Humans have been preserving food for eons. Since before 12,000 B.C. according to archaeological findings. Ancient humans preserved food through sun and wind in temperate climates and through freezing in colder climates. Canning, which is the most common preservation method of our times, is the most modern method of food preservation.1)http://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/nchfp/factsheets/food_pres_hist.html
Adibatic is the term for shade drying and occurs without heat. 2)https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/77ffde83-dc51-4fdf-93be-048110fe47d6/Shelf_Stable_Food_Safety.pdf?MOD=AJPERES
Sun Dried, Wind and Solar Dehydration
As a civilization, we’ve scarcely scratched the surface when it comes to tapping into the power of the sun. Not only the miracle of the sun shining 24 hours a day around the globe, and 8-16 hours a day in most of North America, but also to learn more about the nature of how that golden orb is utterly self sustaining, generating enough energy for itself and all life in our solar system.
As long as we’re on this planet we’ll have the sun, so the more we can do to make use of that vast energy resource, the better.
Solar food dehydration is not the same as sun dried.
If you live in a humid area with lots of rain, solar dehydration may not be your best best, whereas it’s perfect for hot dry climates.
The Best Food Preservation Methods
There are many options for food preservation. Pickling, canning, dehydrating, freezing and freeze drying all have their advantages and disadvantages, pros and cons.
The best method for preserving the most nutrients for the longest period of time is freeze drying. But each method has it’s pros and cons.
Which Food Preservation Method Lasts the Longest
Now the exact shelf-life of the various methods of preservation is widely disputed.
The .gov sites and resources put out all kinds of documents on food storage, but after perusing a a dozen sources, we not yet found official data on dehydrated foods.
The reason there is so much conflicting information on this shelf-life topic, is because there are so many variables, including—and especially dependent on—how the food is stored after dehydrating. The other issue is how hard it is to create and maintain a study that lasts for so many years.
Further complicating the research is the question of what determines if the food is good? There are three main variables to measure regarding food longevity:
1. What is the nutrient value after x years
2. What is the taste value after x years
3. Is it safe to eat after x years.
Testing at the point of consumption is the only real way to know the nutrient value, and this is done less often than the determination of safety. However it’s fairly well known that heat and cooking destroys many of the nutrients. So it’s a really deep dive to get to the ultimate truth on all this, and even once there, the answer is often, “It depends.”
Bottom line: food prepping is a good idea, and there are many options.
So we started out just researching best food dehydrators, including the sun (!) and ended up at freeze dryers.
When it comes to preserving food using solar dehydrators, drying racks or the sun, consider your climate and the average daily hours of sunshine. We live in the woods in a humid climate, so for us, solar drying works best in a sunny area on windy days because wind plays an important role in food dehydration along with the sun.
the best selling dehydrators are electric.
In this article we’ll cover the most popular dehydrators as well as the pros and cons of each:
- Electric dehydrators
- Drying racks
- Sun drying
- Freeze Drying
- Solar dehydration
Many people prefer electric food dehydrators for convenience. First, let’s talk about the disadvantages of electric dehydrators.
What we Use
We currently have only a Nesco dehydrator. We like it and it works fine. However we’re interested in exploring other options. In particular, we’re interested in being able to dry more foods at one time, and preferably without the countertop machine whirring all day.
Electric dehydrators just aren’t that efficient because they run on electricity for several hours per batch, while making a droning fan kind of sound. The Nesco round dehydrator is currently the best seller on Amazon but we got the square one because square shaped machines are easier to store (less wasted space) and seem to better accommodate more food placement as well.
A Lot of Time and Energy for a Little Yield
For me it just seems wasteful to spend an hour or so slicing apples thin enough to dehydrate, layering them in single layers on each drying tray and then running a whirring electric machine for two to four hours. There’s just something that seems wrong about all that energy poured into sucking good liquid out of a food, to produce dried apples that my family gobbles up in no time flat, because it’s easier to eat more dried apple pieces than it is a raw fresh apple.
But I get it.
It’s about food storage!
Food storage is best for an abundant garden harvest where you have more than you can eat. That’s the very best time to preserve food for winter storage. Nothing’s more pleasing than opening a jar of garden tomatoes or homegrown, homemade vegetable soup in the dead of winter.
Every gardener knows that deep sense of security and pleasure at surveying a well stocked pantry of garden fresh foods preserved for winter.
But we like to have dehydrated food on hand and it’s great for travel snacks, so we’re exploring better solutions. Dehydrated food is great for travel, camping, hiking and prepping, and of course for food storage. Drying things like apples and fresh berries, like the goji berries3)https://gardensall.com/how-to-grow-and-use-goji-berries/ and blueberries.4)https://gardensall.com/how-to-grow-blueberries-and-why-youll-want-to/
We’re growing both and hoping this year our blueberry production will be enough for drying. We really enjoy goji’s and blueberries in our homemade nut mix, great for healthy snack and toppings for yogurt and oatmeal. 5)http://mytrainerfitness.com/recipe/super-nut-berry-mix/ Nut mixes also make a great high energy snack that stores well for winter, and is a good snack to keep on hand in your car for a healthy quick-fix of protein, fat and carbs. Energy food!
