Jul 4, 2012

Why & How to Choose a Food Dehydrator

My Nesco American Harvest dehydrator, with the jerky maker option.
In recent months, I've dehydrated some of my overflow of backyard chicken eggs, organic citrus peel (to use in place of fresh zest in baking), onions, various tea and medicinal herbs - and of course, the standbys in our house: apple rings, banana chips, and cooking herbs. Why do I bother?

Homemade dried foods are not only cheaper than buying store bought dehydrated food, but they are often healthier, too, since many store bought dehydrated foods have added chemicals and sugar. A dehydrator also allows you to make your own tea (from rose leaves or dandelion flowers, for example, or from many other common leaves and flowers), your own herbal medicine, and preserve any abundance of food you might have. For example, even though I both freeze and can foods, sometimes I don't want to fill up the freezer, or I've run out of canning jars or pantry space. So I dehydrate instead. You can even make your own backpacking and camping food, rather than buying store bought jerky or dehydrated meal packs.

I'm Not Sure I'll Really Use a Dehydrator...

Apple rings drying in an oven's warming drawer.
If you're not sure your family will eat dehydrated food, you can try dehydrating a few things in the warming drawer of an oven - or in the oven itself. Often, the product won't be of as high a quality because an oven's temperature is usually higher than a dehydrator's, causing a higher loss of nutrients. Still, it's a cheap test. For best results, use proper dehydrating temperatures:

Herbs = 95 degrees F.
Nuts & Seeds = 105 degrees F.
Fruits & Vegetables = 135 degrees F.
Meats & Fish = 160 degrees F.

Most ovens don't go below 170 degrees F., so you'll have to use a higher temperature for herbs, seeds, and nuts.

To make the foods a bit easier to handle in your experiment, place a wire cooling rack on a baking sheet and place the food on top of the rack. If the food is small (say, flowers or certain herbs), lay a sheet of parchment paper over the wire rack first.

What to Look for in a Dehydrator

An Excalibur dehydrator.
Ready to purchase a food dehydrator? Don't let anyone tell you you'll need to spend hundreds of dollars. I love my Nesco American Harvest, which I sells for about $65. I bought extra trays (I now have a total of eight - about the maximum I recommend; I've never needed more, either) and the fruit roll sheets (which I use for drying herbs and eggs). I use it a ton and it works great. But really any dehydrator will do, as long as it has these essential features:

* It must have a fan. The placement isn't as vital as some like to suggest, but if the fan is on the top or bottom, you might need to rotate the trays during the dehydrating process if you're using a lot of trays. And those famous, expensive dehydrators with fans in the back? According to the manufacturer, you're supposed to rotate those trays, too.

* It must have a way to control the temperature, making it go as low as 95 degrees F. and as high as 160 degrees F.

* It should have good reviews. These days, any decent dehydrator should be available on Amazon or similar sites. It pays to actually read the reviews - not just look at the star ratings; sometimes something that really bothers one person is no big deal to another.

* It should have the ability to expand. One area where the less expensive dehydrators excel is in the ability to expand how many trays you use - something most expensive dehydrators just don't allow. That said, it's foolish to add too many trays, since this will result in uneven drying. (As noted earlier, I think about 8 trays is all I'd use in a consumer model dehydrator.)

You may also want to learn how noisy the dehydrator is. There are times I have mine running non-stop; if it was noisy (which it isn't), this would drive everyone in the house batty.

Clearly, efficiency is another important factor. You'll want to use the least amount of electricity possible, so your home dehydrated food remains frugal. Unfortunately, this is a tough thing to know before you buy. There is a certain expensive food dehydrator (okay, let's jut call it by name: Excalibur) that many people believe is more efficient than cheaper models. The question is: Is it really more efficient? And if it is, by how much? I can't really answer these questions for you, never having had the dough to spend on an expensive dehydrator, but I would point you to a post over at  Kitchen Stewardship, in which the author uses an expensive Excalibur side by side with an affordable Nesco.

UPDATE 7/9/12: My mother in law has an Excalibur dehydrator and the magnets on the door stopped working; thinking an expensive appliance like this one would be backed up with parts for repair, she called the Excalibur company. When they heard her model number, the representative not-so-nicely balked, "That's 30 years old! We don't carry parts for anything so old." Apparently, higher cost does not mean repairable - or that customer service will be good.

Happy dehydrating!

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