Friday, August 27, 2010

Adventures in Food Dehydrating

On a whim I went out and bought a food dehydrator. I did some online research and read some reviews and decided on the Nesco American Harvest. My main reasons for choosing this one were the price, the availability at my local London Drugs and the mostly positive reviews on Amazon. The pricier Nesco Gardenmaster didn't rate as well. I also like the square design and thought it might be easier to store than the larger, round units. (Just after posting this, the London Drugs flyer arrived at my door. The very same model I purchased is on sale for $20 less! Thankfully London Drugs offers 30 days for price adjustments. If you are looking for a food dehydrator, sale starts Tuesday!)

London Drugs offers a 15 day trial on all their electronics and small appliances so when I got the Nesco home, I immediately put it to use. I figured herbs would be a good place to start. Relatively mess free and easy to prepare. I clipped all the curly parsley in my garden as well as loads of basil and Italian parsley. I rinsed and patted dry everything then arranged it all on the trays. The instruction booklet says herbs can take 20-24 hours to dry. In reality - not even close. Most of my curly parsley was done after 29 hours. The basil was no where close. After removing the completed curly parsley, I re-arranged the trays and put the basil at the top (the drying mechanism is at the top so the air blows downwards). I anticipated the longer drying times because many of the customer reviews advised of this but I was surprised at just HOW MUCH LONGER it actually takes.

At the 49 hour point, my basil was STILL not dry, and actually no where close to being dry. I decided to scrap it all together because after two days, the flavour and natural oil was surely compromised. Next time I will dry air drying in a cool place. Despite the lengthly drying time, and the basil failure, I did end up with a nice little tin of dried parsley. It smells fantastic and I can't wait to use it!

Next up JERKY! Apparently this machine was made for jerky so I was expecting good things. I bought a package of inside round blade steaks (very, very thin). Four fair sized pieces only cost $4.50. I cut them into wide strips and placed in a bowl of jerky marinade (powdered mix that came with the dehydrator). I marinated the beef in the fridge for about 16 hours (they recommend 12-24 hours). Then I arranged the beef neatly on a drying try and turned the machine on to high. Within minutes my kitchen smelled wonderful. Only five hours later and I had delicious, tender jerky! The book said it could take anywhere from 4-14 hours. I should have checked it soon as it probably would have been ready at 4 hours. Some pieces are a bit tough but it's still really good. There would have been more in the picture but I ate quite a few pieces to "sample" it! Jerky success! Since the original batch, I have made more jerky using strip steak and tri-tip steak that I cut into thin slices, against the grain. The steaks were partially frozen so cutting them very thin was easier. These ones were good too, but I prefer the ease of using the inside round steaks. The inside rounds are leaner so the finished jerky it not oily and they tasted better.

My last experiment was blueberries from the Farmer's Market. After rinsing the blueberries, I drizzled some lemon juice over them, then arranged the berries on the drying trays. I was expecting completely dehydrated blueberries but after more than 15 hours, I got little raisin like things. I poured them into a ziplock and popped them in my freezer. I think I will use them in homemade granola mixes, yogurt and baking. Incidentally, after doing the blueberries, I learned there is a difference between drying an item and dehydrating it. Drying eliminates about 75% of the moisture content in foods. Dehydrating removes about 98% of it. Both can be done in a dehydrator, you just need to adjust the length of time. If I want fruits moist and chewy, they need to be dried, which takes less time. If I want they dehydrated and completely dry, they need more time. I'm learning that patience is a big part of food dehydrating. I'd still like to try cherries, but I'm waiting on a new cherry pitter. Mine is an old fashioned thing, like an old school syringe. It kills the finger and takes a fair bit of pressure to get the pit out (pictured right). I'm upgrading to an Oxo Good Grips Cherry Pitter. It looks a little more easy to use and less like a torture device.

So far I am pleased with my purchase. It isn't too loud when running (similar to medium setting on my range hood exhaust fan), it produces great results (aside from the oregano fiasco) and it's super easy to use! Future dehydrating experiments: flax crackers, Salmon jerky, fruit leathers, dried cherries, apples and mangoes! What else can I dehydrate??

Top and bottom photos in post from Google Images.

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