Becoming a Well-Fed Camper
One fall, when I had overbought pears at a pick-your-own orchard and the fruit was getting ripe all at once, I borrowed a friend's dehydrator. The pears came out so well that I could immediately see the possibilities for trail food.
I received a dehydrator that Christmas, so I skipped the intermediate stages of drying in an oven and building a dryer. My dehydrator, a Harvest Maid, came with five trays and two types of tray liners (one fine screen for moist or extra-small pieces, and one solid tray for liquids and leathers). The unit is efficient and easy to use.
I have dried fruits and vegetables, herbs, and several vegetarian entrees for use on trail. I've also made beef jerky, though I have not dried other meat, chicken, or fish. The key to dehydrating food is to experiment and to keep notes about what you have done.
Although you can get good results from a homemade dryer or even from the oven, if you are going to be processing any amount of food, you should consider buying a dehydrator. Check your local hardware store, appliance store, or outdoor store. I have also seen dehydrators advertised in gardening and mail-order catalogs.
The dehydrator should have a thermostat, which allows you to select the correct drying temperature, and a fan, which makes the unit more energy-efficient and means you have to do less tray-shuffling. Tray liners make it possible to dry entrees, fruit leather, and sauces, and make it much easier to dry high-moisture produce like tomatoes. Some dehydrators are expandable and can handle extra trays. I have found that five trays will hold about all the hand-sliced food I want to prepare at one time, but when I'm using the food processor I could easily fill ten trays. Your dehydrator should come with a booklet that tells you all you need to know. My standby reference is Harvest Maid's booklet, The Complete Guide to Food Drying, which came with my dehydrator.
The Basics of Dehydrating Food
Follow these basic guidelines whether you dry produce in your oven or in a dehydrator.
1. Choose vegetables and fruits that are at the height of their flavor. Remove bruised areas. Peel if you wish; skin has vitamins, but it also lengthens drying time.
2. Slice, dice, shred, or blend, depending on the food and the desired product. It is important to cut food into uniform pieces. Most fruits and vegetables should be dried in 1/4- to 3/8-inch slices.
3. Vegetables like corn, peas, and beans, which have a long cooking time, should be steam-blanched or microwaved to prevent enzymes from continuing to ripen the food after it has dried. Fruits like grapes and blueberries, which have a waxy coating, must be dipped into boiling water for one to two minutes to remove the wax, or the fruit will not dry properly. You can use dips such as pineapple juice or lemon juice to reduce discoloration and lengthen shelf life of fruits and some vegetables, though I have not found it necessary to do so.
4. Set your dehydrator ten degrees higher than you will eventually want it, and turn the appliance on several minutes before you start putting in trays. These two steps compensate for the drop in temperature that occurs when you add food. Remember to reduce the temperature in a few hours.
5. Spread food on the racks or sheets. Slices can touch one another but should not overlap. If you are drying tomato sauce or fruit puree for leather, leave a margin around the edge of the sheet.
Dry herbs at 95 to 105 degrees (Fahrenheit), vegetables at 130 degrees, and fruits at 135 degrees; if you mix fruits and vegetables, dry them at 135 degrees. Meat, chicken, and fish must be dried at 145 degrees to prevent the growth of bacteria.
If food is dried at too high a temperature, the outside will dry but the inside will not (this is called "case hardening"), and the food will eventually spoil.
6. Drying time varies greatly depending on the type of dryer, the number of trays, the thickness of the slices, the humidity, the amount of moisture in the food, and so on. Check food after three or four hours, then check periodically, removing samples from the dryer and letting them cool for a few minutes before you test for dryness.
7. Label dried food and store it in a cool (freezing to 60 degrees), dry, dark place in moisture-proof and insect-proof containers. Glass jars and heat-sealed plastic bags work best. Food stored in plastic bags should be placed in a rigid container. If you want to use metal tins for storage, put food in a plastic bag first. Shelf life depends on the type of food that has been dried and whether it was blanched or pretreated. Dried food will lose color and taste over time; the sooner you use it, the better it will taste.
