I borrowed a friend’s food dehydrator earlier this summer and spent a week drying all kinds of fruit.
I dried peaches, mangoes, figs, apples, bananas, apricots and nectarines. I even made my own blueberry fruit leather (aka homemade Fruit Roll-Ups).
One taste of a home-dried banana slice and I was hooked.
Beyond the taste, I loved the ability to preserve food without having to pull out my canning pot. With a food dehydrator, all I had to do was spend 15 minutes cutting up fruit, and the next morning I had a healthy snack or an ingredient to add to my morning yogurt and granola.
The method speaks to me the same way that canning does. It’s a way to preserve local foods in season to consume later and to control the ingredients I use. With many fruits, the most you have to do is slice and, if you like, dip them in pineapple juice or lemon juice to prevent the fruits from browning.
Commercially dried foods are often dipped in preservatives or sugar. Those home-dried banana slices I love are not only delicious but healthier than store-bought banana chips, which may be deep fried, not dried, and often have added sugar.
The only drawback is the fact that I have to buy a dehydrator, which costs between $35 and $110. In my small house, with a husband who constantly grumbles about all “the stuff” we already own, I will have to clean out my kitchen cabinets before I can make that purchase.
Even if you don’t want to buy a dehydrator or cannot borrow one, many foods can be dried in the oven overnight.
Since my entire dehydrating food experience amounts to one week, I reached out to some more experienced cooks for their advice and inspiration. Here’s what they had to share:
Joyce Young of Raleigh, North Carolina, is my former running buddy who lent me the dehydrator along with her guide, “Mary Bell’s Complete Dehydrator Cookbook.” Young got into drying fruits and vegetables about five years ago, mainly as a way to preserve the bounty from her garden and local farmers markets.
To Young, the best way to start is with ripe fruit, like bananas and mangoes: Just peel, slice and lay slices on the dehydrator trays overnight. (Be sure not to cut the pieces too small, because they will shrink considerably.) And the bonus is, Young said, “You don’t have to worry so much about food going bad.”
Mary Bell, who has written several books about drying food and sells food dehydrators online, said she was a single mom with two small children putting herself through college when she discovered dehydrating. She lived in the country and had a small garden plot. That first year, she was so overwhelmed by produce that she quickly filled her freezer and then bought a dehydrator.
She encourages rookies to invest in a good dehydrator with a fan to circulate the heat and a thermostat because different foods require different drying temperatures. Plus, she said, it is easy to expand capacity of a dehydrator with stackable trays by buying more trays instead of investing in a larger machine. “I want to set people up for success,” she said.
Teresa Marrone, who wrote a new book called “A Beginner’s Guide to Making and Using Dried Foods,” suggests newbies borrow a dehydrator or use their oven to get started. Marrone’s book offers advice, which is shared below, on how to dehydrate foods in the oven.
For first-timers, Marrone suggests drying apples or tomatoes. She notes that home-dried apples are cheaper than store-bought and do not contain sulfites, which cause allergic reactions in some people. Then, she encourages folks to try drying items you cannot find at the store, such as beets and French beans.
“You are entering a whole world of possibilities, which is endlessly fun,” Marrone said.
Regina Leonard of Louisburg, North Carolina, won seven blue ribbons at last year’s North Carolina State Fair for her dried figs, pinto beans, navy beans, okra, tomatoes, summer squash and vegetable mixtures. She’s only been drying fruits and vegetables for three years. A batch of dehydrated green beans turned her into a devotee.
“How good could a dehydrated green bean really be?” Leonard said she wondered. “You put them in soups or stews, and they are just as good as fresh.”
Lori Mills of Cary, North Carolina, won blue ribbons for dried onions and dried mushrooms at last year’s North Carolina State Fair. She recommends oven drying tomatoes instead of using a dehydrator because they will be easier to remove if you use silicone baking mats. Here are her instructions: Cut 10 or 12 Roma tomatoes into 1/4 inch-thick slices. Toss in 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and 1 teaspoon olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper. Arrange in a single layer on a silicone mat on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in a 150- to 200-degree oven. Check every couple of hours. Flip once. The tomatoes will be crispy when done.
Her one indispensable tool: a mandoline to slice all those fruits and vegetables.
Here are a few cookbooks that teach you how to dry foods:
Food drying expert Mary Bell has two highly recommended books: “Mary Bell’s Complete Dehydrator Cookbook” (William Morrow, 1994) and “Food Drying With an Attitude” (Skyhorse, 2009). Bell also operates her own website of food dehydrating supplies: drystore.com.
“The Dehydrator Bible” by Jennifer MacKenzie, Jay Nutt and Don Mercer (Robert Rose, 2009).
“The Beginner’s Guide to Making and Using Dried Foods” by Teresa Marrone (Storey, 2014).
With a food dehydrator: Slice produce and place on the trays. Dry herbs and flowers at 100 to 110 degrees, fruits and vegetables at 130 to 140 degrees, and meats and seafood at 145 degrees.
In an oven: Some convection ovens have a dehydrating setting. If yours does not, you can use a regular oven that can be set at 150 degrees or below. You will need a remote probe-type thermometer to monitor the oven temperature; a small wad of aluminum foil to prop open the oven door an inch or two; a small fan on a chair or stool and aimed at the inside of the oven to circulate the air and remove moisture; and a baking rack covered with nylon netting (such as tulle, available from at fabric stores) and secured with safety pins. (This method is not the most energy efficient, but it may be worth trying before deciding whether to invest in a dehydrator.)