I mean, who doesn’t love good fruit leather. I know that you’re all willing to spend that $9 on a bag of dried mango that contains a measly 6 pieces. You can’t tell me that you don’t occasionally grab a bag of beef jerky after filling up your gas tank.
I always found it kind of weird that one can buy meat stored in a bag, unrefrigerated, for an almost indefinite amount of time. How is that possible? Why doesn’t it go rancid? It turns out that this method of food dehydration was once upon a time a principal part of everyone’s diet before fridges were ever around.
Related: Fermentation | Salt and Sugar Curing | Canning | Cold Storage | Benefits and History of Food Preservation | Food dehydration | Food Preservation | Types of Food Dehydrators | Food Storage Ideas | Types of Canning Racks
The reason why food goes bad is because of its air and water content. Bacteria live in water, and extracting water content from fresh produce completely inhibits the possibility of mold growth. Drying and dehydrating fresh food can be done in a number of different ways.
Traditionally, food was dehydrated by the drying forces of the sun, air, wind, and even smoke. Modernized dehydration can be done with an oven and commercial drying units.
Oftentimes the drying of food is combined with salt curing, for extra flavor and drying speed. Salt curing is simply another method of drawing water out of food by a function of osmosis (the movement of water molecules through semi-permeable membranes – like fruit skins – from a region of high water content to a region of lower water content).
The evidence of drying and dehydrating as food preservation has been present since around 12,000 BC. For centuries, almost every diet was completely reliant on different forms of dried/cured meat. Some recognizable ones:
- in Icelandic cultures, much-dried haddock was and is consumed
- the South African version of jerky is called Biltong
- you’ve definitely tasted prosciutto, the thinly sliced dried/cured meat perfected by Italians
- dried reindeer was a major staple in Sami food – indigenous Finno-Ugric cultures
For many centuries (before there was such thing as refrigerators) the European diet mainly consisted of something called salted cod. This was the only source of protein for sailors and travelers. It would keep forever and would provide much-needed nutrients for people who’s other food sources were unreliable at best.
How to Dehydrate
Literally, anything can be dehydrated as long as it’s properly prepared. Something will dry best if it is thinly sliced and is properly spaced out. To be the most effective, a great method is to blanch your food before dehydrating it. Some other tips:
- lower acidity fruits and vegetables should receive an acid bath before being dried (high acid content is too hostile an environment for bacteria to survive)
- fruit skin needs to be either removed or broken since the skins main function is to protect the flesh from rotting
- the thinner you slice, the faster it will dry (try to do it uniformly)
- things with high sugar content increase drying time, so are prepared to wait for things like strawberries
Sun-drying is the first and oldest method of food dehydration. Oftentimes dedicated to meat products, cooked (sometimes raw) meat is very thinly sliced, splayed out, and left to dry in the sun until there is absolutely no water left. This method of food preservation is almost always combined with salt curing.
You can also use this method by taking whatever product you wish, laying them out on baking dishes, and leaving them outside to dry in the sun. Be wary of other critters that may want a taste!
When thinking of air/wind drying, I tend to think about bundles of herbs or flowers tied and left hanging upside down to dry. This can happen in any room that has proper ventilation and isn’t too humid.
Air drying will take a longer time than sun drying as there is a lack of heat, but if you’re not in a rush, this is a very passive way of dehydrating food.
We’re all familiar with the wonderful products that come from a smokehouse. Americans are no strangers to the art of barbecue. This option is slightly less available than sun and air drying, as sun and air exist everywhere! Building a smokehouse isn’t too expensive and will have you giddy with things you can experiment with.
Another neat thing about smoking (other than incomparable flavor) is that smoke actually aids in preservation. The smoke provides antimicrobial agents that cause pyrolysis with food that is being smoked. That’s why smoked salmon can be both juicy and completely preserved at the same time.
This is a method of smoking that anyone has access to as well. In terms of energy efficiency, it is by far the worst option. This is because oven drying has to be done at a super low temperature for a rather long time.
Set your oven to about 140 degrees-Fahrenheit and place your thinly sliced food into cookie sheets. The temperature can’t be any higher because then the food would be cooking instead of drying. The most crucial part of oven drying is propping the oven door open for air ventilation. It’s a good idea to place a fan near the open oven door to keep the hot air moving.
Commercial Drying Units
This is the most expensive option for dehydrating food products, but it yields the most consistent and ideal results. With commercial dehydrators, you can easily set the temperature and humidity level, with a timer. It’s safe, foolproof, and an excellent option if you’re planning on doing a lot of dehydrating.
One Final Hot Tip
If you’re ever feeling unsure about whether or not your food product still has any water content left in it, seal it in a jar and wait a while! If condensation builds in the sealed jar, the indicates it still needs more drying time.
How does dehydrating food affect its nutritional value?
Unfortunately, vitamins A and C are completely destroyed when subjected to heat and air. Dehydrated food should by no means be the majority of anyone’s diet, but it’s a great thing to have in the cupboard.
Is dehydrated food safe?
When a food product is completely dried out it proves to have no risks of food-related illness. It only can cause illness if it wasn’t properly dehydrated and still contains water, but if this were the case, it would be obvious the food shouldn’t be eaten.
What is better, dehydrated dog food or kibble?
New studies show that dehydrated alternatives for dogs are actually a healthier option, as their cooking process is much slower and deliberate, whereas traditional dog foods are highly processed.
Why is dehydrated food good?
Usually, dehydrated food is completely 100% natural. Doing it yourself is a wonderful, healthy, and affordable snack. There is absolutely no mess. And it also reduces the waste of packaging and potentially drying fruits and vegetables that are on their way out.