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. But which are the best food dehydrators available today?
Canning, which is the most common preservation method of our times, is the most modern method of food preservation.We’ll get to some of the various options in this article, including the best rated food dehydrators.1)https://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/nchfp/factsheets/food_pres_hist.html
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.
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
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 didn’t find 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.
Food Drying Methods
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
Sun dried is the best when you can. Whenever possible we sun dry our harvests, and you can read more about that further below in this article, as well as on harvesting and dehydrating herbs such as lemon balm here.
When it comes to a food dehydrator, we currently have 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.
It May Be a Lot of Time and Energy for a Little Yield, but…
When I first started dehyrdrating food it seemed 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.
It just seemed wrong to put all that energy into sucking good liquid out of a food, to produce dried apples that my family gobbles up in no time flat. Dried fruits are easier to consume more quickly, so no sooner were my apples ready than the disappeared as fast as a plate of cookies fresh out of the oven. So as good as they are, we usually just go for fresh apples, especially when good organic apples are readily available year round these days.
But I get it. Especially if you have an abundant harvest of your own fruit bounty, the best way to preserve it for the greatest preparedness is to dehydrate them. Even fruits that freeze well such as berries, peaches and even melons, (pretty much all fruits except apples and pears), if you lose your freezer during power outages, you could lose your frozen bounty too.
So we’re all for dehydrating your garden goodies, and when we can’t use the sun, we love our little workhorse Nesco dehydrator with 4 trays.
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.
Benefits of Dehydrated Foods
Food storage is a vital thing to do for emergency preparedness, so we do like to having dehydrated foods on hand (I just have to hide the dried fruits so they won’t all disappear to soon)! Dehydrated foods require less space and energy to store, there’s no refrigeration needed and because it’s dried, it takes less space.
Excellent for emergency preparedness and just the pure enjoyment of having garden fresh fruits and veggies year round, dehydrated foods are an important planning, prepping, and survival food.
Beyond survival, dehydrated food is great for travel, camping, hiking and prepping, and of course for food storage. So far we have a few orchard items to sun dry:
GardensAll Orchard Fruits We’ve Dried So Far
- Goji berries
- Fuyu persimmons
- Wild American persimmons – these are great to dry since the fruits themselves are small with big seeds
These are the fruits we’re growing so far. We really enjoy goji’s and blueberries in our homemade nut mix, great for healthy snack and toppings for yogurt and oatmeal and granola.
The fruits we aren’t yet growing we buy by the box in season from local farmers to dry. If you’re shy on your own crops for dehydrating, that’s a great way to increase your winter pantry stores while supporting local growers.
Nut mixes also make a great high energy, high protein snacks 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, gnats and other insects such as ants to consider; even birds and squirrels may assume your 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.
LARGER CAPACITY DEHYDRATORS
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! It took 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. Hydgooho 2-6 Layer Hanging Herb & Food Dehydrator
Currently Amazon’s Choice, this lightweight and collapsable hanging herb drying rack comes in 2, 4 and 6 tier options by Hydgooho.
2. Hanging Food Dehydration System
This Duer Hanging Food Pantry is currently the second best selling hanging food dehydration system, ranking in the top 100 of all food dehydrators. Overall the solar dehydrators and air dryer systems 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-Layer Hanging Food Dehydrator
Another bestseller non-electric food dehydrator on Amazon is this collapsible mesh hanging food dehydrator by the Winterworm Store.
These passive solar and wind food dryers work best for less dense and lower water content foods.
Air and solar dehydrators work best for herbs and lightweight low density foods.
Air Drying Herbs – The Traditional Method
The mesh hanging dehydrators work best for drying herbs because of the low water content. You may like the convenience and time savings of hanging just one thing and then easily laying numerous stalks of herbs on multiple trays.
The traditional herb drying method is to rather stringing herbs up in individual bundles. However, this is time consuming, plus you need space with good airflow for tying up numerous herbs.
A Modern Approach to “Tying Herbs” Using Laundry Clips
If you like to the country kitchen look of tying and hanging herbs, here’s a modern approach using laundry clip hangers. Of course you could also simply string a clothes line with wooden clothes clips for your herbs as well, and if you already have a clothes line, all the better!
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
You can read more on home sized freeze dryers here, along with a lot of photos from a GardensAll community members.
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.
Best Food Dehydration Temperatures
|Fruit & Vegetables||130 °F, or 54 °C|
|Meats||155 °F, or 68 °C|
Note: areas with higher humidity may need higher temperatures.
So if your oven can’t heat to as low as only 95-155 ℉, we’ll need to use electric and solar dehydrators, drying racks, freeze dryers and… the sun!
SUN DRIED FOOD DEHYDRATION
If you an do it, sun drying is ideal. Some believe that the sun puts additional nutrients or energy back into the foods, and some say they can tell a difference in the taste of sun dried tomatoes versus other drying methods.
Although reportedly, many most store bought sun dried tomatoes aren’t actually sun dried. You can imagine the challenge of quality control with mass production of sun drying anything.
I’m not certain as it seems how you store your sun dried tomatoes has a lot to do with it. For instance, the most flavorful and well preserved sun dried tomatoes we eaten are those packed in olive oil, which is definitely another good way to store your sun dried tomatoes.