If Only it Were so Easy
I wish it was this easy: string up fruits and veggies and lay them out in the sun. But of course there are flies and other insects such as ants, that will assume this bounty is for them.
Food dehydration is also one of several smart ways to preserve abundant garden produce for winter. But there’s got to be a more energy efficient way than running an electric machine for hours, and in peak harvest time, dehydrating could last for days. You can get extra trays, ours came with four, but the more trays you add the longer the drying process takes, though the Nesco air flow system is designed for relatively even distribution.
So we asked the GardensAll community and we’ve researched the Amazon best sellers for you as well, and here are top ranking best food dehydrators as of this writing in summer of 2017.
Best Selling Electric Dehydrators
ELECTRIC DEHYDRATORS – PROS
- Reliable and effective
- Available whenever you are (no need wait for perfect weather/can use all year)
- Dehydrated foods can last up to 3 years
While that may seem like a short list of “pros”, these are important ones.
ELECTRIC DEHYDRATORS – CONS
- Adds noise to your environment
- Uses electricity
- Takes many batches to dry larger quantities for larger families
- Requires virtually constant running during harvest season in order to dry enough
- Takes up space in kitchen and in storage
1. Nesco Dehydrator
As indicated earlier, this is the electric dehydrator we have. It’s perfectly adequate, compact and useful, especially if you buy the extra racks to expand drying capacity.
The number one selling food hydrator as of this writing in summer of 2017, is the Nesco FD-75A, though it does have mixed reviews, the vast majority of 72% of over 3,000 reviewers give it a 5 star.
2. Presto Food Dehydrator 4.5 Stars
With over 1300 reviews and 67% 5 star rating, the Presto 06300 Dehydro Electric Food Dehydrator is the second best selling electric dehydrator on the Amazon marketplace.
3. Tribest Sedona dehydrator
A GardensAll community member shared her experience:
“I utilize the mesh dehydrator hanger for my herbs the majority of the time (unless it’s been really rainy when I harvest and I want them to dry quickly). I LOVE my Sedona! I did a LOT of research on dehydrators prior to my purchase back in 2012, and decided this one was the best for my needs.”
“I love my Sedona!”
“Great for dehydrating things and not cooking out the nutrients. The Tribest Sedona has much less temp fluctuation than the Excalibur. Specially made for raw foodies, although I’m not a raw foodie, I like to keep the nutrients in the food harvest.”
There are dehydrators on the market today that are labeled as “solar dehydrators”.
Ignore the labels. These are not true solar dehydrators.
Rather, these are really just drying racks that facilitate passive dehydration through exposure to natural heat, wind, sun and shade. (Adibatic drying). However, they can still come in handy and are beneficial for drying food.
Mesh or fabric drying racks work best for herbs.
Overall, these screen fabric type of hanging rack dehydrators tend to work best for lighter, foods that have less water content, such as herbs. We wouldn’t use them for denser foods, though that can work in a hot, dry climate.
You can use them for vegetables and even meats, but those tend to work best in very dry climates.
PASSIVE DRYING RACK – PROS
- Zero energy – free solar
- Collapsable, so stores small
- Costs less than electric dehydrators
- Easy to hang anywhere
PASSIVE DRYING RACK – CONS
- Trays can be flimsy and hard to lay foods out easily
- Foods with high water may not do well
- Meats can be messy, hard to dry and hard to clean up
- Improperly dehydrated foods can lead to dangerous contaminants
- Dependent on weather – Needs dryer climate and/or ample wind
Improperly dried foods can lead to dangerous contaminants
1. Magarz 4 Layer “Solar” Dehydrator
This Magarz dehydrator only has one 5 star review so far, however, it is currently the best selling hanging food dehydrator according to Amazon’s best seller list.
2. Hanging Food Dehydration System
This Duer Hanging Food Pantry is currently he second best selling hanging food dehydration system, ranking in the top 100 of all food dehydrators. Overall the solar dehydrators are not nearly as popular as the electric ones, likely because of the reliance on optimal weather and climate conditions.
This particular dehydrator has majority 4-5 star ratings, and the unfavorable comments speak to flimsy shelving issues that appear to have been resolved.
3. 3-Tray Hanging Food Dehydrator
This is currently the third best selling non-electric food dehydrator on Amazon, and in the top 100 of dehydrators overall.
This has several recent favorable reviews, and confirmation of our earlier statement that these passive solar and wind food dryers work best for less dense and lower water content foods.
Solar dehydrators work best for herbs.
These work best for drying herbs because of the low water content. It saves time in being able to lay herbs out on the trays rather than stringing herbs up in individual bundles.
