Thursday, August 13, 2009

Drying Your Own Foods

By Dian Thomas

Find the original article here.

As the fall nears and the fruits and vegetables in the garden or farmers market get plentiful, I begin thinking of all the ways that I can preserve them for use throughout the year. Drying you own fruits and vegetables is a key to keeping some of them for use later on in the year. I love fruits that are dried all the way from apples to peaches.

It's easy and fun to dry your own foods with a home food dehydrator. Drying foods at home is becoming more and more popular as a means of preservation for general home use as well as for lightweight camping.

There are many advantages to drying your own foods. Dried foods occupy from one-fifth to one-twentieth of the storage space and weight of canned or frozen foods. When properly stored, most dried foods keep for at least a year, retaining top quality and nutritional value. There is no danger of botulism with dehydrated foods. As with other methods of preservation, drying in season is a tremendous money-saver, adding interesting variety to home food stores and snacks.

The drying process is quite simple. Sliced or cut foods are placed on racks, which allow air to circulate around the food.

The moisture slowly evaporates because of an elevated temperature, and the circulating air removes the moisture.

If you live in the Southwest or a warm climate where you can count on five or more days of continuous sunshine, low humidity and temperatures about 90° F daily, you might want to try nature's way of preserving foods. Sun-drying is the most time-consuming and least expensive method of food preservation.

Place foods to be dried on screens (polypropylene or nylon coated fiber glass) and find the warmest, sunniest and safest spot in your yard. By safest, I mean a place where the neighborhood dogs, cats or children won't nibble up your goodies before they dry. Place the food as far away from dust, roads and exhaust as possible. To protect it from birds and insects, cover it with cheesecloth or nylon netting—propped up so it doesn't touch the food.

Be sure that the location has good air circulation, and if you choose to stack the screens after the food has partially dried, rotate them from top to bottom two or three times each day. Occasionally turning the fruit facilitates even drying. Stacking the screens during the last half of the drying process produces a nicer flavor and color because the food is less exposed to direct sunlight.

The food should be brought in at night or at the first sign of rain, because moisture on partially dried food will cause it to mildew and spoil.

Oven Drying
Oven drying tends to produce lower-quality dried foods because it is difficult to maintain a temperature below 140° F unless your oven is specifically designed to do so. Most convection ovens work quite well for drying because they have a fan that circulates the air and removes moisture. Since ovens vary in their range of temperature, size and efficiency, experiment with yours to see what produces the best results. Make sure that your oven will maintain a temperature of 140° F or below before attempting to dry in it.

Make a pillowcase-type covering out of nylon net to fit snugly over each oven rack so food can be dried on the net without falling through. If you want to dry larger quantities, try obtaining a couple of extra oven racks (frequently available from used appliance dealers) to make the most of your energy and the oven's. An average oven rack has about 21⁄2 square feet, so with four racks, the total drying area would be about 10 square feet.

Load the racks with the food to be dried, leaving space between the foods for adequate air circulation. Don't overlap food on the trays. This results in unevenly dried food and longer drying times.

If your oven does not have a convection feature, set it to the lowest setting (ideally between 125° and 140° F) and crack the door about 1⁄2 to 1 inch in an electric oven or 8 inches in a gas oven by inserting a lid near the door hinge. Check the oven temperature on each rack with an oven thermometer and adjust accordingly. In some gas ovens, the pilot light keeps the oven warm enough. If your gas oven does not have an automatic shut-off valve, check it occasionally to make sure the flame is still on.

Rotate racks every 2 to 3 hours for the most even drying.
Cool the foods before you check them for dryness.

A wide variety of consumer dehydrators are available in stores or through catalogs or TV ads. Take the time to compare different dehydrators to make sure you buy the most efficient one, and one that will best suit your needs.

Round, stackable units with a fan, heating element and thermostat are ideal because they are expandable. Beware of ones that only contain a heating element. They take considerably longer to dry than those with a fan, and seldom have temperatures above 120° F, which is too low for meats, poultry or low-acid foods. Most round, stackable dryers with a fan and thermostat do not need to be rotated because the design allows
for even airflow.

Box dryers also work very well. The only limitations are the lack of expandability and the need to occasionally rotate the trays.

Making your own dehydrator is impractical due to the availability and reasonable prices of consumer dehydrators on the market. Dryers made from wood are unsafe due to their flammability. They are also difficult to clean and use far more electricity than metal and plastic manufactured ones.

Safety features should include U.L. approval, nonflammable construction, enclosed electrical components and a safety switch in case of thermostat failure.

The cost of operation depends on the wattage of the heating element. If a portion of the air recirculates within the dryer and the heating element is thermostatically controlled, the cost of operation will be lower.

Check for the location of the closest dealer and service. Also check for length of warranty and what it covers, shipping costs if the dryer needs to be returned to the manufacturer for repairs, and how easily parts can be replaced after the warranty has expired.

Dian Thomas is and outdoor specialist authoring several best selling book on outdoor camping and cooking. Roughing it Easy sold over a million copies all over the world. The check out Dian innovative, creative and fun ideas go to She also take people to China. For more information write to her at