Using a food dehydrator for fun and science!

March 18 | Guest post by Alexandra Daigle

food dehydratingWhen I was younger, my sister and I liked to watch infomercials. I'm pretty sure an infomercial could convince an Inuk to buy snow (comes in both functional and decorative varieties!). After one particular commercial I was convinced that food dehydrators were the coolest invention ever. Unsurprisingly, my mother did not call the 1-800 number to "order now!"

The idea to get a dehydrator never went away though. Even if the motivation to spend money on what might be a useless kitchen gadget did. Then there was our wedding registry… everyone knows wedding registries are for potentially useless kitchen gadgets, right? The bread maker is still sitting in its box a few months later, but the dehydrator has since become a fairly constant fixture in our kitchen, and we're constantly walking through the grocery store asking "can we dehydrate that?" We also later picked up a mandolin to make thinly slicing fruits easier and to get more consistent slices. Totally worth it if you're dehydrating all the time like we are.

Apparently putting a dehydrator in a house of nerds turns it into an on-going science experiment. These experiments have left us with a good list of what foods worked and what didn't when it comes to dehydrating. So now I'm sharing this list with you, Offbeat Homies, including the deliciousness ratings on a scale of 1-5…

Apples: Fairly straightforward. I recommend peeling and coring the apples first, the dried peels are a little unpleasant. 5/5

Applesauce: Do you like fruit leathers? Because I love fruit leathers. That's what dehydrated applesauce is. We actually found multiple flavours of pureed fruit in individual cups in the supermarket and used those for blueberry and cinnamon apple leathers. You may have to line your dehydrator with cling wrap if its trays have holes in them like mine. Otherwise, the trickiest part is how thin to spread it. 5/5

Bananas: Sadly, dehydrated bananas are not exactly like banana chips. The middles sink in, the edges get hard, and mine looked a bit black. On the other hand, they taste exactly like banana, if you can get around the ugly look and strange texture. 3/5

Avocados: Does this sound like a good idea? It's not a good idea. But we had to try it. For science. It was not a good idea. The oils came out and started to go rancid. I don't recommend trying this. 0/5

Kiwi: Kiwi sounded like an amazing idea, but in practice, the ones I picked up were a touch under-ripe, so the results were very tart. But there was an easy solution to this: I simply put some sugar and water in a small pan, heated it up over the stove, and rehydrated the kiwi slices in it. Then I dehydrated them again. The results were basically translucent kiwi candies, and delicious. 5/5

Oranges: These sounded like a good idea, but after trying it twice, I've concluded that oranges in the dehydrator are only good for decorations. The first attempt was to dry them in slices, peel on, but the peel was exceptionally bitter. I then tried dehydrating the individual segements, but the outer membrane just became stiff and unpleasant. I ended up rehydrating them (similarly to the kiwi but with some ginger and cinnamon) and using them in place of fresh oranges in a cookie recipe. Some people seem to have had some success, but I'm not planning on trying them again for awhile. 1/5

Salami: Why did we try dried salami slices in the dehydrator? For science, clearly. The results were mixed. It tasted fine, and the texture was similar to baked pepperoni, though the way the grease pulled out of it was a little disconcerting. I prefer fresh salami, but one of my roommates liked it dried. 3/5

Marshmallows: Shortly after getting the dehydrator, I walked into the kitchen (where we were drying fruits), seeing a handful of mini marshmallows on the top rack, and scoffing at this idea. Well, I'm not scoffing now. Dried mini marshmallows are amazing! They taste like the ones you get out of Lucky Charms, with a bit of crunch on the outside and gooey middles. And if you can resist walking off with them by the handful, you can toss them in hot chocolate and they won't instantly dissolve like normal marshmallows will. 5/5

Meringue: I've been attempting to perfect my meringue cookie recipe for a few years now, and I think the dehydrator might have been the missing key. I borrowed a Martha Stewert recipe for the most part. When it came to baking the cookies, I piped them onto parchment or wax paper lining my dehydrator trays. Then I turned the heat to the highest setting and occasionally stole some of the uglier cookies to test doneness. My first batch was perfection, though the second batch got a little soggy overnight. This may be my own fault for doubling the recipe, and leaving them on a metal bake tray for too long. 5/5

