Drying food is the oldest method for food preservation, and also the easiest and most convenient one. You can easily dry your own food at home with minimal supplies and without any fancy equipment.
There are several methods for drying food: simple ones such as air- and sun-drying, more convenient ones like oven and microwave drying, and the more professional technique of using food drying machines.
But there’s so much more you need to know about drying food! We’ve put together this complete guide so that you can learn all the benefits of dehydrating food, how the process works, the pros and cons of each method, and more.
So, let’s get started!
Drying Food for Preservation
Drying, or dehydrating food, is one of the oldest methods for preservation, and it’s a great alternative to canning or freezing because it’s cheaper and incredibly easy to do.
One of the main reasons for food spoilage is due to bacteria, mold, or yeast that are on the food or in the air and use the foods to feed and grow. Moreover, the enzymes that are naturally present in the foods themselves help speed up the degradation process.
By drying the food, all the liquid in it gets removed, inhibiting the spoiling mechanisms that cause rot or decay and allowing the food to last much longer.
Water is typically removed from the food through evaporation using techniques such as air-drying, sun-drying, baking, or using electric food dehydrators.
Benefits of Drying Food at Home
There are several benefits to dehydrating food for long-term storage. Here are some of them:
- Better flavor and appearance. Drying food locks in the flavor and preserves the color better than canning and freezing.
- Nutritional quality. Drying retains higher nutritional quality than canned or frozen food.
- Easy. Dried foods are easy to prepare, easy to store, and easy to use!
- Store large quantities. Canned products require liquid that takes up space in the jar, and frozen foods typically expand in the freezer, but dried food needs none of that. So, you can store much more food in far less space.
- Less waste. If you’ve had a big harvest, or went a little crazy at the farmer’s market, then you can dry your bounty and enjoy it for months to come. Moreover, food dehydration is a one-time cost. As opposed to canned products that, once opened, must be eaten promptly, dried food containers can be repeatedly opened and closed and the contents will stay the same.
- Convenient. Dried food can be eaten just the way it is, no need to thaw it or anything of the likes.
How to Dry Food at Home
There are different methods you can use for dehydrating food at home, and some of them are better than others depending on the type of food you want to dry, and the place where you live. Yes, that’s really a factor that influences the drying method you can use. In fact, weather conditions can prevent you from using methods like air-drying and sun-drying altogether.
Here, you’re going to find five of the most common techniques used to dry food, starting with the easiest and cheapest ones, and moving on to those that require more expensive equipment.
This is one of the oldest techniques used for drying food, and it’s usually the recommended one for delicate greens and herbs, hot peppers, and mushrooms because the essential oils, the flavor, and the shape of these foods are retained better.
In air-drying, the food is strung on a string or tied in bundles to be hung indoors until dry. Any place that has good airflow works, such as a screened-in porch, attic, or even your kitchen. Ventilation is key to evaporating the moisture in the food and preventing the growth of mold.
Humidity is your worst enemy here, so if you live in an area where rain is a frequent occurrence, you might be better off with some of the other food drying methods below.
If you’re concerned about dust and insects, you can place the food inside paper bags and poke a few holes on the sides to ensure proper air circulation.
How long does it take to for food to air-dry? Air-drying is a slow process that requires patience. It can take anywhere from a week and up to a month, depending on the amount of food you’re drying. We recommend making several smaller bundles rather than just a large one to speed up the drying process and ensure even results.
Sun Drying Food
Sun drying, as the name implies, uses the heat from the sun to dry the food. This simple method is the most effective in places with long periods of hot sun, but anywhere that has a temperature of at least 86 °F (30 °C) will work.
Just like with air drying, humidity can be an issue with sun drying. High levels of moisture in the air can make the food mold instead of drying. Ideally, humidity should be lower than 20%, but it’s possible to dry food under the sun with humidity levels up to 60% if you check on the food pieces and turn them over periodically.
The key here is ensuring constant exposure to direct sunlight during the day, and covering or bringing the food under shelter at night. As cool night air condenses, moisture could be added back to the food and slow down the dehydration process.
