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Drying food, or dehydration, is one of the oldest known ways of food preservation. The written word indicates that people have been drying foods since before Biblical times. Before refrigeration, before freezers and before canning, people dried food when it was plentiful in order to have it when food was scarce.
There are basically three different ways to dehydrate foods: a dedicated food dehydrator, your oven or using the sun. All have their positive aspects and all are inexpensive ways of preserving the harvest.
Dedicated Food Dehydrators
Most of these are electric models consisting of one to five trays. Very simple to use, simply add prepared foods to the trays, stack and place on the base. Add the lid and turn on the machine. Depending on the type of food being dried, the machine does the work in six to 24 hours. Most foods, especially fruits and veggies take around 12 hours more or less. Clean-up is a breeze since you wipe the base with a damp sponge. Wash and dry the lids and trays like any other pan in your kitchen.
Dedicated food dehydrators can run from twenty-five to several hundred dollars depending on the model chosen. You can often find them for next to nothing at thrift shops and garage sales.
The Oven Method
The oven method works in both gas and electric ovens. First, you will need several cookie sheets with metal racks. Place the food to be dried on the racks, spacing the food so that it doesn't overlap. If using an electric oven, pre-heat the oven to its lowest setting (usually around 170 degrees), place the sheets on the oven racks and leave the door of the oven slightly ajar. Turn the food every couple of hours to insure even drying.
If using a gas oven, chances are the pilot light will be more than enough to dry the food. Place the sheets on the oven racks and close the door of the oven completely. As with the electric oven, turn the food every couple of hours.
Solar or Sun Drying
This is the time honored traditional way of drying food. To do this you will need a drying tray and cheesecloth. You can use the cookie sheets with racks from your kitchen or, if you are handy with wood, make trays yourself. All you need is scrap lumber 18 inches long, a few nails, some aluminum sheeting and a staple gun and staples.
Lay the scrap lumber on your workspace and form a square. Nail the corners of the square together using one or two nails in each corner. Stretch the aluminum screening over the square and secure in place using the staple gun. That's it, the drying rack is done.
Place the food on the rack and cover with a layer of cheesecloth. Set the rack outside in full sun and allow the food to dry all day. Check the food just before dark - if it's not quite dry yet, move the food indoors for the night and repeat the process the next day.