Through bad growing seasons, long winters, dry summers, and more, we humans have always had to find creative ways to keep our food edible for months on end. But these days, preservation methods like canning and dehydrating are less about survival, and more about embracing all that our food has to offer.
Different from canning, a popular food-preserving method that has reinvigorated the sales of mason jars, food dehydration requires less pantry storage space and can turn perishable foods into delicious on-the-go snacks.
More importantly, as we toss away more food than we consume, dehydrating the leftovers can help reduce food waste. And as with all cooking, making your own food from scratch means you can control exactly what you eat—no additives in sight.
After extensive research on which food dehydrators are worth the investment, I worked with the Excalibur dehydrator in the Reviewed kitchen to learn the ins and outs of making my own snacks.
What is a food dehydrator and how does it work?
A food dehydrator is a medium-to-large kitchen gadget that removes water from food through the constant circulation of thermostatically-controlled warm air. A heating element in the dehydrator raises the temperature in the unit, while a small fan on the back or bottom of the unit draws in air and blows it across the trays.
So what’s the difference between a convection oven and a food dryer? Simply put, the temperature in a food dehydrator doesn’t get nearly as high as in an oven. For average dehydrators, you can adjust the temperature between 90°F and 165°F. You can customize the time and temperature combination, depending on the types of food you plan to dry.
Food dehydrators have long been popular among home cooks and restaurateurs for their ability to increase the lifespan of easily spoiled foods. You can find dehydrators ranging from $30 to $300, but you don't have to shell out to get a solid machine. This affordable NESCO dehydrator has more than 4,000 positive reviews on Amazon and is perfect for small homes with limited storage space.
If you truly don't have the space for another single-purpose gadget and you're also interested in air frying and pressure cooking, we recommend the Ninja Foodi multi-cooker, which placed among our best multi-cookers.
What kind of food can I dehydrate?
You can dehydrate a variety of foods, from juicy tomatoes to leftover fresh herbs. But you don’t have to stop at produce. You can marinate slices of brined beef, chicken, and fish in sauces and spices and then leave them in a dehydrator to make jerky the old-fashioned way. If you’re interested in snacking on healthy treats, you can spread yogurt over the tray and make rolled-up yogurt leathers.
Factors that may affect drying time
Before you start the drying process, you should make sure all the pieces of your produce or meat are the same size. Evenly sliced food creates a uniform look and decreases your odds of over- or under-drying. Each piece should also be less than a quarter inch thick. One of our cooking writers, Lindsay Mattison, recommends this mandoline slicer for achieving perfectly even cuts.
The water and sugar content in fruits, vegetables, and meats all affect drying time. The general rule of thumb is that the more moisture and sugar your food contains, the more drying time it will require. For the right drying time and temperature combination, you can refer to this guide.
Because a dehydrator pulls in air from the surrounding area, you should also check with your local weather service for humidity data before you begin. The higher the humidity level, the longer your food will take to dry.
How to prepare your food before drying
Pretreating your fruits and vegetables before you turn on the dryer is optional, but it helps to reduce fiber deterioration and the loss of nutrients that tend to occur during the drying process.
There are two main types of pretreatment, blanching and dipping. Blanching, which involves submerging the foods in boiling water or steaming them for under five minutes, is most effective on tough-skinned fruits such as grapes and cranberries. By boiling the fruit for one to two minutes, you work to break the skin and allow water to escape faster, thus reducing the drying time.
Dipping allows you to be creative and add extra flavor to your dried food, particularly fruits. You can pick from a range of dipping selections, including fruit juice and honey, to make the most uniquely seasoned treats of your own.
If you’re opting for a fruit juice dip, stir one cup of juice into one quart of lukewarm water and soak for at least 10 minutes. If you don’t want the added fruity taste, you might want to consider an ascorbic acid-citric dip as an alternative—it's simply a form of vitamin C and can be found in all fruits. Mix two tablespoon of the powder in one quart of lukewarm water to make the dip, then soak the fruits in it for two minutes.
Honey-dipped dried fruits are also popular in grocery stores, but easy enough to make with your own dehydrator. Simply mix one cup of honey into three cups of warm water and stir until the honey dissolves, then add fruits into the mix for three minutes.
How to make fruit leather
Fruit leather is basically the grown up version of fruit roll-ups, but it costs less and uses less sugar. And it's totally customizable!
Step 1: Purée your fruit
To create a consistent texture, you must purée the fruits before you dehydrate—our team tested and found our favorite best immersion blenders and personal blenders for different blending purposes. While you’re blending the fruits, preheat the food dehydrator to 160°F.
Step 2: Prepare the dehydrator
Line the drying tray with parchment paper or this reusable silicone sheet that fits perfectly in all Excalibur dehydrators.
Step 3: Spread and dry the purée
Spread the purée evenly on the drying tray and make sure the thickness doesn’t exceed one quarter-inch. Leave the machine on for four to six hours until the leather appears translucent and is easily peeled off from the tray.
Step 4: Store the leather
Properly storing the leather can keep the dried products safe from critters and humidity (we recommend our favorite food storage containers, the Pyrex glass container set, if you're in the market). Store dried fruits, jerky, and vegetables in a cool, dark, and dry area. The ideal temperature for food storage is 50°F to 60°F to minimize spoilage and fading.
How to clean your food dehydrator
With a dry paper towel, wipe the trays thoroughly after each use—any food residue, spices, and oil may contaminate the food that you dry next time. Then, soak the trays in warm water for an hour or two. Add a few drops of white vinegar to deep clean the trays.
Take a damp paper towel and wipe the inner surface of the unit carefully to remove condensed moisture from the food. After cleaning, leave the trays and the unit in open air to dry. Drying under the sun can also minimize bacteria growth, which increases food safety.