With people, dehydration can be life-threatening. But with food, it gives you tons of healthy options. The potential is limitless: dehydrating food can help your family eat more produce, decrease waste, save time and money, and avoid preservatives. What more could you ask for?
Have you always wanted to try dehydrating but didn’t know where to start? Or– let’s be honest– did you get a dehydrator with good intentions, then get distracted and banish it to the corner of your garage?
Yes, the whole process takes some planning, so here are a few easy tips to minimize your effort and maximize your enjoyment while avoiding common pitfalls.
Before you can start, you’ll need a dehydrator. If possible, borrow one from a friend or neighbor to test it out first. Some are tiny, some are huge. Some are round, some are rectangular. All have their pros and cons.
In general, the smaller ones tend to be round, which allows for a fan at the top with good air flow. Larger ones can be used to make jerky from an entire deer and resemble small refrigerators. The square or rectangular trays allow large pieces to fit neatly, but they were cost- and space-prohibitive for us.
We LOVE our basic Nesco entry-level model pictured here, yours for just $59.97 on Amazon at the moment.
Whatever you choose, you’ll also need a few accessories. To keep small food pieces like rice or beans from falling through to another tray, you’ll need inserts with a small mesh. You might also want solid inserts for drying fruit roll-ups or sauces. Either of these inserts is much easier to clean than the dehydrator trays themselves. Check to see what your kit already includes and buy only what you need.
Pro Tip: Avoid flavor mixing by filling your dehydrator with similar items. Drying strawberry fruit roll-ups at the same time as garlic and spices will result in an interesting flavor adventure that may ruin the whole batch. Having enough of the proper inserts to fill all your trays with the same type of food allows you to get the most efficient use of your dehydrator.
$aver: Plastic craft sheets can be trimmed to fit your trays instead of the mesh inserts, but they’re almost the same price and more difficult to clean than the real deal. Parchment paper can substitute for the solid inserts, but it’s messy with liquids and not very durable. Save yourself time, money, and headaches by splurging on real inserts.
Everyone Loves Fruit Snacks
For dehydrating beginners, it doesn’t get any simpler than fruit, and it fulfills all the requirements of the perfect snack for work or school.
- Stays fresh without a refrigerator. And in the car in the Arizona summers.
- Tastes great even at room temperature. There’s often no time for heating, plus, who wants to use the nasty break room microwave?
- Stands up to being jostled and squished in a backpack. Have you ever re-discovered a two-week old banana? Eww!
- Oh yeah, and is healthy and nutritious.
If you’re trying to eat whole foods, dried fruit is a great choice. Granola bars are often filled with sugar and unpronounceable chemicals, plus a lot of them squish pretty easily and have meltable coatings. Even store-bought dried fruit can have tons of added sugar and preservatives. By making your own, you know what you’re putting in your body.
Before we got our dehydrator, I mostly ate nuts as on-the-go snacks. Now I have some serious options! Success stories so far include apples, pears, strawberries, bananas, peaches, pineapple, plums, cantaloupe, and grapes.
Just cut your fruit into thin slices or bite-sized pieces and make sure they’re more or less uniform in size, spread them on a tray, and dehydrate at 145 degrees (or medium heat if your dehydrator doesn’t have specific temperatures) until they’re the consistency you like. It will take longer in humid climates, but almost anything will be pretty crispy in 8-12 hours or less. Grapes are the main exception– huge ones can take two days– but are so worth it.
If you like your snacks softer, no problem. Turn off your machine whenever you like, but remember that the dryer they are the longer you can store them safely. Super-dry fruit can sit in your fridge or pantry for over a year, while moist and chewy pineapple slices might only last a few weeks.
Pro Tip: Slice firm bananas to dehydrate on their own, but don’t let the super-ripe ones go to waste. Freeze them until you’re ready, then make fruit-roll-ups chewier by blending these bananas with any of your other favorite fruits. Toss in some nuts for extra flavor and protein. Add cinnamon or vanilla if you’re feeling creative.
Pour your smoothie onto the solid inserts and dehydrate for 8 hours. After that, monitor them hourly until they’re the texture you desire . Too soft and they’ll stick to the tray, but too dry and they’ll shatter or be like chips rather than roll-ups. When they’re the right consistency, cut them into strips or wedges and enjoy.
$aver: Take advantage of amazing sales on seasonal produce. Stock up and enjoy your favorites all year long.