Peaches: Peach pits make it remarkably difficult to get nice slices, but the outcome is pretty tasty. Would likely be even better if you use ripe peaches, instead of the hard, sad winter peaches I picked up. 4/5

Mango: Easy and tasty, a perfect combo. 5/5

Pineapple: Dried pineapple is delicious, though it still makes my tongue prickle like fresh pineapple does. You can sprinkle them with cinnamon too for even more deliciousness. Regardless of how fun it sounds, resist the urge to slice the whole thing through the mandolin without first peeling and coring your pineapple. Trust me, it only sounds fun right now. 4/5

Beef Jerky: How did I almost forget about the beef jerky? Let me just say, homemade beef jerky is incredible, and simple. Buy whatever cut is on sale. Slice it thin, and marinate it overnight in whatever marinade you like. (Ours tends to involve soy sauce, worcestershire sauce, molasses or brown sugar, white wine vinegar and something spicy.) The next day, toss into your dehydrator, and resist the temptation to eat it all just to "test if it's done yet." You won't be able to resist, because it's amazing. 5/5

Some additional notes: It's worth it to taste for done-ness as you go along. Initially we left the fruits and jerky in for far too long (8-10 hours), and it turned out that most of it was better if it still had some moisture left (less than 6 hours). Everything varies, though. Next up on my list of things to try: pears, onions, herbs, and berries. Dried strawberries and raspberries sound like a winning idea in my head.

Any suggestions about what Alexandra should try dehydrating in the name of science?

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  1. Yes! I'm beyond thrilled that this showed up on OBH&L and with such great detail! We're looking into getting a dehydrator but were wringing our hands over whether or not it would see use. This is just the motivation we needed.

    Has anyone tried berries by the way?

    4 agree
    • Yes! Dehydrated strawberries are amazing! Just remove the stem and core bit! You can slice them too and make strawberry chips. The chips are great plain or unbelievable when dipped in a 50/50 mix marshmallow fluff and Greek yogurt mix! Best kid and adult dessert ever!

      2 agree
  2. I'm so happy to see other dehydrators out there! We use ours to make entire dehydrated meals for our backpacking trips. I have quite a few food allergies (egg, dairy, cinnamon, the list goes on…) so the husband's habit of just picking up a few Mountain House packages on his way to the trails is out and we make our own. And we totally think of it as science experiments in a lab (kitchen) too!

    With the fruits that turn brown, I keep a small bowl of lemon juice nearby to dip the slices in before spreading them onto a tray. The citric acid in lemon juice will minimize the browning of cut fruits and we really don't taste it on the fruit later. Supposedly you can buy straight citric acid for this purpose but I've never put that much effort into it. For the fruit leathers, I cut up strips of wax paper to spread them on so that the air still circulates between them and then I can just roll them up on the paper to store until I'm ready to eat them. The sticky of the cellophane frustrates me when I am ready to eat the fruit strips.

    I can't wait to see what other ideas are posted. In the meantime, I'm off to see if I can make raisins from the grapes in my fridge!

    5 agree
    • I briefly forgot that dried grapes = raisins …

      I need more coffee.

      Also I think someone with one of these magical machines should make apricot with green tea fruit leather.

      7 agree
    • I'd love to hear your meal ideas and dehyrdrating tips for the camping food. We have a dehydrator and go camping regularly, but I've never attempted making my own meals. That's awesome!

      4 agree
    • I also have allergies and enjoy backpacking. I combine dried coconut milk powder and slow cooked dehydrated curry vegetables to make the most amazing dehydrated coconut curry dishes.

      1 agrees
  3. I LOVE this post! We considered getting a dehydrator last year, but before we could, my mom plucked it off my Amazon wish list and bought it for us, including the solid inserts for fruit purees. We've been sort of frozen with fear about what to start dehydrating first, though. I love all of these ideas – especially the marshmallows! – and the detailed descriptions/ratings. Hopefully it will give us a solid place to start. Thanks so much for sharing!

    1 agrees
  4. YES! I love my dehydrator. I definitely go through seasons of using it but it is one of my favorite appliances. Even though it takes up a SHIT TON of space in my itty-bitty cupboards I wouldn't trade it for the world! I have literally lived off of the stuff my dehydrator produces for fulls weeks of camping!
    I use a Nesco dehydrator, which my brother bought me for Christmas. It was recommended to him by a 5-year veteran tree-planter and it's been amazeballs! Also, my came with inserts so I don't need to bother with cling wrap when making the aforementioned fruit leather.

