So you’re convinced there’s much to love about dehydrating, and now you want to know what you need to get started. No problem. We’ll start with the basics — absolute must-haves. And we’ll work our way from there.
Taking my Dehydrating eCourse? You might want to put some of these things on your wish list.
The Essential Tools
There are two types of food dehydrators, and either will do the job for you. It all has to do with airflow — either vertical (fan on top or bottom of unit) or horizontal. Horizontal airflow is preferred by most people, as you get even heating and less mixing of flavors. However, vertical (with the fan on bottom) is more in line with nature, as heat rises.
The Excalibur dehydrator (pictured) is an example of a horizontal airflow unit. The Nesco / American Harvest and L’Equip dehydrators with stackable trays use vertical airflow. A downside to the Nesco / American Harvest is that food drips down right onto the fan at the bottom, and that’s not so fun to clean.
My experience: I started out using an American Harvest and got lots of use out of it. However, I was happy to move to the Excalibur for several reasons 1) no more dripping on the fan, 2) square shape of trays, and 3) its versatility. Its versatility allows me to remove the trays and use the cube along with temperature control for other things: proofing dough, a sourdough sponge, making yogurt, or making natto or tempeh.
Those are quart size jars, but I most often use 1/2 gallon jars for yogurt — they fit with room to spare!
If you’re off the grid or want to use nature for drying, you definitely have options. The web offers lots of plans for solar dehydrators. Some I just pulled up are here, here, and here. (The last link is to a video featuring three passive solar dehydrators.)
We would like to go the solar dehydrator route someday, though we’re not convinced we can do it in Oregon. At least reliably for most of the year. We have friends who tried a solar dehydrator and were disappointed — the wet weather much of the year prevents outside drying and instead contributes to food spoilage. You have to work with what you’ve got.
Let’s move on to other things you will need.
Dehydrator Tray Liners
When drying food in pieces small enough to fall through the mesh or screens, or when drying wet foods, you need to line your dehydrator trays. Believe me, it is necessary!
Dehydrator manufacturers provide liner options. For instance, you can choose to get Para-flexx sheets with your Excalibur dehydrator. And the Nesco / American Harvest dehydrators offer plastic fruit leather accessory trays.
If ready-made liners aren’t included with your package or not in your budget, you can use unbleached parchment paper to line your trays. Very wet things (like pureed fruits) can wet the paper to the point it is saturated and tears, but if you’re careful you can probably work around that.
Cutting Board and Sharp Knife
I’m going to assume you have these. If not, Amazon.com is your friend.
Personally, I like to use a wood or bamboo cutting board.
I am perfectly happy with these three knives: a trimmer/utility knife (pictured), a paring knife, and a Cutco vegetable knife. The vegetable knife was a gift from my mom. It is like a chef’s knife but rectangular — you can chop and slice then with its rectangular base, you can scoop things up.
(Follow this link to see a picture of the Cutco vegetable knife.)
Other Miscellaneous Items
I know everyone’s got these in various forms and type, but I will mention them to make sure this guide is complete.
You’ll need various pots/pans, bowls, utensils, measuring cups, measuring spoons, and mason jars (preferably wide-mouth for ease of use). You know, your basic kitchen equipment you use for everyday cooking. They’ll come in handy on your dehydrating adventures, too.
That’s it for the essentials — now let’s talk helpful!
The Helpful Tools
Food Processor (or Blender)
(Pictured: dehydrated powdered eggs)
Here’s why I consider them helpful: 1) chopping/pureeing and 2) powdering.
For chopping, a hand chopper can take care of most tasks (so would a knife and cutting board). If the foods are very soft, mashing can substitute for pureeing in a pinch.
However, a food processor / blender can’t be beat if you want to powder something you’ve dried. Powdering helps in two ways — first, it makes the food more uniform so you can reconstitute it consistently and second, it reduces the amount of space you need to store the dried food.
Actually, there’s a third reason you might want to powder something (like dried eggs, dried yogurt, dried tomatoes). If you’re going to vac-seal a food, some foods come off the dehydrator in pokey sheets that can puncture your vacuum-seal bag, causing you to lose the seal. Powdering removes the pokies so you can keep your seal.
If you’re in the market for either a food processor or blender, I recommend a food processor over a blender — at least for dehydrating purposes. It chops better, circulates the food better, and can puree most foods you’re going to dry. My biggest beef with blenders is they don’t circulate as well and if you want to chop something, you end up pulverizing it. So. My two cents.
Though I know when people really get into dehydrating, they begin to view their mandolin as essential — it isn’t quite.
But it is very nice to have! You can thinly slice or julienne foods sooooo fast and evenly.
Hand chopping can achieve almost everything the mandolin does, except that it is very difficult — near impossible — to hand slice foods thinly enough for chips (like the zucchini chips pictured). I think fine julienne strips would be difficult, too, but someone with good knife skills can probably do that.
So, ask yourself — do I want to make “chips” out of dehydrated foods? That’s the defining question here. If no, you don’t need a mandolin. If yes, you should get one.
I splurged and got this Bron mandolin slicer (this one is the same but less expensive?) awhile back because I wanted three things in my mandolin: 1) a mandolin with good reviews, 2) no plastic parts, and 3) the built in stainless steel pusher to keep my hands off the blade. It was about $160 then and I’m very happy with it.
Cultures for Health carries this entry-level Norpro mandolin slicer for $24.99. It also offers a hand-protection pusher. 4.3 out of 5 stars from 70 reviews on Amazon is pretty good. Though I don’t know from experience, I suspect this would make a good mandolin slicer if you’re just starting out and not sure of spending big $ on the Bron or another professional level mandolin.
Last summer, we decided to purchase a vacuum sealer. The reason for this? To extend the shelf life of our dried foods.
You see, we started drying foods as a long-term food strategy. It didn’t make sense to dry gobs of food to last a year or more and have them spoil because they weren’t packaged optimally.
I didn’t have any idea what to buy, but thankfully my friend Vickilynn from Real Food Living had experience with the FoodSaver brand and recommended it to me. FoodSaver was offering a 30% off site-wide sale at the time, and I chose the V3880. I am happy with it and have used it quite a bit.
I get the idea that vac-seal machines can be temperamental. Like they won’t seal if things aren’t just right. So I’ve figured out a few tricks while working with mine, and I’ll be sharing them in the Dehydrating eCourse.
If you’re looking into a vacuum sealer, you might want to get on the mailing list at FoodSaver. Their deals are quite frequent — both on machines and accessories (bags and rolls). At least today (when I’m posting this), they’re offering 15% off your first purchase if you’re a first time subscriber.
One more thing: get the jar-sealer accessories — both wide and regular mouth! You’ll find you want to vac-seal foods in jars more often than not. Like, foods you get in and out of frequently and don’t want to waste a whole bag or piece of roll. Or, foods you want to munch on but keep crisp, like the zucchini chips. Or, foods that are poky and would puncture a plastic vac-seal bag. Or — this is my last example, I promise — foods that are “dusty” like spices and would prevent the machine making a good seal with a plastic bag or roll.
And that’s it — a handful of both essential and helpful tools to get you started dehydrating. All that’s left now is to invite you to join me and other Traditional Cooking School members in the Dehydrating eCourse. You’ll discover how to use these tools to create all kinds of delicious, healthy, and frugal dried foods.
So, tell me — do you have most, if not all, you need to begin the dehydrating journey? If not, what items are going on your wish list? If you’re an expert dehydrator, what would you add to this list?
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