Oil packed sun dried tomatoes keeps them soft, pliable and more flavorful. Add fresh or sun dried herbs for a gourmet treat.
Naturally, there are distinct disadvantages to sun dried foods that prevent most of us from doing it.
Sun Dried Food Pros
- Healthier foods (especially sundried mushrooms)
- Better taste
- Free energy / Zero energy consumption
- Can be fastest way to dry herbs
Sun Dried Food Cons
- Have to watch for insects on foods, especially fruits
- Requires a hot sun and rain a free day or two
- Need to have a relatively level surface off the ground in full sun away from pets
Remedial Problems in Sun Drying Herbs
- The wind can blow your herbs away (use screens or top cover)
- Wind can also blow away the cloth you lay your herbs on, so place rocks or something on each corner to anchor it
- If you forget to bring them in when it rains, you’ll probably lose the entire batch (yep… speaking from experience!)
Homemade Screens for Drying Food
A simple option for sun drying herbs and foods outside in a full sun area is to use window screens.
Screens for Sundried Herbs and Foods
- Select an area with a sunny surface, such as a lower roof top, car hood, sidewalk or driveway
- Place one window screen on surface
- Add 4 bricks, blocks or wood blocks under each of the 4 corners of the screen
- Layer your herbs or foods
- Add another screen on top – for most foods you’re drying, the window frames will provide approximately 1/2″ of space between the screens for food to lay.
If you have good access to a reasonably level and protected surface in the sun go for it! Sun drying is free, and some believe that it imbues more of the sun’s energy and prana (life force) into the foods.
Sundried Herbs — 1-3 days
Coleman (my husband), just came in with some sun dried lemon balm from the garden. As a quick experimental sun drying, he rigged up a simple drying basket of galvanized welded wire mesh hardware “cloth”. Bunches of leaves were casually placed on paper towels in the homemade wire mesh basket on the roof of our “stove house”. It’s a low lying building with our garden on a hill right behind it for easy rooftop access.
This time the herbs were not in full sun the entire day and it took about 2.5 days to completely dry out. Other times we’ve had herbs such as lemon balm laid out in a single layer in full sun all day and it dried within the same day.
The easiest and most efficient way to dry herbs is to lay out the entire stemmed sprigs or cuttings. These are less likely to get blown around by the wind. Once dried, it’s quicker and easier to lay them out in rows of leafed stems and from there, super easy to scrape the stems of dried leaves into a container for further crumbing or converting to powder.
You can see more photos and info about growing and drying lemon balm here.
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.3)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_dryer
If you’re a DIYer and serious about making a solar dehydrator, there’s a great article with detailed instructions and plans at MotherEarthNews.com.4)https://www.motherearthnews.com/diy/tools/solar-food-dehydrator-plans-zm0z14jjzmar
Cucumbers can be dried in the dehydrator, or in the oven at 150 for a few hours. Slice thin, 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.5)https://www.karissasvegankitchen.com/baked-cucumber-chips/
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 cuke cubes in green juice.
We blend cucumbers – alone or mixed with other fresh ingredients, then and pour into ice cube trays to freeze. Once frozen, remove from ice trays and store by zipping them into plastic bags. This makes is super convenient to toss a few cuke cubes into a glass of water or add to a smoothie. It’s perfect for adding to our Vitamix when 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
You can learn more about freezing cucumbers here.
Wisdom from the GardensAll Community
Susanne Carroll – Nesco dehydrator:
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
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 blends I go closer to two. That way I can used the extra flavored oils on good bread.
Sandy Esco – Drying Apples in the Car
Love this! Brings back memories of mom drying apples in the back window of car. Car smelled delicious for months.
Laura LaChance Stubbs – Italian Sun Dried Tomatoes
One of the first things I dehydrated about 2 years ago was sun dried tomatoes with Italian seasoning, and believe it or not, I’m still eating them. I need to make a new batch with the last of my tomatoes. But right now, I just got done drying banana peppers.
Most herbs get done on a towel in the back window of my car or in a paper bag. Roselle is getting ready and will be harvesting and drying that (paper bag). I recently did caramelized onion powder in the dehydrator. Yum! The dried onions tasted like fried onions and I was happy a few made it to the powder. Tomato powder in the DH. Oh green powder! I hate kale. But I it’s in everything I eat now. I didn’t even notice it in the rice
Slice onions and put them in the crock pot for 6-8 hours. Don’t add anything and don’t open the top until done. Dry in dehydrator until crisp, grind, dry again, and store in glass jar with a moisture pack (not necessary but it makes me feel better).
Yes! Caramelized onion powder it’s the best! Made that for the first time and I’ll be making more, so good. I like kale chips, but I’ve dried a lot for powder too. I just use in soup, I’ve put it on salad, steak, eggs, in my home made spaghetti sauce….still experimenting with it, but love it much better than plain onion powder.
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.
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 kept plants, been interested in medicinal herbs and nutrition and healing from food over pharmacy. I assist in our family gardening projects primarily (at present) through the sharing of information through our websites and newsletters.
As a family we’re steadily expanding our gardening, experimentation and knowledge around all things gardening, edible landscaping, fresh organic foods and self sustainability and hopefully, farming in our future. We thoroughly enjoy and appreciate the creative ingenuity of the GardensAll community. I also own and manage theiCreateDaily.com.
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