When it comes to the types of food you can sun-dry, fruits are the best option. The high sugar and acid content found in fruits make them safe to dry outdoors when weather conditions are favorable.
Vegetables and meats, however, are not recommended for sun drying. Unlike fruits, vegetables are low in sugar and acid, so there’s a higher risk of food spoilage. Meat, on the other hand, is high in protein, which encourages microbial growth when heat and humidity can’t be controlled.
Check out the other useful food drying methods in this article if you want to dehydrate meats and vegetables, or if the area where you live has limited sunshine.
How long does it take for the food to sun-dry? Sun-drying it a lot faster than air-drying, requiring only between 3 and 5 days when under direct sunlight for several hours a day.
Now, as regards equipment for sun-drying, you’re going to need some cooling racks for better air circulation around the food. The racks should be then placed on a concrete surface, or, if possible, over a sheet of aluminum foil so that the sun can reflect on the metal and increase the drying temperature.
Avoid using anything that’s made of hardware cloth or galvanized metal that can oxidize and leave harmful residues on your food. Copper and aluminum are also not recommended because they increase oxidation, discolor, and corrode. Instead of those materials, go for stainless steel, Teflon-coated fiberglass, and sturdy plastic that can withstand the heat.
Oven Drying Food
Learning how to dry food in the oven is a useful skill that can save you a lot of time when you want to dry fruits, vegetables, or even meat. We often like to use the oven to dry seafood, potatoes, meaty tomatoes, and excess produce from an abundant harvest like peaches, onions, and celery.
If you are new to drying, we recommend that you start with any of the easiest foods to dry, such as banana slices, tomato slices, and chopped onions.
Food drying in the oven is no rocket science. The crucial aspect to keep in mind is ensuring a constant low temperature of 140 °F (60 °C). If your oven doesn’t have such a low setting, then you’re going to cook your food rather than dry it.
Another important factor to consider is ventilation because air circulation helps achieve uniform drying. So, make sure there aren’t any kids or pets in the kitchen and leave the oven door slightly open while drying out food. Just a small gap of 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) should be enough.
To ensure even drying in the oven, you should rotate the trays with food top to bottom halfway through the drying time.
How long does it take for the food to dry in the oven? The length of drying time can fluctuate widely depending on the type of food, and the size and thickness of the portions to be dried. It can be anywhere from just an hour for herbs to 8 hours for beef jerky, for example.
You’re going to need an oven, of course, that can go as low as 140 °F (60 °C), but using the right trays used for drying foods in an oven is also important. They should be made of food-safe screen material that can be plastic (preferably, polypropylene), stainless steel, Teflon or Teflon-coated fiberglass, or wood.
Avoid materials that can leach harmful chemicals into the food, darken it, or melt at drying temperatures, including:
- Uncoated fiberglass and vinyl.
- Metals other than stainless steel, like aluminum, galvanized steel, and copper.
- Green wood, pine, cedar, oak, and redwood.
The easiest and safest option is to use a cookie or a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Keep in mind that if you want to dry large amounts of food at the same time, you might need more than one baking sheet to ensure that the portions aren’t touching each other and dry evenly.
If you’re a fan of microwave cooking, then you’re going to love learning how to dry food in it! This is probably the quickest and easiest way to dehydrate food at home while preserving the color and flavor.
Microwave drying works best with small quantities of herbs like oregano and basil, and most leaf vegetables. Other foods do not dry well using this method because they end up being cooked rather than dried.
To dry herbs, lay them out between two paper towels and set your microwave on “defrost.” Microwave them for 2 to 3 minutes and check if they’re dry and brittle. If they’re not, keep microwaving them in 30-second intervals until completely dry.
Food that’s dried in the microwave will look the same as fresh, so if you notice any browning, it means that it’s starting to cook or already burnt. You might need some practice at first to get the hang of how many cycles in the microwave are required for drying different foods.
Certain machines, called food dehydrators, are specifically designed to dry food evenly and efficiently. These electrical devices are relatively inexpensive, but they do take some space on your counter and can be rather noisy.