    2 agree
  5. For the DIY crowd, meet the Alton Brown box fan dehydrator. We've toyed with this but I trust that Alton Brown has tested and perfected the method as much as possible.

    And! Thanks for the rating scale! That's really helpful for me.

    6 agree
  6. This is great! I've made beef jerky in my oven with mixed results – some was the most tasty jerky we've ever tried, some was so gross it's still in a jar in the cabinet 6 months later…not moldy, though. :/ I'm also intrigued by the idea of building a solar food dryer, but I haven't tried it yet.

    1 agrees
    • We had three types of beef jerky in the dehydrator this weekend. A normal one, one with curry powder, and a sweet one with cinnamon, cloves and brown sugar. The curry one vanished before I could try it, but the sweet one is neat, it's almost got bite like root beer.

      1 agrees
  7. Do cherries!! Dried cherries are delightful. My neighbours used to make them. They pitted them, but I can't remember if they sliced them in half or not.

    6 agree
  8. Wow. I never had any interest in a food dehydrator. Until reading this post. Now I'm wondering how I've lived without one.

    15 agree
  9. My roommate in collage used to dehydrate pears in the fall when they were just about to go bad, in other words super sweet and very juicy so they took a long time in the dehydrator, they turned out amazing. She would come home and half the jar would be gone because I would snack on them while studying. She still sends them to me for my birthday sometimes.

    3 agree
    • That sounds awesome! I'm looking forward to the summer and fall this year, so we can try some in season fruits.

      1 agrees
  10. I recently started dehydrating food, I don't yet own a dehydrator so I borrowed my sister's (wanted to make sure it was something I would like doing before I invested money in it). So far I have dehydrated tomatoes to make pesto and apple slices. I think I needed to keep the apple slices in the dehydrator a little longer so they would be a bit crisper but overall it was a lot of fun. Next is beef jerky!

    1 agrees
  11. I love this post! I've been considering getting a dehydrator for years and this might just push me over the edge. The ratings were especially helpful.

    2 agree
  12. Has anyone ever discovered a way to freeze-dry fruit at home? From what I hear, dehydrators can never get the fruit completely dry, and for my intended purpose (macarons), I need it COMPLETELY dry.

    • Some of the fruit we left in for too long is pretty bone dry, but it gets hard to chew at that point. Maybe if it was chopped finely first and dried like that it would work.

  13. OH man I lovew my dehydrator! Although I recommend leaving apples in forever and ever and ever. You wind up with crunchy apple chips and they are fan-TASTIC! The dehydrator was super helpful after my partner and I worked at an orchard last fall. They let us take all the windfalls we wanted, but that meant that the apples were a bit bumped and bruised and wouldn't store well for long, plus they took up a LOT of space. Bingo! Dehydrated apples take up NO space and are delicious! They're also supposed to be super good for you. Bonus: They don't have the mysterious chemicals that you fin in commercial dried fruit.
    We've also made our kale chips exclusively in the dehydrator and it's been quite a boon! making them in the oven resulted in a more uneven/irregular product and required a far longer attention span than I possess.

    2 agree
  14. Wow, this post is inspiring! I've often thought it would be nifty to have a dehydrator, but never invested the money in one because I figured it'd just end up in collecting dust in the pantry. I feel a little silly, but I had no clue you could make things like fruit leathers in a dehydrator, and the thought of kale chips (and possibly other veggie chips?) sounds so much better in the dehydrator than anything I've pulled out of the oven. And I totally would have never thought about marshmallows! I think I'm going to have to put a dehydrator on my wish list!

    3 agree
  15. Has anyone had any luck with vegan jerky of any sort? I've always been curious what they're really made from. Some are vaguely tofu-life, but others have some grain to them. I would love to try my hand at making some.

    1 agrees
    • I've never done it myself, but if you're looking for a sort of grain I'd recommend tempeh or seitan (although I've never been able to find the latter in a grocery store!). I would imagine that tempeh seasoned the way it is in the Veganomicon's Spicy Tempeh and Broccoli Rabe would be faaaaantastic.

