My dehydrator, a 9-tray Excalibur, is a big clunky box of a thing that whirs perpetually when it’s on, so much so that I’ve banished it from the kitchen to the garage. It’s not as lovely as my copper jam pot, or put to use quite as frequently as my Scanpan skillet. And yet I love the bulky dehydrator. I love it enough, in fact, to have written a book about it, Dried & True: The Magic of Your Dehydrator in 80 Delicious Recipes and Inspiring Techniques.
Sometimes when you make something at home (like ketchup, for example), the resulting product tastes interesting, but not quite as good as the stuff you’ve been getting at the grocery for years. But drying your own food is different: So often it lifts a veil of blandness from foods that you’d never fully appreciated before.
Take basil, for example. Before I had a dehydrator, dried basil was the musty stuff that I'd find in a rented cabin while searching unsuccessfully for something actually useful, like salt. But one summer evening, while working on recipes for the book, I realized that I had more basil on my hands than I could use in the week. I blanched some, dried it for several hours in my dehydrator at a medium-low setting (135° F), and when it was completely crumbly, pulverized it with some dried garlic and lemon zest and tossed the mixture on some noodles with Parmesan and olive oil. I was astounded by the vivid green color and seductive herbaceous-anise flavor that the powder brought. Once in my cupboard, the blend was my no-effort trick to elevating ordinary meals. I seasoned fish with it, sprinkled it on potatoes and hard-cooked eggs, and even showered it on fresh pesto to double down on basil intensity.
I soon had a crop of homemade flavor powders that I'd dried in my machine. Some were infinitely fresher takes on ingredients you might get at the grocery store, like homemade garlic powder (which, unlike fresh garlic, doesn't burn when used as a meat rub, and its spiky garlic intensity doesn’t have the acrid cooked taste that you can get in grocery garlic powder). Other powders were little flavoring fantasies of my own creation, like Bloody Mary salt made with tomatoes and horseradish to rim cocktail glasses and season steaks, and fancy sugars seasoned with rose and dried navel oranges. Walking out to the garage in the morning to check on my latest batch of dried shrimp or dried turmeric, I feel like an old-timey alchemist in the most appealing way.
Beyond the powders, there were other foods that I discovered were so much better when I dried them myself. Something as prosaic as raisins takes on a whole new luscious character in the home dehydrator: I found myself doing taste tests of tart green-grape raisins and perfumed Muscat raisins. I’d rush home from the farmers market with a case of second-quality apricots to dry into the tangiest, most glorious pale-orange fruit leather for my kids (and me) to gobble during hikes. Beef jerky went from being a quirky roadside snack to a concentrated ode to the minerality and richness of grass-fed meat.
Drying is the oldest method of preservation, and in a world where so many people live without home refrigerators, it's still the most important. (Just think about rice, beans, flour, and dried grains: all dried foods). And the same act of removing water also concentrates flavors in exciting ways.
There are many ways to dry food: The oldest is to put it outside (usually on screens or hung on lines) and let the sun and wind circulate air and promote evaporation (which works pretty well in Crete or Thailand, but not here in Seattle). You can dry foods in the oven, at the lowest temperature, but it tends to produce cooked, crackly exteriors, while not getting the interior of your ingredients as dry as they need to be. The advantage of a dehydrator is its gentle, adjustable heater and a fan to circulate air. Drying can go slowly (very slowly if you choose the lowest settings, like raw-food devotees do), and you can carefully monitor the texture of your food projects as you go.
As you get used to working with the dehydrator, you accommodate yourself to the lazy rhythm of the machine. It’s a little bit like baking bread or fermenting foods: Your projects take a long time, but they don’t take much maintenance as you go along—you simply set the timer for a few hours and go about your business.
Do you own a peach or apricot orchard and need to find a way to sell your crops long past the harvest season? Are you a long-haul backpacker who wants to make your own packable meals? Are you a raw foodist who must ensure that certain enzymes are not destroyed by the aggressive heat of a conventional oven? If you answered no to all of these questions, then you probably don’t need a dehydrator. Even if you’re prepping for some biblical-level disasters, you’d do better buying freeze-dried food in bulk than drying it in a home-scale dehydrator.
The real question to ask yourself, however, is would I love a dehydrator? I know I do. I relish mine for the sheer joy of transformation it brings, whether I’m making stained-glass-like cross-sections of sliced navel oranges or drying cherry tomatoes by the score. Sometimes, you need to add another level of creativity to your daily cooking routine, and the dehydrator is the ultimate food-project tool. If you happen to pass through our alley this summer and you hear a low drone coming from my garage, you’ll know that I’ve found a windfall at the butcher’s, or the orchard, or the berry patch, and now I’m placing a delicious bet on its future.
Sara Dickerman is a food writer and recipe developer. Her latest book is Dried & True: The Magic of Your Dehydrator in 80 Delicious Recipes and Inspiring Techniques.