We keep very few appliances. Really, we have enough counter space taken up by fresh produce or lingering ferments that we always ask first if we can make due without that *one*extra*gadget. Of course, then there are the gadgets that save you time and allow you to save money with your food storage. A food dehydrator is one of those items.
But first, on the dehydrator, let’s get real. Do you NEED a food dehydrator? Of course not. Nature provides each of us with a dehydrator at least for part of the year and that dehydrator is called “sunshine.” We have made ridiculous, giant batches of fruit leather, raisins, and sun-dried tomatoes using the sun. Stretched out across the flat roof of our 5,000 foot craftsman home in the Sequoia National Forest, you can make some serious fruit leather on your roof but, as you can imagine, you will be engaged in a race against birds and squirrels. I have also used the dashboard of my car in the summertime and that may be the best free option for smaller-scale dehydrating. I outline some of the pros and cons of these methods below and provide a quick review of two dehydrator gadgets (and a giveaway of our hands-down favorite).
For us, dehydrating food outside is pretty hard core. We dry most inside. On occasion, we have such a large batch of food slated for the dehydrator that we just move it on out. We have dehydrated on our roof on large sheets of butcher paper and wax paper. We have also laid plywood out on sawhorses and covered the plywood in plastic wrap before placing the ridiculous amounts of sliced tomatoes or fruit leather puree on top.
If you’re going to use this method, follow the instructions for preparing your food and then plan to place it outside earlier in the day. A “skin” of sorts will form on your produce making it far less interesting to birds and squirrels. In fact, before that skin forms, it’s not a bad idea to keep a project going in your drying area just so you can physically be around, deterring pests from feasting on your crop.
You may also end up with some of your produce over-browning before it is completely dry. It is easy with this method, especially in the heat of July, to get too much sun on your food. Move it to a less sunny area if it begins to brown.
This method has risk and can be fussy but if you have giants batches of produce to dry, it may very well be worth it.
I know this one sounds a bit crazy but we have a full-sun parking area here and nearly always have one car that sits in it for a solid day or two without moving. If we parked in the shade or had to drive the car around on errands, I would be a bit less keen on this idea.
But for our circumstances, the idea is pretty slick and works well when I just have two or three cookie sheets worth of drying.
Basically, just lay your items out on a cookie sheet and place them in the front or back dashboard of your car, following whatever preparation instructions are relevant for that particular food. Depending on the heat outside, your produce will be dry in a day or two. Our cars probably reach 120 degrees F in the summertime. Some thin-sliced produce dries in a day.
The biggest drawback here is that this project is basically seasonal. In the wintertime, our cars typically wouldn’t be warm enough for this project. We also do live in the wilderness and, on occasion, a mouse family will take up residence in a car. They would be happy to find a dehydrating project in it, of course. Pests can definitely be a problem, though far less of a problem in your car than on your roof.
One low budget dehydrator option is to grab a dehydrator like the Nesco at a thrift store. I see them regularly for under $5. These appliances were on infomercials for years and have entered the recycling phase of their lives. They work and they are pretty decent. I would not buy one new because of the ease in which you’ll find one used. Of course, I look for every opportunity to “thrift.” You may not have the bug and could grab a new one from our Amazon partner here (with better features than we’ve used, so this model may really work for you).
The price is good but there is no temperature control on the appliance and the distribution of air is not what you would hope for. You can move your trays around to make up for the poor air distribution and that is not a big deal to do because you will need to monitor the progress of your produce anyway. It’s a solid “starter” dehydrator.
Our dehydrator of choice, which we do make room for in our kitchen and pantry area, is the Excalibur. It is an excellent performer, allowing you to control the temperature of your drying. Some models include a timer as well in case you’ve got an 8-hour drying project and you’re headed out for the day. (The model we use and the model in this giveaway is the timer-less version.) You can also get the large 9-tray version or, like us, the smaller (but not all that small) 5-tray version. You can dry a lot of produce in these appliances with quality guaranteed in the temperature monitoring. You don’t expose your produce to the risk of pests as we have done on our roof and in our cars.
The only down-side is the fact that it takes storage room, as is the case with any appliance. There are many appliances we pass up for this very reason but this is not one of them.