Shrinky Dinks for food: Is a dehydrator right for you?

Illustration for article titled Shrinky Dinks for food: Is a dehydrator right for you?
Graphic: Karl Gustafson

If you planted an ambitious garden this year, you’ve probably realized by now that you can’t eat all that food this summer, no matter how many salads you make. Yes, you can freeze most produce, but a few stacks of freezer bags quickly take up space needed for the essentials like ice cream and vodka. Home canning is also great, though it requires jars, lids, time, and a certain level of skill.

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That’s why you may want to try dehydration, which is basically like making Shrinky Dinks out of your food. It’s a preservation method that removes moisture while retaining flavor, resulting in teeny-tiny shelf-stable ingredients that you can toss as-is into blenders and stock pots or rehydrate in minutes with a little warm water.

Do I really need to buy a dehydrator to do this?

That depends. You might already have the ability to dehydrate and not know it. Convection ovens often have a dehydrating cycle, and any oven that can be set at a temperature as low as 150° F can also work as a dehydrator.

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But if you don’t want to be running your oven for hours at a time, a dehydrator is a worthwhile purchase. But before you commit to buying one, the Buy Nothing Project is a great place to check for anyone looking to get rid of theirs. Dehydrators are a big wedding registry item (like fondue pots were to previous generations), so you might already know someone who would be glad to hand over that never-used gift in exchange for some kale chips or dried berries now and then.

To be clear, the appliance of the moment, the air fryer, does not do the same thing as a dehydrator. An air fryer cooks at higher temperatures, but a dehydrator doesn’t cook at all; it removes moisture. Your Instant Pot won’t do what a dehydrator does, either, unless you buy a universal lid attachment, which circulates hot air and converts the appliance into an air fryer or dehydrator. Keep in mind, though, that you’ll have much less capacity with this add-on than with a standard-size dehydrator.

Unless you know for certain that you’re going to be using this appliance a lot, it’s just fine to start small, says Jeanette Hurt, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Dehydrating Foods. “I’ve seen basic-model dehydrators on sale for $30 at Farm and Fleet stores,” she says. “Professional-grade models from Excalibur will give you the space you need to make things like yogurt and crème fraiche, but you can do many, many things with an inexpensive dehydrator.”

“When you start shopping, look for a model with a fan and an adjustable thermometer, and that’s all you really need,” says Teresa Marrone, author of The Beginner’s Guide Dehydrating Food. “I’ve used a small circular unit for the past 25 years, and it still works great.”

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Think of it as a snack machine

“Dehydration is an easy way to eat more produce in a pleasant fashion,” says Ariane Resnick, a special diet chef, certified nutritionist, and author of many books, including The Bone Broth Miracle. She was the founder of the now defunct brand of raw, vegan dehydrated snack foods, Rawk-n-Roll Cuisine.

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“Besides the fact that it’s not as time-consuming as canning, dehydration allows you to know exactly what you’re getting,” she says. “The minute you turn off the machine, the food will stay at that level of moisture and consistency.”

The texture of dehydrated foods is one we often associate with snacking, so Resnick suggests beginning your dehydration journey with snack foods. Step one: fruit. “Since most of us already eat raisins, cranberries, and other dried fruit, we’re familiar with that taste and texture, so it’s a good beginning point,” she says. Be sure to slice larger fruits as thinly as possible before processing them. “Yes, you can dehydrate a whole strawberry, but cutting it into slices will get you there much more quickly,” she says.

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Once you’ve mastered fruit, you can move on to homemade veggie chips made of carrots, beets, and sweet potatoes. Some notes from Resnick: “Stick to dense root vegetables. Don’t do white potatoes, because they don’t taste good raw. And you really need a mandolin to get those slices to be thin enough.” Finally, use caution with added ingredients. “Remember that flavors get concentrated during this process, so use a light coating of spray oil, and be aware that a little salt goes a long way.”

Cut down on your food waste

Julia Skinner is founder and director at Root, a fermentation and food history organization based in Atlanta. She teaches an online class, Preserving Abundance, which includes tips on fermentation and using a dehydrator to make custom fermented spice blends.

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She says that if you want to reduce food waste, dehydration is a great method. “Using all our food scraps helps us stretch supplies and get as much nutrition possible out of everything we buy,” she says. “Preservation methods like dehydrating and fermentation are wonderful ways to help us re-envision food scraps in delicious new ways.” She’s always on the lookout for how to keep food out of the trash: “For example, if I have some leftover greens, I’ll dehydrate them, grind them up, and then use that powder to add a nutritional boost to smoothies or dressings.” 

Shelf space is also saved by drying foods. Teresa Marrone says her favorite thing to dehydrate may seem unusual, but it works very well. “Buy a bag of frozen French-cut green beans and drop them on your dehydrator trays,” she suggests. “Once they’ve dehydrated, they shrivel up like little green twist ties, so they take up hardly any space. But then if you put a little hot water over them for about half an hour, they plump up perfectly.”

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Beyond reducing food waste, the dehydrator can help you think about meal prep from a whole new angle. Jill Dutton is a food and travel writer based in Overland Park, Kansas, and she’s currently writing a pantry cookbook about her dehydrating experiences. If you have tray liners in your unit, she says, you might want to begin experimenting with wetter ingredients. “I’ve dehydrated tomato sauce into something that resembles fruit leather, which can be torn off and added to recipes,” she says. She’s also been dehydrating entire meals, like Taco Rice and Hamburger Mac and Cheese.

Other uses beyond food

Jeanette Hurt says that after you’ve mastered the basics, you can branch out into fruit leathers, powdered celery, onion or garlic powders, granola, dried shallots, strawberry powder, and even “perfect little meringues.” And it doesn’t stop at feeding yourself with your dehydrator—you can feed your pets, too. “There’s a whole chapter in my book on dog and cat snacks,” Hurt says. She also uses her dehydrator for making non-edibles like potpourri, pomander balls, and dried flowers.

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Ultimately, no matter what kind of home cook you are, nearly everyone can find serious utility in a dehydrator, and if you choose to invest in one, you’re unlikely to be disappointed. Perhaps the best thing about this appliance is how foolproof it is: unlike with other appliances, nothing you make with a dehydrator will be left burnt, poorly blended, or underdone. “There’s really no wrong way to do this, and it’s just about impossible to fail,” says Ariane Resnick. “My biggest advice is that if you don’t like how something turned out, let it dehydrate a little longer and see what happens.”

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DISCUSSION

imnotdedyet
David E. Davis

I use my dehydrator almost exclusively as a jerky machine. I tried to dehydrate end of season herbs once and they grew moldy within days. I’m willing to try again with the all the tomatoes we’ll get in soon.