Last Updated on January 16, 2023
Dehydrating food is easy, economical, and lets you enjoy the bounties of your summer garden all year round! Never tried dehydrating food before? Here’s what you need to know to get started.
If you haven’t done much food preservation and are intimidated by canning, dehydrating food is a great place to start.
Dehydrating food is CRAZY simple. You just slice up your fruits and veggies, place them on the dehydrator, and flip the switch. 6-12 hours later, you have sweet treats or ingredients for winter snacks and meals, like magic!
WHY TO TRY DEHYDRATING FOOD
When we have an oversupply of plums, apples, or tomatoes, I just slice them, place them on dehydrator trays, and turn it on overnight. In the morning, we have tempting treats to enjoy.
We can’t help but eat a lot of them fresh off the dehydrator, but we also put up plenty in mason jars and enjoy them throughout the winter. It’s one of the easiest ways to continue eating seasonally during the long winter months when nothing grows here.
Lackluster cantaloupes are also transformed into unbelievably sweet, chewy fruit candy, and bananas kids aren’t keeping up with become delicious little dried bananas fruit leathers that even those who aren’t great fans of bananas (me, for instance) can’t get enough of.
BENEFITS OF DEHYDRATING FOOD
- It helps reduce waste. You can dehydrate food that you might not otherwise get to in time.
- Dehydrating food from your garden or farmers’ market lets you preserve it at its peak flavor and lowest cost.
- If you have a surplus of fruits or veggies from your garden, you create jars and jars of treats for almost no money.
- You’ll shrink your foodprint by having local food on hand even in the depths of winter.
- Dehydrating food is a great way to make healthy treats. Dried fruit and fruit leathers can satisfy a sweet tooth while helping you get those important servings of fruit and veggies.
- Dehydrated food doesn’t take up precious real estate in your freezer and lasts for up to a year in an airtight container.
Related: Stretch your food budget with these 40 amazing ways to eat root to stem!
DO I NEED A DEHYDRATOR?
You don’t even need a dehydrator to dry lots of your own food! But if you do get into dehydrating food in a big way, it’s probably worth investing in a quality machine. Dehydrators let you keep an even, low temperature, which can be tricky in most ovens.
Dehydrators aren’t cheap, but you can go in with some friends on one and take turns dehydrating some of the fabulous fruits of summer. My friend across the street and I have shared ours for years, and it’s traveled back and forth all season as we’ve put up plums, tomatoes, herbs, zucchini, homemade fruit leather, and lots more.
WHICH FRUITS AND VEGGIES TO TRY DEHYDRATING
Dried fruit of all sorts is delicious and a great way to transform so-so fruit into delectable but healthy treats. I’m pretty fussy about the texture of fruit I’ll eat fresh, so if the apples aren’t crisp enough, or the melon is a little mushy, onto the dehydrator it goes. Here’s how to dehydrate apples.
We also love dried plums and peaches. Here’s what to know about dehydrating peaches and other stone fruit
Dried strawberries are wonderful, too, but we never have enough and use the few that don’t make the cut for fresh eating for frozen smoothies. Dehydrating fruit is a great way to avoid wasting food and saves you money on treats.
If the dehydrator is running anyway, I’ll scavenge the fridge for plums that are a little too ripe or those half-eaten bananas my kids like to leave over. When the apples and plums come in from our trees, I do batches of those as well, since we can’t eat them all fresh and there’s never room in the fridge for a whole harvest.
Dried apples and plums are a perfect treat when you want something a little chewy and not too sweet. If you’re lucky enough to have a pear tree (or a friend with one), dried pears are fantastic. I can’t imagine how wonderful it must be to live somewhere warm enough to grow bushels of your own peaches to dry. And of course, don’t forget bananas!
In winter, you can make use of oranges while they’re at their peak flavor (and lowest price) to make dried orange slices to use in cooking or crafts, as well as orange peel, a medicinal ingredient to use in orange peel tea, which is great for colds and coughs. Here are more than 30 other uses for orange peels if you’re curious.
Dried tomato slices were a very popular Christmas present one year; they can be enjoyed as a snack straight from the jar or used for a great pop of flavor in cooking.
Zucchini dries nicely into crunchy little chips that are a low-cal, veggieful way to give into your salty snack craving. Here’s a recipe for spiced zucchini chips. You can also try making chips out of sweet potatoes, turnips, and beets!
Greens and herbs can be dried on a dehydrator for use in winter cooking or to make your own greens powder for smoothies. I use a lot of thyme in cooking, so I dry huge bunches of it every year, along with smaller amounts of home-grown oregano, mint, and herbs like lemon balm for homemade herbal tea blends. And of course, basil. Here’s how to dry basil.
Ephemeral foraged ingredients like spruce tips can also be preserved to be enjoyed outside their season. Here are some spruce tip recipes to consider using them in.
Medicinal herbs can also be dried and stored for when you need them, like wild violets for coughs, creeping Charlie for headaches, dandelions for liver support, and so many others.
HOMEMADE FRUIT LEATHER
Homemade fruit leather with rhubarb is the reason I grow rhubarb. It’s absolutely delicious, and it takes the place of candy as a special treat when kiddos are looking for sweets. And rhubarb is technically a vegetable! Here are many more uses for rhubarb, and instructions for growing rhubarb in your home garden.
Any fruit sauce, like leftover applesauce or sauce from your overly-bountiful pear tree, can be turned into leather as well. Here’s our new fall favorite, cinnamon apple-pear leather, made with no added sweetener. Just 3 easy ingredients, and SO delicious!
If you’re into camping, you’ll love dehydrating food you can pack, like your favorite pasta sauce or some fruit snacks or jerky. You could also dry peppers, carrots, and other ingredients you’d like to throw into winter soups. The possibilities are endless. The Rising Spoon has collected 40+ recipes for dehydrated foods if you need more inspiration.
TOOLS FOR DEHYDRATING FOOD
Here’s the dehydrator I use, acquired years ago at a workshop on dehydrating that got me hooked. If I were in the market for one now, I’d look at one of these models with stainless steel trays to skip the plastic. When mine conks out, that’s what will be on my Christmas wish list.
If you want to try dehydrating food but aren’t ready to invest in a dehydrator, you can dry food using your oven. You can also try drying food on racks in the sun, use a solar oven (or make a DIY version), or even dry food in your car!
Store your dried goodies in airtight containers like mason jars or repurposed glass jars and they should last you up to a year, if you don’t eat them all up before then.
Mary T. Bell has written several wonderful books on dehydrating and jerky-making. She’ll make you want to dry everything in sight!
TIPS FOR NEWBIES
1) Don’t forget to label your jars. You want to know exactly what you’ve got so you don’t go dumping mint instead of oregano in your soup!
It’s also helpful to write the date so you know when something needs to be used up.
2) Don’t get carried away! When I first got my dehydrator, I put up bushels of vegetables with the intention of rehydrating them for winter meals. I dried piles of eggplant, unbelievable numbers of tomatoes, even onions (which smell up the house terribly, by the way, and not worth the bother since they keep so well).
I never exactly got around to cooking it all, and a lot ended up in the compost. Not the frugal-green ends I was aiming for.
I’m more realistic now and focus on the surplus from our fruit trees, plus zucchini chips and a modest number of tomatoes. Start small and see how you do before filling up your pantry with dehydrated food!
Have you tried dehydrating food before? What are your favorites?
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Photo credits: M@ck, storebukkebruse, Virginia State Parks, Jules via Flickr, monfocus plus some from yours truly
Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.