I was very lucky to have received an Andrew James food dehydrator that some friends bought me for Christmas: a food dehydrator is a gadget I had been thinking about owning for a while, primarily with a view to making my own fruit and vegetable powders (I will come to these in a moment!), but also to have gorgeous little snacks that have no extra nasties lurking inside, or to add to breakfast cereals.
While you can of course buy some dried fruit and vegetables, they are not always cheap. But cost aside, the flavour you get from dehydrating your own is so much better – as indeed it is with generally eating home-grown fruit and vegetables, as well as baking your own goods rather than buying…….
Most crucially, you have total control over what goes in: that in itself is a very powerful and liberating feeling!
Wonderfully concentrated flavours:
Well wow! And wow again! Everything I have dehydrated so far has had the most intense flavour once dehydrated…the pineapple in particular is out of this world, and can be snacked on without a second thought. And the tomato is insanely intense in flavour!
In the relatively short time I have had my food dehydrator, I have experimented with several things, including:
- cherries that had been soaking for weeks in Kirsch (I always have a large jar of these to hand for adding to cakes and desserts!)
- raspberries straight from the freezer
And I cannot wait to dehydrate herbs from the garden and more of the fruit I have in the freezer that came from the allotment last autumn. Not to mention using it for some of the fruit and vegetables I pick this year.
I must mention the Kirsch cherries: they are quite wonderful just from the jar they are macerating in, but when dried, not only does the cherry flavour intensify (as you would expect with dehydrating food), the flavour of the Kirsch stills comes through.
Dehydrated food is ideal for baking
The dehydrated food is certainly excellent for snacking on, but it is great used in baking and can enhance so many sweet or savoury bakes:
- a few slices of crisp dehydrated fruit used to decorate a cake or dessert
- a little dehydrated dried fruit into a crumble or pie along with the fresh fruit for added intensity
- crushed, chopped or powdered dehydrated fruit added to buttercream or ganache (this might sound somewhat “cheffy” but if you have never tasted a standard buttercream that has been flavoured with fruit, then this might be a revelation….seriously you must try it: think top-notch cupcakes where the icing is not just a sickly-sweet affair, but has a rich, tangy taste!
- used as an alternative filling to pains au chocolat and Danish pastries (they soften a little during the bake, but not enough to make the pastries soggy)
- mixed into bread or scone dough for little bursts of added flavour: dried tomatoes and garlic are favourites of mine – you just lightly chop or crush them and incorporate at the start of making the dough or else knead it in towards the end before shaping.
- crushed and sprinkled over tarts, pastries, dips
- make up meringues and spoon small amounts onto parchment before dehydrating
- mix fruit or vegetable purée with liquid glucose and sugar for dehydrated tuiles (recipe to come shortly on this)
The machine itself
There are many models on the market and at various prices. The Andrew James dehydrator I have is an entry-level dehydrator, and it is an excellent one at that: it does the job so well and with such ease that it has fast become a key appliance. In fact, I have barely stopped raving about it to friends and colleagues. I would certainly give this a 5* rating!
The machine is so simple to use: you just slice the food, place on the stackable trays and set both the temperature and the time: no fuss at all! You get 6 trays, which is certainly enough for most purposes, and there is plenty of room between the trays when they are filled and stacked.
It is a very light machine that can move effortlessly to wherever you want it to live. But this is one kitchen gadget that deserves not to fester away in a lonely cupboard for years on end.
The temperature with this model can range from 40C to 70C, in steps of 5 degrees, and you can set the time up to 48 hours. Initially I thought that by not going up by single degrees it would be an issue, but my very minor concerns were unfounded: dehydrating is not that exact a science and I have yet to have a disappointing dehydration session!
The machine is not that noisy as it works its magic: more a low-level whirring sound; when I am using it, I barely notice it. And it turns itself off at the end if you are not around.
If you are drying smaller things that might otherwise fall through the holes that are on each tray, simply place them on baking parchment and they still dry perfectly. The trays clean easily afterwards.
Time and temperature
There are guidelines for the temperatures and the time needed to dehydrate food that comes with the machine, and of course there are many websites dedicated to using food dehydrators with some wonderful ideas: fruit leather, beef jerky and the like. The manual, however, is certainly a great place to start.
However, given that some varieties of fruit or vegetable have a higher moisture content than other varieties of that same fruit or vegetable, and taking into account personal taste (do you want chewy? crispy?….), not to mention the different sizes and other variables, you would need an unwieldy book to list every combination!
Top tip: have a progress check every 8 hours or so!
As I am fairly new to this exciting area of food, I am still learning by experimenting somewhat: I typically set the machine off at 60C, testing after about 8 hours to monitor the texture – if it is too soft, I give it more hours, possibly even raising the temperature to 65C or so.
Certainly for crisper end results you need a longer dehydration time: I have found that for the very best fruit “crisps” (pineapple, apple, orange etc, thinly sliced) about 24 hours does the trick, and for wonderfully brittle tomatoes, 30 hours or so seems to do the trick. When stored in airtight containers, they retain their crispness well for several days (or longer if you carefully vac-pac them).
The smaller cherry tomatoes had a bit of chew to them after 8 hours but already had a lovely concentrated flavour. They would be perfect if I wanted them in the way I would use soft “sun-dried” tomatoes. Mind you, for these tomatoes I carried on dehydrating them for just under hours which gave the most wonderfully brittle tomatoes with such a depth of flavour – quite perfect for powdering or even just flaking between your fingers.
The Kirsch-soaked cherries needed almost 48 hours to get them crisp (and powderable), but at just over 24 hours at 60C, they had a nice level of chewiness with a slightly leathery skin (which is much nicer than it sounds!).
Home-made food powders
I have waxed lyrical about the utter joy of fruit powders before (Tips for making, flavouring & decorating cakes), and I wouldn’t be without them for my baking. However, they are very expensive to buy, so a food dehydrator gives me an more inexpensive opportunity to make my own.
So far I have turned some of the food I have dehydrated into powders and have little pots in the kitchen of raspberry powder, tomato powder, pineapple powder and even a basil & tomato powder (try sprinking a little basil & tomato powder on mozzarella, or a teaspoon or so into a savoury scone mixture………)
To be able to powder the fruit or vegetables, you do need to dehydrate them until they are very crisp so at least a day of dehyrating is needed. For the tomato and basil powder, for example, I just scattered some fresh basil leaves over some of the tomato halves at the start of the dehydration and let them do their thing! They powdered easily, although you could lightly crush them into flakes if preferred.
A few simple tips:
- Use good quality fruit and vegetables: avoid bruised food or food that is near the end of its life!
- Slice the food thinly. Now I tend to go for very thin slices for most fruit and vegetables (no more than a few millimetres thick) which give the most amazingly crisp results – which is often what I want. You can go a little thicker if you want them to have a bit of bite and chew in the finished result. But of course, less drying will also give chewier results. It is purely a matter of taste
- If adding seasoning, do so cautiously: the last thing you want it so give a generous sprinkling of salt, sugar, spices etc… only to find these take over the flavour of the dried goods!
- Turning over the food several hours into the process helps an even drying, but tomatoes dry best with skin-side down
- Rotate the trays several hours into the drying process for even dehydration.
- Store the food in airtight containers: clean jars with lids are ideal. If the dehydrated food is not too brittle, you can vacuum-pack them if you have a vacuum-pack machine, and they will keep for much longer