While there are all kinds of lightweight, long-lasting MREs available commercially—some of which have had campaigns aimed specifically at the survivalist crowd. What makes these packets of food so long-lasting? Preservatives aside, the magic is in the dehydration. Dried foods can last for ridiculously long periods of time when kept in an environment with a reasonably stable temperature.
For those who want the convenience of MREs without having to wonder about what exactly is in those little packets, dehydrating food at home can be an ideal option. When you dehydrate your own food, you know exactly what you’re getting and how it got there; there are no mystery ingredients, nor unanswerable questions about the processing method or the sanitation of the person who processed it.
There are many types of food preservation methods, each with their own set of benefits and drawbacks. Freezing for example, is very handy for virtually any food but the preservation is quite short-term relative to other preservation methods.
It’s worth noting that some foods are simply not suitable for certain types of preservation methods but can be preserved by others (eggplant, for example, is not considered a good candidate for home canning, but can be easily preserved by dehydration).
You can get the most variety out of your preserved foods by using multiple methods for preserving them. You can also be better prepared for a wider range of potential situations by using multiple preservation methods.
While canning is optimal for keeping the “taste of home” intact, in a bug-out situation weight matters—and hauling heavy jars of food around as you travel isn’t really plausible. Canning takes a lot of care and attention and requires special supplies, while drying food for storage is something that can be done without any extra purchases—all you’ll need is your oven.
Nothing stands in the way of you getting on the food-dehydration train. Here’s how to get started.
Choose your method: oven or dehydrator
Although you can easily use your oven to dehydrate food safely, some people opt to purchase a food dehydrator.
I use an inexpensive dehydrator just because dehydration takes a bit of time—sometimes four hours, sometimes twelve or more hours—and I like to keep my oven free for cooking up supper while my dehydrator whirs quietly in a corner preparing meals for tomorrow and beyond.
Some food dehydrators are quite spendy, but I chose one that gets the job done for a minimal price tag. They can be found for sale online or in various department and discount stores.
If you aren’t looking to shell out extra money when you don’t need to, you’ll be glad to know that your oven makes a fine dehydrator. We’ll discuss how to use both for food preservation purposes.
Do your prep work
No matter which method for dehydration you ultimately choose, either way you’re going to have to do a bit of prep work. One key thing that should be noted no matter which foods you’re preserving or which method you’re using is this: choose fresh, wholesome foods over older, “iffy” ones.
By preserving your foods at the height of their quality—fresh meats and ripe fruits or vegetables—you can ensure that when you finally go to eat those foods, they’ll give you optimum taste and nutrition. In short, don’t wait to preserve foods. Plan ahead and preserve while fresh!
Wash and dry any produce you will be dehydrating. Slice all foods to be dehydrated extra thin—fruits, vegetables, and meats should all be cut around one-quarter of an inch for the fastest dehydration time.
Some foods—especially vegetables like potatoes or broccoli—should be blanched prior to dehydration. Fruits may be given a “bath” in ascorbic acid or citric acid prior to dehydration in order to prevent discoloration, but it should be noted that this is purely an aesthetic matter and fruits that tend toward browning (like bananas and peaches) can be dehydrated without an acid bath, provided you don’t mind them changing color in the process.
Dehydrating in an oven: how to do it
Anyone can dry food using an oven. Whether your oven is older or brand-spanking-new, it can get the job done and help you preserve food for months or even years to come. Older ovens require an extra step in order to be used effectively for dehydration, but they still have plenty of dehydrating power. Newer (self-venting) ovens make food dehydration a piece of cake—just prep the food, preheat the oven, put the food in, and set a timer.
To dehydrate food in the oven, follow these steps:
- Preheat the oven to its lowest setting (usually between 170-200 degrees Fahrenheit).
- Line an oven rack or cookie sheet with parchment paper to prevent sticking
- Place food sliced uniformly on the parchment paper, then place into the oven.
- Vent older ovens by propping open the oven door slightly with a wooden spoon.
- Dry the food for the appropriate amount of time (a guideline for dehydrating many foods can be found here).
Dehydrating with a food dehydrator: how to do it
Using a food dehydrator to dry your foods is just as fast as drying with an oven, but allows you to dehydrate food without having to sacrifice your oven for four to twelve hours.
Some dehydrators come equipped with temperature gauges that allow you to raise or lower the temperature to your liking.
Others (like my simplistic one) simply activate at approximately 140 degrees Fahrenheit when plugged in. Either way, food dehydrators can help make preserving food easy.
To dehydrate food in a dehydrator, follow these steps:
- Placed prepared food on the racks or screens of the dehydrator (you may wish to grease the racks to prevent sticking).
- Stack the racks and cover, then set the dehydrator to the appropriate temperature and time (if applicable).
- If your dehydrator is plug-and-play like mine, plug it in and set a timer. When your timer beeps, your food should be ready to go!
A word on the shelf life of dehydrated foods
The shelf life of dehydrated foods depends on the type of food, the temperature at which the food is stored, and the manner in which the food is stored. For example, a homemade beef jerky stored in a standard, sealable sandwich bag can be expected to last for several months, but should be consumed within a year’s time to ensure safety against mold and bacteria.
Other foods may keep for up to a year when stored in this fashion (I have some dried zucchini that have hung in there for nearly a year now inside a sealed baggie that I plan to use in a stew soon).
To extend shelf life, you can take extra steps to make dehydrated food longer-lasting when in storage.
A vacuum-sealing device that stores food products air-tight can increase the shelf life of a dried fruit or vegetable from a year to several years, depending on the temperature and light in the area where the food is being stored.
If you have a cool, dry root cellar or basement in which you have storage space, this environment is ideal for storing dehydrated foods, which do best at temperatures at or below 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you have a cool place but light is unavoidable there, you can line the bags you store the food in with butcher paper to reduce light exposure.
If you live in a hot, dry area with no air conditioning, never fear—even at temperatures exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit, preserved foods may keep for up to a year and a half, which is longer than they’d stay fresh in the fridge!
Beyond prepping: the many uses of dehydrated food
I always try to plan today for the possibilities that tomorrow may bring. Obviously, this means disaster preparedness—but I am also constantly looking for uses for my survival supplies beyond prepping, and dried food is no exception.
You can use dehydrated food in many ways, so it need not sit unused on a shelf until a survival situation strikes and can be rotated without waste.
You can create your own healthy and wholesome trail mix to take along on hikes or road trips as a tasty (and trustworthy) snack
You can also use dehydrated foods to make homemade gifts: one of my favorites is dried soup in a jar, where bouillon, dehydrated vegetables and dried pasta or rice are put into a jar with cooking instructions on a tag—it’s the perfect gift for people who enjoy homemade treats as gifts during the winter holidays!
For family folks with picky-eating kids at home, dried banana chips can be a crunchy and crisp way to entice even banana-hating children into getting their daily dose of potassium.
Whether you’re planning for a bug-out, a bug-in, a camping trip, or you simply want to make daily living a bit more convenient, dehydrating food can help you stretch the yield of your garden and your grocery budget and simplify your life—today and for all the days to come.
Photos (except cover) by the author