      • I'm lucky that where I live there are several specialty grocery stores that regularly stock both tempeh and seitan, and a few other meat substitutes.

  16. We used our dehydrator (hand-me-down from a friend who never used it) to make dried sweet potato slices (like sweet potato chips without any salt) for our dog. It worked brilliantly! Like you, we also had good results with apples.

    1 agrees
  17. Ha, my roommates just got a dehydrator to try to make their own versions of Mountain House, for variety and cheapness when they go on a really long upcoming backpacking trip. So they've been experimenting! I will confirm that strawberries are indeed quite good. Slicing them seems a bit annoying, though. Rice apparently works well; they dehydrated rice and were able to rehydrate in just a few minutes with boiling water. But I think the best thing they did was to make a smoothie with berries, banana, and so on, spread it thinly, and dehydrate that to make fruit leather, similar to your apple sauce mixes above. They did stuff with peanut butter and banana too, but it looked less appealing so I did not sample it.

    1 agrees
  18. Tomatoes!
    "Sun-dried" tomatoes are awesome for pasta salads and in homemade bread.

    And there's a garden blog filled with great ideas that recommends drying the leftover tomato skins from the preserving or canning to make a tomato powder to help flavor your cooking:

    http://yougrowgirl.com/tomato-skin-powder/

    1 agrees
  19. You can't recreate dried banana chips in a dehydrator…ever. Banana chips are actually deep fried to keep the colour and make that crunchiness.

    As for dried oranges, I've done them with the skin on in slices and then dipped in dark chocolate. They taste awesome like that! Although you don't want to dry them to a crisp, slightly pliable is best.

  20. My Mom decided we needed a dehydrator in 1980. We lived in Frankfurt Germany and my Daddy had rented a micro orchard of apple & pear trees. The first 3 years all the apples & pears we didn't eat fresh went to the juicer & we got apple juice credit & sometimes other flavors (but that used more credits). We (family of 6) came to the states for a 6 week visit, beginning in CA driving east to NJ in a $600 station .wagon, visiting family. Around Utah (3 weeks in) Mom found the dehydrator she was looking for in the local pennysaver. That sucker was huge! Approx 3 feet tall, with 12 racks the size of cookie sheets. So for the next 3 weeks we traveled & camped,slept on relatives floors, lugging that behemoth around. When we checked in for our flight home, the airline personnel just shook their heads. That dehydrator worked non stop for the next 3 winters, blew out a few transformers & I even used it for a science fair project in 7th grade. Eventually, my Daddy didn't renew his lease on the orchard & it left our life. I am not a fan of anything apple or has apple as a top 5 ingredient, thanks to all the apples we ate those 6 years.

  21. Mandarin orange segments, from the can. They turn into raisin-sized mouth-explosions of orange!
    A little release agent on the dehydrator rack is in order.

    Slice bananas longways.

    Pears work well.

    "Fresh Raisins" sounds like an oxymoron, but they are _way_ better than store-bought.

    Apples sliced about 3/16" thick and dried to completion are a marvelous crispy snack.

    I keep meaning to try commercial grape jelly, I expect a chewy candy sort of thing.

    and… 'tis the season for cheap Peeps… just sayin'.

    1 agrees
  22. I dehydrate a lot of oranges, lemons and grapefruits when I find them on a good sale. I use them to make syrup. 1 part sugar, 1 part water and a generous handful of dehydrated citrus pieces. I simmer them until the syrup is reduced a bit and has turned orange/yellow. Then I strain out the fruit pieces and have an incredible syrup for pancakes or teas. The dehydrated citrus absorbs some of the simple syrup, so I have candied orange/lemon peel. I can either eat that as is, use in baking or dip it in chocolate.

    1 agrees
  23. Depending on the kind of banana chips you're used to, the key to dehydrated banana slices becoming banana chips may be honey (and sometimes a bit of lemon juice to prevent darkening). The kind my hubby really loves is definitely coated in a layer of honey then dried. Banana chips we've gotten from other places often lack the honey and the texture can vary a fair amount, so this will only help if you happen to like the honey dried kind. We're just waiting on finding a good dehydrator to try our own at home.

  24. Persimmons. The ones we have in Hawaii you can cut and dry like apples. And overripe ones make a really nice fruit leather w/ no sugar! Thanks for all your ideas.

    1 agrees

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