Dehydrators usually use a low-heat setting of about 150 °F (65 °C) and fans to help the warm air circulate around the racks while keeping energy consumption low. Most electric dehydrators include a temperature gauge and adjustment dial so that you can speed up drying time depending on the type of food you’re processing.
The mechanism of these machines has been developed to retain as much of the original flavor and color of the food as possible. This makes it ideal to dry virtually anything you need, from delicate leafy herbs like coriander to firm fruits, starchy vegetables, and meats.
A good food dehydrator should provide variable temperature control and have fans to ensure proper air circulation. The adjustment dial typically allows you to dehydrate food within a range of 85 °F to 180°F (30 °C to 80 °C), which allows enough flexibility for drying all types of foods. Bear in mind that some dehydrators only have a temperature control with a maximum of 160°F (70 °C), which will limits your possibilities to dry meats and fish.
You can find food dehydrators online and easily browse for the one that suits your needs better. There are many options out there, but a basic food dehydrator model for under $100 should be a good choice if you’re just starting or want to dry foods occasionally in small amounts. Cheaper models have limited temperature ranges and limited drying capacities, but they’re smaller and easier to operate than professional ones.
Deluxe food dehydrator models can cost anywhere between $150 and $300, sometimes even more. They offer more premium features like a full temperature range, stainless-steel trays, efficient fans for proper airflow, and larger drying capacities.
With a food dehydrator, you don’t have to check on your food at all because the appliance does practically everything for you.
Preparation methods vary depending on the food you want to dry, but in most cases, you have to start by washing your fruits and vegetables. Then, remove the stems and slice the produce thinly to ensure even drying.
Vegetables and light-colored fruits require that you steam-blanch them to deactivate the enzymes and prevent browning. If you do this, make sure you pat them dry to remove excess moisture.
Meat or fish jerky is usually marinated, but it may also be cooked before drying.
How to Store Dried Food
Check your products and make sure they’re all completely dry before storing them. Vegetables are dry when they are brittle, while fruits are so when they feel like leather. Let them cool for about 30 to 60 minutes, but not much more than that because the moisture from the air can re-enter the food.
Proper storage is crucial to prevent insects and rodents from eating the food and to keep moisture out, so we’re going to give you some tips to help ensure proper storage conditions and longer shelf-life.
- Preferably, use glass jars, such as mason or canning jars, that come with lids or airtight freezer containers. Metal cans or boxes with tight-fitting lids work well too.
- Screw the lids or covers on glass jars tight to prevent insects from getting in.
- It’s not necessary to sterilize the jars, but you can do so if you want. Just make sure they’re completely dry before storing your food in them.
- You can use a vacuum sealer and store your dehydrated food in heavy-duty plastic bags. However, these bags won’t keep insects and rodents away from your food.
- Check your containers for moisture within 7 to 10 days. If you notice any moisture at all, remove all the food and re-dry. Clean the container and let it dry thoroughly before using it again. If the food is moldy, discard it immediately. Sterilize the jar or throw away the plastic bag.
- Store dried foods in a place with a relatively constant temperature of about 40 °F to 70 °F (5 °C to 20 °C).
- Keep your containers of dried food in a closed cupboard or dark room, away from light.
If you live in a dry area, your dry foods are likely to stay fresh longer. However, humid places are more at risk of moisture getting in the container and considerably shortening storage life.
Well-dried and properly packaged foods can last for up to 1 year at room temperature, but the shelf-life of the product decreases each time the container is opened.
How to Use Dried Food
Dried food, depending on the type, can be very versatile! Here are some ideas on how to use dried food:
- Eat dried food as is. You can snack on dried fruits or beef jerky while on a trip, for example.
- Rehydrate dried food with water. When you’re making soup or a stew, there are certain ingredients, such as onions, tomatoes, and so on, that can be added dry because they water of the preparation will rehydrate it as everything cooks.
