Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Dehydration is perhaps the oldest form of food preservation. Archeologists have discovered evidence of people sun-drying and air-drying fish, eggs, and game in ancient China and North America.
In the modern world, we often turn to ovens and machines specially designed to remove moisture from food in order to extend its shelf life. But what about when the grid is down? This article explores some of the many ways you can dehydrate food without electricity.
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The First Step: Preparation
No matter what means of dehydration you use, preparation is key to success. Here are some tips to follow:
- Select fresh food. Choose fresh meats and fruits and vegetables that are ripe and ready to eat.
- Wash and dry foods (such as berries, grapes, and herbs) before you begin.
- Prepare foods as you want them to be served. For example, cut apple slices into rings or meat into strips.
- Aim for pieces of the same size and thickness for even drying. (As you might expect, thin pieces dry more quickly than thicker slices.
- Blanching can help preserve the flavor of fruits and vegetables before drying. This technique involves immersing the food in boiling water and then in ice water,
- Soak sliced fruits in citric acid or lemon juice to prevent changes in food color and texture.
- Avoid drying strong-smelling food, such as onions and garlic, with other foods.
- Have airtight storage containers ready. Good options are moisture-proof freezer containers, zippered freezer bags, or sanitized glass canning jars.
Some foods dehydrate better than others. Here is a list of foods that dry the best:
- Fruits (apples, apricots, bananas, blueberries, cherries, peaches, pears)
- Vegetables (mushrooms, carrots, onions, beans, peas, tomatoes)
- Meats (beef, chicken, turkey, and fresh fish)
- Nuts and seeds (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia, pecans) after sprouting or soaking to make them easier to digest
- Sprouted grains (rice, barley, buckwheat, amaranth, quinoa)
- Herbs (basil, oregano, fennel, dill, mint, hyssop, parsley, lemon balm)
- Crackers, bread, and granola
Methods to Dry Foods Without Electricity
If you live in an area that has extended periods of hot sun, this age-old method is one to try.
You’ll need a minimum temperature of 85°F and a relative humidity below 60 percent for this method to work. Place food on a mesh screen (avoiding galvanized material) and cover with a second screen to deter insects. Rotate screens 180 degrees each day until the food is completely dried. It usually takes food several days to dry thoroughly.
The advantages of sun drying are its simplicity and low cost. Disadvantages are the time it takes and the reliance on the weather. You also need to watch out for animals who may be able to move the screens to get at the food.
Air drying is another ancient method for dehydrating foods. However, since this method takes place in the shade or even indoors, it may be a better option for foods that need protection from the sun, such as delicate herbs or mushrooms.
Air-drying requirements are ventilation, no direct sunlight, and low humidity. Possible locations include a screened-in porch, a well-ventilated attic, or outdoors under an overhanging roof.
Thinly slice the food and place them in single layers on a clean, dry surface before covering them with cheesecloth. Or, you can hang herbs in bunches from the rafters.
The air-drying method can take two to three weeks, which is a possible disadvantage. An advantage is it requires little work, and drying herbs can make a space smell great.
The Car Method
Yes, you read that right. You can dehydrate food in your car.
All you need to do is park your car in the sun and open the windows just a crack to allow for air circulation. Place trays of prepared, evenly-spaced foods on the seats of your vehicle. Cover food with cheesecloth for insect protection.
An advantage of this method is that it is easy and quick, and it takes only one to two days. If you need to drive your car, that could be a disadvantage.
Black Tarp Method
Did you know you can use a black tarp or a black trash bag and the sun to dehydrate your food?
For this easy method, spread out the tarp or trash bags in the open ground where it can get full sun exposure. Place trays of prepared food on the tarp and cover with a screen that is sturdy enough to keep out bugs but thin enough to allow in as much sunlight as possible
Fire (Wood Stove) Method
Another no-tech option is to use an open fire or a wood stove to dehydrate your food. You can hang up food over the fire or stove or place it on trays where it can absorb the warmth. Remember you are trying to dry the food, not cook it. So keep an eye on it.
How long will dehydrated food last?
The shelf life of dehydrated food depends on the type of food, how it is stored, and the effectiveness of the drying process.
After dehydration, store the food in sealed containers in a cool, dark, and dry location. Most dried fruit will last for a year or more. Vegetables will stay fresh for about six months, and dried meat will last for one to two months.
Dehydrating is a great way to make your fruit and vegetable harvest last and build up your emergency food pantry at the same time. Dehydrated food is also perfect for camping trips and other outdoor adventures.
For more information on dehydration without electricity, here are some resources:
- Complete Dehydrator Cookbook ( a handy book guide)
- Dehydrating Food Without Electricity (video with good ideas for trays)
- Drying Meat for Preservation Without Electricity (video with focus is on meat)
- How to Build an Infrared Solar Dryer (article with clear photos and step-by-step instructions)
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