Eat Your Veggies
Dried veggies can’t compete with fruit for grab-and-go snacks, but they do add nutrition, color, and pep to your meals.
The process for dehydrating veggies is similar to the one you just mastered with fruit but has one extra step. To preserve the color, flavor, and nutrients, blanch them first. It really is as simple as boiling water:
- Fill a large pot with water and bring it to a boil.
- While the water is heating, chop your vegetables into pieces of uniform size.
- Drop your veggies in the boiling water for four or five minutes.
- Strain your veggies and put them in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process.
That’s it. But to make it even easier, just use frozen veggies instead. They’re blanched before they’re frozen, and they’re usually already chopped, so all you have to do is pour them onto the trays and turn on your dehydrator. Voila!
You might ask why you would want to dehydrate veggies when you could just freeze them instead.
- Does anyone actually have enough freezer space for everything you want to keep in there? If so, can I bring a few things over?
- Veggies take up a lot less room when they’re dehydrated.
- You can use them instead of flour or corn starch to thicken soups or stews.
- They don’t make the rest of your meal cold and soggy and lengthen the cooking time if you forget to thaw them ahead of time.
- They’re awesome, compact, and lightweight to take backpacking or camping.
All you have to do to bring these magical ingredients back to life is add hot water and let them sit for a few minutes.
Pro Tip: Dehydrate spinach, then crush it with your hands or run it through your food processor until it’s almost a powder. This fairy dust has many of the benefits but none of the slimy texture and almost none of the taste of fresh or cooked spinach, so you can add it to soups, chili, salsa, and even muffins or brownies for a nutritious boost for your family. Just add a little extra liquid to the recipe and start with darker foods so the green is less noticeable.
$aver: As with fruit, stock up on seasonal sales or dehydrate your garden’s bounty to enjoy your favorite veggies all year. Dehydrated tomatoes*are just as tasty and much less expensive than store-bought sun-dried tomatoes and can instantly liven up any salad.
Rice, Pasta, Lentils, Quinoa, and Beans, Oh My!
If you’re like me and need more than just vegetables for a satisfying meal, here’s where the real fun starts. Whether your goal is to make meals at home quicker to prepare or to make just-add-water backpacking dishes, your dehydrator can turn you into a grand illusionist.
What happens when you take brown rice, cook it for 45 minutes, let it steam for 10 more minutes, then dehydrate it?
It looks just about the same as when you started.
But here’s the magic: it can now be ready to eat in under five minutes any time you want.
Dried ≠ Dehydrated
At least not always. But they can look the same.
If you have an hour for meal prep at home every evening or enjoy spending the whole night tending the fire and cooking while you’re camping, then ignore this section. But if your family wants to eat now or you’re camping in a place with a high risk of forest fires that doesn’t allow campfires, then this tip is a lifesaver.
Cook your favorite starch (I like rice and pasta, but lentils, quinoa, and beans also work very well) and dehydrate it. Store it for several years if you want. But when you’re ready, boil up some water, pour in your starch, let sit for 1-5 minutes until it plumps up, and feast.
We bring the Jetboil or MSR Windburner when we’re in the woods. They’ll each heat enough water in less than a minute for a meal for two. If you’re home, you can use an electric kettle or your microwave to heat water faster than on the stove top.
Pro tip: Start with a little less water than you think you’ll need. You can always add more later. Or, if you find your food a little soggy, add a few more dehydrated veggies.
Hiker Pro Tip: Dehydrated rice, lentils, beans, and quinoa take up much less space than pasta because of pasta’s fun shapes.
$aver: Buying rice in larger bags at warehouse clubs like Costco lowers the price to just pennies per serving.
So Many Reasons Why Dehydrating is Awesome
There are too many tips to include in just one post, so stay tuned for part two where we’ll discuss jerky, sauces, and herbs.
But for now,
- Enjoy nutritious on-the-go snacks without added sugar or preservatives.
- Make the most of your garden bounty and enjoy your favorite produce year-round.
- Dehydrate your big box store leftovers and avoid waste.
- Speed up weeknight meal-prep.
- Enjoy the coziness as your dehydrator fills your home with delicious aromas.
- Appreciate the perfect opportunity for this gem: How is Arizona like a dehydrator?**
What are your favorite dehydrated foods and tips? Do you have any camping recipes to share? Let me know in the comments below.
*While technically fruit, tomatoes will always be grouped with vegetables in my mind.
**It’s a dry heat. Boom.
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