The need to preserve fruits and vegetables after an abundant harvest is as old as farming itself, and dehydration is the easiest preservation method I’ve found. A dry environment inhibits the growth of microorganisms and bacteria, preventing food from spoiling. It is a technique that has been used from ancient civilizations to the modern commercial food industry, but the resulting products remain the same, from peppers to corn to cranberries. More recently, tabletop dehydrators have brought this technology into the home, and chefs have innovated ways to create new flavors and textures.
There are many benefits to dehydrating foods: As opposed to canning, they retain many of the nutrients that are found in their fresh form; there is no need for chemical preservatives; and it’s an effective way to utilize fruits in season when they are abundant and cheap. At the end of strawberry season, for example, I will buy gallons of strawberries at a great price. Preserving them is as easy as slicing the ripe berries and laying them out on the trays. They can be eaten as an afternoon snack, in a bowl of cereal, as a garnish for salads, or wherever a chewy, intense strawberry texture is welcome. I make a wonderful topping using both fresh and dried strawberries diced together and use it over ice cream. The juiciness of the fresh strawberry contrasting with the concentrated flavor of the dried is a playful and unexpected combination.
Making jerky is a popular use for dehydrators. I take the same technique of marinating the meat but apply it to umami-rich mushrooms instead. Again, this is a tasty vegetarian snack but with a little creativity, it becomes an elegant garnish to a dish of tofu in a light ginger broth. The mushrooms absorb the marinade and take on a meaty flavor that adds a nice contrast to lighter vegetarian dishes.
Leathers are also a common method used in dehydration, but if you continue to dry the food even longer, you will get a brittle texture resembling paper. It is both beautiful to look at and texturally complex. Use a brightly colored vegetable like beets and you will have a stunning presentation for a salad. Granolas are another simple food that becomes elevated when you add seasonal dried fruits like heirloom tomatoes.
There are so many more uses for dehydrators, from herbs to meat, even flowers. We have only scratched the surface of all the endlessly creative ways to preserve vegetables in this handy and inexpensive tool. Hopefully, these ideas will get you curious and started on your own path to dehydration innovation.
1. Remove the stems from 2 pints strawberries. Slice into 3/8-to-1/2-inch thick slices. Arrange on dehydrator trays, being careful not to overlap any slices.
2. Dehydrate for 6 to 8 hours at 140°F, checking for doneness periodically. Once dry, store in an airtight container.
Choosing a Dehydrator
- Dehydrators have only a few components to worry about: a heat source, a way to control air flow, and trays to hold the food. Pick a good machine, one that’s not too cheap.
- Make sure the dehydrator has an adjustable thermostat. Most recipes call for temperatures between 120° and 150°F; there’s no need to pay extra for ones that go higher.
- Choose one that has stackable trays so you can do a good amount at once.
- Look for ones that use fans or “nonpassive” airflow. This is important, because you want the heat to be evenly distributed throughout the trays.
The most reliable brands are Excalibur, Nesco, and L’Equip. They make sturdy, safe machines that clean easily.
- 2 large portobello mushroom caps
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon ginger, grated
- 1/2 teaspoon curry powder
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1. Using a small spoon, remove the black gills from the underside of the mushroom caps. Wipe the tops with a damp paper towel to remove any dirt. Slice the mushrooms 1 inch thick. Lay the slices on a plate or tray.
2. In a small bowl, mix the soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ginger, curry powder, and pepper. Brush the marinade over the mushroom slices. Flip them over and brush the other side. Arrange the slices on dehydrator trays, being careful not to overlap. Dry for 4 to 6 hours at 140°F. Do not overdry, or the jerky will become brittle. The mushrooms should still be pliable and chewy. Store in an airtight container.
Serves 2 as a snack
- 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped thyme
- 2 cups oats, not quick-cooking
- 1/2 cup pepitas
- 1/2 cup soy nuts
- 1/4 cup barley flakes
- 2 tablespoons amaranth seeds
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
- 1 tablespoon chopped thyme
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/8 teaspoon pepper
- 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 egg white
1. Slice the tomatoes in half and toss with the finely chopped thyme. Arrange in a single layer on dehydrator trays. Dry the tomatoes for 8 to 10 hours at 125°F.
2. Preheat the oven to 300°F. In a large bowl, combine the oats, pepitas, soy nuts, barley, amaranth, and sesame seeds. In a medium bowl, combine the remaining ingredients and whisk until combined and frothy. Pour over the grains and stir to combine.
3. Pour the mixture onto a large baking dish in an even layer. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. The granola will be crisp and golden. Remove from the oven and cool. Add the tomatoes and store in an airtight container.
Makes 3 cups
- 2 cups red beets, peeled and diced small
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1. Place the beets in a small saucepan and add enough water to cover the beets 2 inches deep. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer the beets until cooked and very soft. Drain, reserving liquid.
2. Place the beets in a blender and add 1 or 2 tablespoons of the cooking liquid. Blend until thoroughly pureed, adding another tablespoon of liquid if needed. The mixture should be very thick and smooth. Add the vinegar, salt, and pepper and blend to incorporate.
3. Prepare a fruit roll tray for the dehydrator by wiping with vegetable oil. Spread the puree in an even, thin layer on the tray, about 1/4 to 3/8 inch thick. Place in the dehydrator and dry as recommended by the manufacturer’s guidelines for time and temperature for making leather—usually 8 to 10 hours at 135°F.
4. When done, the beet chips will be brittle and peel away from the tray in large pieces. Break them into shards and store in an airtight container until ready to use. It is best to use them in the next few hours, or they will reabsorb moisture and become soft.
Makes 1 tray (depending on dehydrator model)
Learn more about Chef Edward Lee.
Photos by Matthew Benson
Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine August/September 2013.