Several years ago I started home canning. I have a pressure canner, which allows me to can the things I like to eat safely, like chili :). As the years passed on I started canning less and less. The biggest reason is that most of the food best suited for canning wasn’t food I ate on a regular basis. I wasn’t interested in canning fruit or pickles or tomatoes. I like green beans, asparagus, and salsa, but I never had enough homegrown (or pal-donated) food to justify the time and expense. When we moved to Minnesota things got even worse, as the growing season is very limited compared to back home, and as renters I felt a little nervous about putting down a huge garden in the backyard.
Canning isn’t super intensive, but there are a lot of steps and sanitation things one needs to be careful about. For example, all of the jars have to be clean and as hot as possible prior to canning. Food with high acidity such as tomatoes or chili (mmm, chili) have to be pressure canned at a certain pressure and heat for specific periods of time. There are certain ways you have to prep food for canning; for example some people peel tomatoes, and it’s a pain to do a ton of them at once.
None of these things are a big deal, but they do mean you have to put a fair amount of work in and watch the process a little more than I’d like. It might be one thing if we had a garden, or were helping friends store foods they grew. But to get a few bags of green beans from the farmer’s market and can them? Not worth it to us.
In August of this year we decided to try a different way of preserving food at home: dehydration. We really like apple chips, banana chips, chili chips (er, wait), and figured it would be interesting to try dehydrating fruit and some vegetables at home. Dehydrating had some things going for it over home canning. Aside from marginal preparation, dehydrating is a lot more simple and hands off than canning. Cut apples in half, remove seeds, slice on mandolin, dust with cinnamon, come back a day or so later. Pretty easy. We were willing to try.
The next step was buying the dehydrator. There are two basic dehydrator designs: a tower of round canisters and a rectangular “house” with multiple trays inside. The round canisters are less expensive but suffer from several design flaws. For one, without a fan or heat source you have to be very careful about what you dry and the order in which you stack the round compartments. Some friends and family reported that some of the circular compartments were dry while others were not. I decided to research heated “house” dehydrators more.
Enclosed tray dehydrators also have a few variations. The biggest variation is where the fan is located. This apparently is a big deal. Less expensive models typically have the fan on the bottom or the top. If the fan is on the bottom, drippings from the fruit or whatever splash on the fan blade, and that sucks. In either orientation, the top or the bottom gets dehydrated faster than the opposing side. Not good, either. More expensive dehydrators have the fan at the rear of the enclosure. The trays fit closely enough together to help further circulate the air, and no level gets more air than the others.
The other big variance is in temperature control. Some dehydrators just have an on/off switch, or a low, medium and high. Others have more granular settings, but not enough wattage to dry meat into jerky. Ideally, I wanted a dehydrator that could do more than just apple slices.
The most famous of the tray-based, rectangular house dehydrators is the Excalibur 3900, which features nine trays, a rear-mounted fan, and variable temperature settings to handle everything from herbs to meat. I believe Excalibur makes a model with a timer, too, but I read this was not optimal as moisture can start returning to your dehydrated yummies if you leave it long enough. Best to remove the food items as soon as possible to keep things dry.
The catch? It’s about $280 before shipping, although you can sometimes find it for about $270 on Amazon Prime.
The STX Dehydra 600W features ten trays, a rear mounted fan, and a variable temperature control that goes from 85 to 155°F. Unlike the Excalibur, the Dehydra only comes in white. The Excalibur has a black enclosure, but it wasn’t worth another $130 to me to get a dehydrator in my favorite color. I did pay the extra $10 to get a plastic spacer that allows me to make yogurt; otherwise you can get the STX Dehydra 600W for $130 shipped.
The most striking difference between the Dehydra and the Excalibur is the size of the fan. The Dehydra has a 5 1/2″ fan, the Excalibur has a 7″ fan. I’m not entirely sure how big of a difference this makes. As you can see, the fan is mounted lower on the unit and not completely centered. When all of the trays are tight there is plenty of circulation within the unit, and the fruit seems to dry very evenly. Please pardon the cinnamon; we’d just gotten through converting a bag of apples from one of my friends at work into delicious chips.
Here’s a nice blurry picture of the temperature control. We do the vast, vast majority of our dehydrating at about 140°F, which is recommended for juicier fruits.
Dehydration time varies greatly based on how much stuff we have in the dehydrator and what we’re dehydrating. Really juicy fruit like pineapple takes longer than bananas. Slices generally dehydrate more quickly than chunks, and thinner slices more quickly than thick ones. Your personal preferences may drive how you prepare your fruit — for example it was easier to dehydrate pineapple in very thin disc-shaped slices, but I don’t like eating that way as much as a chunk at a time. Mango is more enjoyable to me in slices and not chunks. Weird, but there you have it.
So far we’ve dehydrated pineapple, oranges, apples, peaches, pears, strawberries, wild blueberries, kale, cherries, bananas and mango. The oranges were dag nasty and I don’t recommend them. I was nonplussed by the blueberries, and I’m afraid to try the kale.
Everything else has been absolutely awesome. The pear chips are our favorite here, but our pal Bert loves the apple chips. The kids no longer ask for candy but dehydrated fruit instead. Pretty awesome.
Storage is simple and can be done in various methods. We mostly use glass mason jars leftover from our canning days. We have also used BPA-free plastic containers and resealable Ziploc bags. Make sure that the container is clean absolutely dry, and that your food items are as dry as possible. Ideally, you should be able to shake the container and hear all of the fruit or whatever rattle around inside. If some of your food is stuck together, you need to dehydrate it more.
Most folks say that dehydrated goods in a smaller, sealed container are good for about a year. That’s the same period of time as a canned good. I like to put a piece of tape on the side of the jar with the month, day and year it was dehydrated. Sedagive? also writes this information on the lids of the jars. I’ve considered experimenting with oxygen removers to extend the shelf life, but frankly the fruit never lasts long enough in the house to spoil. It gets eaten too quickly!
All in all, I’ve really enjoyed having the dehydrator in the house. An added benefit is how good the basement smells when we’re processing fruit I am sure I would have been happy with the more expensive Excalibur and felt that I got my money’s worth; however I am very satisfied with the STX Dehydra 600W dehydrator from The Mercantile Station.
I bought my STX Dehydra new from The Mercantile Station via their eBay store. I believe you can buy the Dehydra elsewhere, but you lose out on either the free fruit “leather” mats or the option to get the tray for making yogurt and taller items.