Dehydrating 101

I remember when I was a kid visiting my grandparents during the summer and I would often see out in the backyard this huge homemade wooden dehydrator (which may have been built from the plans mentioned in the book below). It was usually filled with apple slices from the trees that grew in that yard that we helped harvest every year.

Over the years I have made my own dehydrated apples and jerky, often in the oven, because I didn’t do it enough to warrant buying a dehydrator. When I decided to start dehydrating in earnest so I could eat better on the trail, I was lucky enough to get one from my uncle who had recently upgraded his.

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I had a book, Dry It, You’ll Like It, that used to be my grandfather’s and I consulted it to get me started.  I have to admit, I was surprised to see they are even available online today.

Drying you own food is SO easy! It is the cheapest way to preserve your food and when done properly is superior to canned food. No electricity for the freezer and it takes up much less space in your pantry.  It is a great way to make healthy food perfect for “on-the-go”.

The process of dehydrating removes moisture from food to inhibit the growth of mold and bacteria.  It is important to prepare the food as cleanly as possible (wash your hands, wear gloves, and have  sterile environment). It also doesn’t eliminate bacteria on the food, so in conjunction with drying your food you need to store it correctly.  It is preferable to store your dehydrated food in vacuum sealed containers and keep it in a dark, dry, cool location.

I store my dried food in glass jars in my fridge until I put meals together.  Because my backpacking meals do not go without refrigeration for more than a month, I package my meals in freezer bags and other plastic bags.  If your food will go longer than that, it is better to invest in a vacuum sealer.  Plant food items last longer than meat and other animal products, one of the reasons I store mine separately until I need it.  I can keep plant food items over a year but even in the fridge I toss meat after 6 months, mostly because it starts to taste funny.  Any food with oil or fat will last less than foods that do not.

Here are a few of the tips I have picked up along the way that you might find helpful:

Prep

  • Thinner, smaller pieces dry faster
  • Spread evenly and don’t overlap
  • Don’t overload your trays
  • Use gloves, clean hands and sterile environment
  • Avoid oil or fat in when dehydrating

Drying

  • Dry strong smelling foods separately
  • Place less dry foods on top trays
  • Rotate trays for more even drying
  • Lower temps (90-100 degrees) for herbs and nuts
  • Mid temps (110-130) for fruits and veggies (prevents loss of vitamins)
  • Higher temps for meats (145-155)*
  • Leaves should crumble
  • Fruit should be pliable and leathery
  • Meat should be tough but not brittle
  • Let your foods cool completely before storing

*Most dehydrators dry meat at 145-155 degrees.  However, current food safety recommendations call for ground meat to reach a temperature of 165 degrees for 10 minutes in order to kill foodborne pathogens that may remain in the meat.  After drying the meat (particularly ground meat), preheat your oven to 165 degrees, place on a baking sheet and flash heat for 10 minutes.

Storage

  • Dried foods need to be stored cool, dry and dark
  • Place in a paper bag first then
  • Store in an airtight container
  • Keeping in the freezer until needed is best
  • Carry meals in sealed packages
  • Best when consumed within 1 year

Rehydrate

  • Do not add salt or sugar during rehydration
  • Most foods take 30 minutes-2 hours to rehydrate. Hot water speeds this time up.

If you are new to dehydrating and need to pick up a dehydrator of your own, it’s pretty easy to do.  You can find them at your local Fred Meyer, Target or Walmart.  Here is a great post on six popular models in a range of prices: Life Hack.  We all know Excaliber is the best, but it’s out of my price range. I have a Nesco American Harvest Snackmaster and I think it works great. I picked up the plastic liners at my local kitchen outlet.

 

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I am by no means an expert on dehydrating and I am constantly learning new things.  The Backpacking Chef does an excellent job of explaining dehydrating if you are new to dehydrating or would like more in depth information.  Plus, he has some great recipes, too.  Backcountry Paleo also writes an excellent description the dehydrating process.  I don’t think I could a better job, so I won’t try.

Do I need a dehydrator to try this out and dehydrate my own food?  No! You can use your oven, just follow the temperatures above being careful to monitor that the temperature stays consistent.  Too low of temps can lead to spoilage.

Keep track of your drying times as these will vary based on each food, your dehydrator and where you live (humidity).  Follow the directions that come with your very own dehydrator.

I am not currently preparing meals that need to last more than a month without refrigeration, so I can keep my meals in freezer bags stored in my fridge until I need them.  If you are preparing for a thru hike, or want to prepare food that will last longer than a month without refrigeration,  especially if you are preparing animal products, I highly recommend a vacuum sealer.

My first post on my blog talk about some of the basic foods I dehydrate and you check out some of my recipes to see how I combine them into delicious meals on my page Backpacking Paleo.  Each recipe will talk about modifications depending on your individual backpacking needs.

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