your knives in good working order.
Glass jars with lids
After you dehydrate your food, you will use a process called conditioning to help ensure that all the moisture is gone and no bacteria or mold can grow. To do this, you will be using sealable glass jars. Ball Mason Jars work perfectly for this. They have lids that screw on tight and come in a variety of sizes.
Prepare the food you are going to dehydrate
The first thing to do is to chop your fruits and veggies. As we mentioned, they should be thinly sliced. If you are dehydrating a recipe, such as a chili, make sure that it contains no added fats such as oil that could spoil over time. Dehydrating meals is a bit trickier as different ingredients may need to be dehydrated at different temperatures and it can be a juggling act to make sure that everything in a given recipe can dehydrate nicely together. Indeed, when you’re just starting out, you may want to stick with dehydrating single foods.
Arrange food on the dehydrator tray
Once the food has been prepared, arrange it evenly on the dehydrator trays. Try and create an even, single layer across the bottom of the tray– don’t allow pieces of fruit or vegetable to sit on top of one another. It’s best if the pieces of food are not touching, either. During this step, separate your fruits and veggies as they dehydrate at different temperatures. Most vegetables dehydrate nicely at 125 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas it is usually recommended to keep fruit at 135 degrees Fahrenheit.
Run the dehydrator
Place your trays inside the dehydration unit and set it to your desired temperature. Then, turn it on. The length of time needed to dehydrate food may vary so you will want to check back frequently. On average, you are looking at somewhere between five and 10 hours for vegetables. Fruits can take longer, with some drying out fully in hours and others taking over a day. When done, the food should be dry to the touch.
Remove food and transfer to short-term storage
Once your food is done in the dehydrator, you may wish to condition the food. This step helps ensure that all the moisture is truly gone from the food and that no mold is going to grow. To do this, simply place your dried fruits or veggies in a clear glass jar. Tighten the lid and place the jar in a cool, dry area. Every day, shake the jar vigorously and look for any signs of moisture present, such as condensation on the inside of the glass or mold starting to form. Repeat this for one week. If no mold or moisture show up, your food has been properly dried.
Should you notice moisture, pop the food back in the dehydrator. If you notice mold, however, all the food in the jar is considered contaminated and you will want to throw it out.
Dehydrated food storage
Once your dehydrated food has passed the conditioning test, you can move it to long-term storage. Grab your mylar bags and place the food inside. Add the oxygen absorber and seal the bag. Some mylar bags have zipper locks, but for the most airtight seal possible, look for ones that require a heat seal. For this, you can use a heat gun or even a blow dryer. Simply hold the hold item in close proximity to the top of the bag and it will create an airtight seal.
Alternatively, if you have a vacuum sealer, you could also vacuum seal your dehydrated food. This will extend the shelf life in a similar manner to a heat-sealed mylar bag.
Tips for ensuring your dehydrated food lasts longer
To ensure your food lasts as long as possible, store your sealed bags in a cool, dry area. Furthermore, make sure you are not dehydrating anything with added oil or fat as it will spoil quicker. Conditioning your food will also help it last longer.
Dehydrating food is a simple way to help prolong the shelf-life of your garden harvest. And dehydrated food is versatile and easy to use, whether you eat it dehydrated or rehydrate your ingredients and use them in recipes. If you are looking for a simple alternative to canning, consider trying dehydrated food storage.