Dehydrating Foods for Long Term Storage

Long before canning came along, people used to dehydrate foods by drying them in the sun and/or air. The basic premise is to eliminate enough moisture that the food item will not mold and thus will keep for a long time. Some dehydrated items require reconstitution in water before using them in recipes.  Others can be eaten in their dried form, as in the case of dried fruits, and still others can be used directly in recipes such as herbs for teas and culinary use. 

Air Drying

This is perhaps the simplest method and it is best used for leafy plants and flowers. For drying flowers and most herbs, simply tie small bundles of the plant stalks together and hang upside down in a warm, dry place.  For items such as peppers, you can string them together with a needle and thread. Other items such as garlic and onions are often prepared by braiding the greens together before hanging to dry. 

Where can you hang items to dry? We use our attic. Others use their barn or pegs on a wall somewhere in their house. As long as the area is dry and warm, it should work well. Here is a list of items that air dry well:

Sun Drying

This method is how sun-dried tomatoes are made.  It requires you to lay the items to be dried out in the sun for a period of time. For this method, it is best to use a raised screen on which to lay your produce.  This allows good airflow underneath as well as on top, which helps your produce to dry and minimized the chance of it molding underneath. You can build your own screens  or you can find them at places like Lehman's.

While this method has been used for centuries (and makes the most amazing dried tomatoes), there are some potential issues to keep in mind.  Outside of potential molding, one of the biggest concerns is keeping your food safe from  critters and insects that may be drawn to your produce. Insects are perhaps the easiest issue to overcome. You can prevent them from landing and laying eggs by covering your items with cheesecloth. If you have critters such as squirrels, chipmunks, deer, etc. that will carry off your produce before it dries, you will want to be sure to keep it in an area that will be inaccessible to them. To protect it from the birds, simply cover your produce with cheesecloth as you would to protect it from insects. 

Electric Dehydrator

The options above are the best methods to use for frugal drying and off-grid scenarios. If you are on-grid, you have another option: the electric dehydrator. You can dry anything from herbs, to fruits and vegetables in one of these. While it cuts down on the time needed to dry, it does cost in electricity. The benefit is that it cuts down on drying time and can be used for nearly any small items you would want to dry from fruit leather, to jerky, to herbs.  My parents gave me a dehydrator years ago. It has seen a lot of use and is still going strong. I keep it busy over the spring and summer months. When drying multiple items, I like to label the trays with a dry erase marker so I don't forget what I have on each tray.

Electric dehydrator

Labeling dehydrator trays with a dry erase marker can help you keep track of what you have on each tray.

Oven Drying

Many people use their oven to dry items as well. This works for on-grid as well as off-grid ovens. Oven drying is best done at the lowest temperature your oven allows. The drawback to this method is that most ovens cannot be set at a low enough temperature to dehydrate foods.  Here is a chart I found online with a guideline to what temperature at which items should be dried. The link also includes basic steps for dehydrating in the oven as well as directions for drying fruit leather. While you can dehydrate many foods in the oven if your oven temperature is flexible enough, the oven often works best for:

Once your produce or meat is dried, it is best stored in an airtight container. Dehydrated foods will spoil if moisture is re-absorbed during storage. To extend the life of your dehydrated food, you can use a vacuum sealer, or even vacuum seal it with an oxygen absorber.  Be sure to check your food items periodically for signs of potential spoilage.