However, if you like to the country kitchen look of hanging herbs, this is a lovely hanging rack just for that.
You just have to be careful with tying the stems together, preferably with less of the greenery where they’re bound so as to prevent the herbs from getting moldy and spreading up the stems.
We’ve covered freeze drying in another article but here’s a short list of pros and cons.
- Longest shelf life
- All foods and beverages
- Can eat as is, or reconstitute
- Healthiest food
- Nutrients are retained
- Easier to do
- Energy intensive
To read more on home sized freeze dryers and see a lot of photos from a GardensAll contributor and community member, you may also enjoy this article.6)https://www.gardensall.com/home-freeze-dryer/
Cheapest Food Dehydrator is the Sun
When I’ve needed some rosemary and lavender for a health remedy quickly, I’ve dried herbs just using our oven at the lowest setting of 150 ℉. However, most foods are best dried below the lowest oven temperatures, to retain the most nutrients.
|Fruit & Vegetables||130 °F, or 54 °C|
|Meats||155 °F, or 68 °C|
Note: areas with higher humidity may need higher temperatures.
So until someone invents ovens that can heat up to only 95-155 ℉, we’ll need to use electric and solar dehydrators, drying racks, freeze dryers and… the sun!
Sun Dried Food Dehydration
Sun drying is ideal, if you can do it. Some believe that the sun puts additional nutrients or energy back into the foods, and most can tell a difference in the taste of sun dried tomatoes versus other drying methods.
Naturally, there are distinct disadvantages to sun dried foods that prevent most of us from doing it.
SUN DRIED PROS
- Healthier foods
- Better taste
- Free energy
- Can be fast for herbs, and insects won’t bother those
SUN DRIED CONS
- Hard to protect against insects on vegetables and especially fruits
- Requires a hot dry climate and consecutive rain free days
Coleman (my husband), just came in with some dried lemon balm from the garden. He placed it on the roof of our “stove house”, and they dried beautifully over 2.5 mostly sunny days in July.
He rigged up a simple drying basket of galvanized welded wire mesh hardware cloth.
It seems that most store bought sun dried tomatoes aren’t actually sun dried.
Sun drying sounds ideal, but it’s a challenge to accomplish with mass production in this day and age. So chances are that any sun dried tomatoes you buy at the store in a jar or package, were dehydrated of freeze dried rather than sun dried.
DIY Solar Dehydrator
The pros and cons of solar dehydration is similar to that of the passive solar drying racks. Remember, these are often labeled as solar dehydrators but they’re not true solar dehydrators.
Solar dehydrators utilize solar collection panels that collect heat from the sun and fan it into a box or building.7)
If you’re a DIYer and serious about making a solar dehydrator, there’s a great article with detailed instructions and plans at MotherEachNews.com.7)
Cucumbers can be dried in the dehydrator, or in the oven at 150 for a few hours. Slice think, stir with your favorite chip seasoning, then layer on a cookie sheet for 3-4 hours. For some great cucumber recipes, you can visit KarissasVeganKitchen.com.7)
I enjoy cucumber chips well enough, though it’s not really my go-to snack preference, and my family are even less inclined to munch on cuke chips. But we love them in green juice, so we’re blending them and pouring into ice cube trays to freeze, then zipping them into plastic bags in just the right amount to add to our Vitamix for making green juice.
So we’ve concluded that it’s not worth it to us to spend all the time drying cucumbers into chips. Just takes way too long and isn’t a favorite around here. Instead, we’re using lots of them each day in a water urn for drinking throughout the day.
#VitaminK, #potassium, #magnesium
For more on freezing cucumbers, you may enjoy this article.
Wisdom from the GardensAll Community
Susanne Carroll says:
I have a Nesco also. I pack them in olive oil and use a variety of herbs or garlic to enhance the flavor. Even a bit of red pepper sometimes ?1
I prefer to use fresh herbs. I basically cram whatever sounds good into a jar with a good 1″ or a bit more of head space. The spicier blend’s I go closer to two. That way I can used the flavored oils on good bread.
We hope you found these helpful. If you decide to build or buy a dehydrator of any kind, please let us know how it goes. If you want to share your pictures or video we can add it to this article if you send us an email or comment on the Gardens All Facebook page.
You may also be interested in this articles on food preservation.7)https://gardensall.com/easy-and-healthy-way-to-preserve-vegetables/
I’m LeAura Alderson, entrepreneur, ideator, media publisher, writer and editor of GardensAll.com. Pursuits in recent years have been more planting seeds of ideas for business growth more than gardening. However, I’ve always been interested in medicinal herbs and getting nutrition and healing from food over pharmacy. As a family we’re eager to dig more deeply into gardening and edible landscape for the love of fresh organic foods and self sustainability. We thoroughly enjoy and appreciate the creative ingenuity of the GardensAll community.
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