Drying food is the oldest method of food preservation. That’s because it’s so simple. As harvest and hunting season approaches, drying is a great way to prolong the enjoyment your fruits, vegetable and meat into the winter months. Though dried food is probably not the best plan to feed your family in emergency, it’s one more survival skill you can learn to supplement your emergency stores and reduce food costs. Here are some drying methods and safety instructions:
Solar drying is attractive because it’s free. However, you have to live in the right climate. Safe solar dehydration takes 3 to 5 consecutive days of temperatures at or above 95ºF and low humidity. Those in the Midwest and along the coasts probably won’t have a suitable climate for dehydrating, but residents of the Southwest may be able to take advantage of all that dry heat. You can build a solar dehydrator or you can do what the pioneers did and use shallow baskets or screen trays (make sure the food doesn’t touch anything that might have toxic chemicals). Hot attics, garages or screened-in porches make great drying environments. Wherever you put your trays, make sure they are lightly draped with clean cotton mesh or sheet to keep insects and animals from getting too curious. Plastic screen material for window screens, obtained at your local hardware store also works well as it’s inexpensive and washes easily.
Drying food in the oven is too expensive and time consuming unless you have a convection oven that has a low heating range of around 120ºF.
A food dehydrator is a small appliance with a heating element, fans and vents for air circulation. They stay at a constant temperature of 140ºF and offer a lot of options and features. If you live in a cooler or humid climate, dehydrators are your best bet. If you do live in a hot, dry climate, you’ll be able to dry a lot more food in the sun than you will in an appliance, and for a lot less money.
All dehydrators are not created equal – if you’re considering one, be sure to look for these features recommended by the National Center for Home Food Preservation:
- Double wall construction of metal or high grade plastic
- Enclosed heating elements
- Counter top design
- An enclosed, adjustable thermostat from 85ºF to 160ºF
- Fan or blower
- Four to 10 open mesh trays made of sturdy, lightweight plastic for easy washing
Also, you’ll need to choose between dehydrators that have horizontal air flow and vertical airflow. Horizontal airflow dehydrators prevent juices from dripping into the heating element, so there’s no “flavor mixture” and you can dry different kinds of food at once. Vertical airflow dehydrators can allow liquid to drip onto the heating element so you’ll want to separate batches of different food.
Vegetables and fruits must be prepared for drying immediately after harvesting. First blanch them in boiling water for 30 seconds, then cool in an ice bath. Most fruits and vegetables should be sliced thinly and dried at an even pace that allows moisture to evaporate evenly. Also, don’t let the food cool once the drying process has begun or you run the risk of growing mold.
You can start with relatively high heat – around 150ºF but decrease heat to 120ºF to 140ºF as soon as the outside of the food begins to feel dry. Near the end of the cycle food will burn or “cook” easily, so keep an eye on it.
Remember that you want extended dry heat so use food dryers in areas where you can keep the humidity low – if you’re drying outside avoid hot, muggy days and with any method make sure there is good ventilation and air circulation. Also, be sure to rotate and/or “flip” the pieces frequently to ensure uniform drying.
Consider freezing your bagged dry foods before storing in airtight plastic buckets. Freezing will kill any insect eggs that might be on or in the food. Nothing worse than spending days picking and drying apricots to find them crawling with larvae and moths when you pry the bucket open in the winter for a snack.
Dried fruits are rich in riboflavin and iron and dried vegetables are rich in the B vitamins thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin. Both are high in fiber. Good foods to dry are ripe apples, berries, cherries, peaches, apricots, pears, peas, corn, peppers, zucchini, okra, onions, and green beans, herbs, seeds, beef, lamb, venison and fish.
If you’ve got a store of emergency food, a stocked root cellar and a stash of vitamin-rich dried fruits, jerky and vegetables, you’re family is guaranteed a feast in the middle of any famine.