- Grind dried foods into a fine powder. Powder is very convenient for seasoning all kinds of foods. Herbs, in particular, are one of the most common foods you’ll find in powder form. You can grind them and then store them in small glass jars in your spice cabinet to sprinkle on your next dishes. Powdered mushrooms and tomatoes can be reconstituted with water to make a sauce.
Basically, you can choose to dry foods until pliable and then, use them as a snack food or make a sauce with them. You can also dry them until they’re crispy and brittle, and grind them into a powder for long-term storage.
The drier the products, the longer the shelf life. Less-dry food can last up to months, whereas completely dry food, if properly stored, may last several months.
Here you’ll find some of the most common issues you can run into when drying food at home, and how to solve them and prevent them from happening again.
There are various possible causes for finding moisture in the container you’ve used to store the dried food. It might be due to incomplete drying, in which case you’ll have to inspect the pieces for mold and, if there’s none, continue the drying process. Remember that sectioning the food evenly ensures that it dries thoroughly.
Another reason could be leaving the dried food at room temperature for too long after cooling, which allows moisture to re-enter and condensate on the walls of the container after storing the food. Use your preferred drying method again, and package the food immediately after it cools.
Mold grows when there’s moisture in the container, and once you’ve discovered it on your food, there’s no way to ensure your food is safe to eat. Throw away all the food, whether it has mold or not, and wash the container thoroughly.
To prevent mold, you should check your container for moisture within one week of drying. If you notice any, re-dry the food at 140 °F (60 °C) until dry. Make sure to store in an airtight container and place it in a cool, dry place.
Brown spots on your dried vegetables often mean that you’ve over-dried them or that the temperature you used for drying was too high. Dry vegetables at 140 °F (60 °C), and check on them periodically to prevent over-drying.
Plastic bags should be avoided for storing dried food unless it’s in the freezer. Insects or rodents can eat through the plastic, leaving the tell-tale holes behind.
If you’re in doubt, throw the food away. If you check the contents of the bag thoroughly, and don’t notice any insects or chew marks, then transfer them to a mason jar or airtight container.
Frequently Asked Questions
Almost any kind of fresh food can be dried, but some will hold better than others. Some of our favorites include:
- Fruits (apples, pears, bananas, peaches, cranberries, pears, cherries) for eating as healthy snacks, or dried as purées for baking recipes.
- Vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, peas, peppers) for adding to soups and stews.
- Herbs (oregano, parsley, basil, dill, mint) for teas and cooking.
- Meat and fish (sliced meats; ground beef, chicken, or turkey; cured meat; fresh fish; beef jerky) as ingredients for soups and stews.
Bear in mind, though, that not all types of food are suited for just any drying method.
Dried food has been known to last up to ten years when prepared and stored correctly by professionals. However, it’s recommended that you use yours between 4 months and 1 year since the day you’ve dried it.
Food quality is affected by heat and storage conditions: the higher the temperature, the shorter the storage time. Keep that in mind when looking for a place to store your dried food.
We’ve mentioned that storage conditions are an important factor in shelf-life, so make sure to place your dried food in clean, dry jars such as home canning jars or mason jars, or pack it into silicone bags or freezer containers that are airtight. Keep the dried food in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.
Yes, you can! In fact, you can dry entire meals like stews, rice dishes, and desserts by laying the food out onto a non-stick sheet and then, place it on dehydrator trays. Once they’ve reached a moist, crumbly consistency, you can remove the non-stick sheets and dry them the rest of the way.
In most cases, any kind of oven will do as long as it has a low-heat setting of 140 °F (60 °C). An electric oven, however, is not recommended because it will consume a lot of energy. For you to get an idea, the energy cost of drying food in an electric oven is about 9 to 12 times more expensive than canned food.
Food drying is a great way of preserving food because it’s quite easy and inexpensive. Whether it’s to extend the shelf-life of an abundant harvest or to keep food available for later use, there are several methods you can choose from depending on the product you want to dry.
Each technique has its own advantages and disadvantages, but it ultimately comes down to your personal preferences, time, resources, and frequency of use.
Hopefully, all of our tips will help you achieve the best and most delicious results!