8. Check the containers for moisture during the first week. If you see moisture on the container, put the food back in the dryer.
9. Rehydrate using one cup of water for every cup of vegetables and, to make stewed fruit, two cups of water for every cup of fruit. Allow ample time for rehydration. Dense foods like peas, corn, green beans, and meat take more time than do thinly sliced foods like tomatoes, shredded carrots, and green peppers. Salt and seasonings slow the rehydration process. You can rehydrate in cold water or, to speed the process, in hot water or as you cook.
I want to add a note of caution regarding rehydration. Make sure that food is totally rehydrated before you serve it, and if you are eating someone else's rehydrated food, check it first. I speak from experience. Several years ago, before I got my dehydrator and learned more about the process, I was happily eating a home-dried but hastily rehydrated entree. I cracked a tooth on a chunk of chicken that was as hard as a rock. Let the eater beware.
Drying Food in an Oven
You can dry small amounts of food in your oven if it has a "warm" setting that goes below 150 degrees Fahrenheit. You'll need an oven thermometer to keep track of the temperature, cookie sheets, and cake cooling racks. Do not use window screening, which may be chemically treated. You can use cookie sheets coated with a nonstick surface for drying tomato paste and other semi-liquid foods. When you put the trays in the oven, leave the door open so that moisture can escape. Check regularly for dryness and rotate trays or turn over produce as necessary.
This list includes only some of the fruits and vegetables that may be dried for use on trail. I urge you to experiment with others.
Fruits: Pretreatment with a natural dip such as lemon juice preserves color, flavor, and shelf life. Fruit can be cut into rings or slices. Pieces may touch but should not overlap on the tray. Dry at 135 degrees.
Vegetables: Some vegetables need to be blanched to stop enzymatic action; in other cases, steaming is optional. Dry at 130 degrees.
Dry legumes and beans (not green beans, which are a vegetable): Use canned beans or prepare and cook beans per recipe. Spread in a thin layer on a tray with nonstick surface and dry at 140 degrees (assuming there is no meat in the recipe). Dry until brittle.
Preparation and Test for Dryness
Produce Preparation Test for dryness
Apples, pare, core, slice 3/8" thick, pretreat (optional) - Pliable
Apricots, wash, cut in half, turn "inside out" or cut in quarters, pretreat (optional) - Pliable
Bananas, slice 1/8" thick, pretreat (optional) - Brittle
Peaches, pare (optional), slice 3/8" thick, pretreat (optional) - Pliable
Pears, pare, core, slice 3/8" thick, pretreat (optional) - Pliable
Pineapple, core, cut 1/4" thick - Pliable
Plums, wash, remove pit, slice 3/8" thick - Pliable
Beans, green, wash, cut into 1" pieces, steam until almost done - Brittle
Broccoli, wash, cut into small pieces, steam 3-5 min. - Brittle
Cabbage, trim, slice 1/8" thick - Leathery
Carrots, wash, slice 1/8" thick or grate, do not steam if using immediately; otherwise, steam until tender - Leathery
Celery, wash, trim, slice 1/4" thick, steam (optional) - Brittle
Corn, cook corn on cob and remove kernels - Shrunken, Dry
Cucumber, pare, slice 1/8" thick - Leathery
Mushrooms, clean, slice 3/8" through cap and stem - Leathery
Onions, trim, slice 1/4" - Brittle
Peas, shell, steam until almost done - Shrunken, Dry
Peppers, green, wash, trim, slice 1/4" or chop - Leathery
Potatoes (white), wash, trim, slice 1/8" thick or dice, steam until almost done - Brittle
Tomatoes, wash, dip in boiling water to remove skin (optional), slice 3/8" thick - Leathery
Zucchini, wash, trim; for chips, slice 1/8" thick; otherwise, dice - Leathery
Information from Harvest Maid's The Complete Guide to Food Dehydrating.
© Article copyright Pruett Publishing
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication