If you don’t have a dehydrator, all is not lost, there are still ways to preserve food using the appliances you have at home. Try one of these four methods to get started.
My preferred method for dehydrating is a tabletop dehydrating machine. I have several of them that are used for different purposes. I realize that not all people can afford a dehydrator or want to have one taking up counter space. You may be able to utilize one of the four other ways to dehydrate. Don’t have a dehydrator? No problem, we’ve got you covered.
Harness the Sun for Dehydrating
Drying food by sunlight has been practiced for hundreds of years and works best for those living in a hot, dry climate. It is not recommended for those living in colder, damp, northern climates. Even those living in the South have too much humidity for success. The optimal temperature is between 90°F and 100°F, with less than 60 percent humidity.
If those conditions fit your climate, create a series of drying racks from old picture frames by covering them with window screening or cotton sheeting. Tack the screens to the bottom of the frames with staples.
Think about the food safety of the materials you are using and plan accordingly. The screens should be safe for contact with food, so avoid hardware cloth or other materials that have been coated with galvanized metal, like the ones found at home improvement stores. A better choice is stainless steel, Teflon-coated fiberglass, or plastic. These materials clean nicely, and exposure to the sun will not cause them to oxidize.
Place the food you are drying on the screens and set the prepared frames in full sunlight for several days until the food is dry. Airflow is important for success. The trays can be stacked with wooden blocks between them to aid the process. Cover the food with cheesecloth to keep pests away during the drying time. Bring the racks in at night before the dew falls, or if there is excessive wind, or it looks like it might rain. You don’t want all your hard work undone in one evening.
For those that are living off-grid, solar drying may be your only option. Several plans can be found online for creating an enclosed solar box dehydrator. The enclosed-box drying method is less susceptible to humidity than regular solar methods and, compared with sun drying on racks, the temperature is higher and drying time is shorter. These appear to be relatively easy to make using salvaged materials around your home.
Try one of these ideas from county extension offices around the country or search “solar dehydrator box” or “solar dehydrator plans” in your favorite search engine for more ideas.
Michigan State University – Solar Dehydrator Plans
Oklahoma State University – Solar Dehydrator Construction Plans
Appalachia Science – Solar Food Dehydrator
How to Dehydrate in the Oven
Dehydrating in the oven is perhaps the most inefficient way to preserve your food because you need to keep your oven door open during the process. Oven drying takes two or three times longer than drying in a dehydrator and has a higher energy cost. While it does produce a safe and tasty product, the quality is different from food prepared in an electric dehydrator. Oven-dried food is more brittle and usually darker and less flavorful than food dried in a dehydrator.
Don’t let this deter you; an oven will work in a pinch if it is all you have. It requires little or no investment in equipment. Test your oven temperature with a thermometer before you use it to dry food. Set the oven to the lowest temperature setting and prop open the door for one hour. The oven should maintain a temperature of between 130° to 150°F. If the oven does not maintain the temperature range, your finished product will begin to cook instead of dry.
If the temperature is too cool, you run the risk of food spoilage. Here are some tips for oven drying:
- Use your oven to dry small amounts of food at a time. If you overload the oven, the drying time will be extended.
- Position the oven rack at its lowest setting.
- Prepare the food as recommended and place it on a cookie sheet, or place cotton sheeting directly on the wire rack.
- Prop the door open with a wooden spoon or block of wood; you’ll need airflow for this to be successful.
- Set a timer for one hour, check for dryness, and turn the food.
- Repeat every hour until the food is dry.
Using a Convection Oven for Dehydrating
Perhaps you have an oven with convection capabilities that you are not utilizing. Find out how these ovens work and how they are different from conventional ovens in this article from Chow Hound. From the Article: What’s the Difference between a Conventional and a Convection Oven?
If you’re in the market for a new oven, make sure the oven has an option to turn the convection fan off, says Susan Reid, a King Arthur Flour recipe tester, and teacher at the New England Culinary Institute. Reid looks for ovens with four controls: bake, convection bake, convection roast, and broil.
The heat source in a conventional oven is stationary, usually radiating from the bottom, while in a convection oven a fan circulates the hot air all around the place.
Convection ovens allow for even, fast cooking because the temperature stays more consistent, while conventional ovens can have pockets of warmer or colder air. Hot air rises, so when you’re cooking food on both racks in a traditional oven, dishes on the bottom rack may undercook while the food on top burns.
Convection bake, which has a lower fan speed, creates lovely dried-out tomatoes or roast tomatoes, as well as dehydrated foods. Convection roast, with its higher fan speed, is great for chunky meat with crispy outsides and nicely caramelized roasted vegetables.
Using a Microwave for Drying Food and Herbs
Microwave drying is not recommended for fruit, vegetables, and meat because of the uneven way they cook. All microwaves are designed to retain the moisture content in foods, not as a method of drying them.
Also, fruits have a high sugar content and tend to burn if they are overcooked in the microwave. If you are determined to use your microwave for dehydrating, follow these rules:
- Cut food no more than one inch thick.
- Lay the product directly on the turnstile.
- Dry in small batches.
- Do not overlap food.
- Use the defrost setting (reduced power) to minimize the hardening effect that can happen when food dries too quickly.
- Turn the food every 15 minutes until it has dried to the required consistency.
Microwave drying is not a process where you can push the button and step away, unlike drying with an electric dehydrator. You must constantly monitor the batch to make sure the food does not get too dry, catch fire, and burn. And it will catch fire if you do not watch it continually!
For the best success, skip the fruit, and use the microwave to dehydrate only herbs or leafy greens. These contain a very minimal amount of moisture and are best suited for microwave drying. Place washed and towel-dried herbs on a paper towel or napkin and dry in 30-second increments until they reach the desired consistency.
It is possible to dehydrate food even if you don’t have a dehydrator. Try utilizing the sun, drying food in the oven, changing the setting on your stove to convection, or using the microwave. Don’t have a dehydrator? No problem, you still have options for preserving your own healthy food.