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Food drying is one of the oldest methods of preserving food for later use. It can either be an alternative to canning or freezing, or compliment these methods. Drying foods is simple, safe and easy to learn. With modern food dehydrators, fruit leathers, banana chips and beef jerky can all be dried year round at home.

 

How Drying Preserves Food

Drying removes the moisture from the food so bacteria, yeast and mold cannot grow and spoil the food. Drying also slows down the action of enzymes (naturally occurring substances which cause foods to ripen), but does not inactivate them.
 
Because drying removes moisture, the food becomes smaller and lighter in weight. When the food is ready for use, the water is added back, and the food returns to its original shape. 
 
Foods can be dried in the sun, in an oven or in a food dehydrator by using the right combination of warm temperatures, low humidity and air current. 
 
In drying, warm temperatures cause the moisture to evaporate. Low humidity allows moisture to move quickly from the food to the air. Air current speeds up drying by moving the surrounding moist air away from the food.

 

Drying Foods Outdoors

Sun Drying

The high sugar and acid content of fruits make them safe to dry in the sun. Vegetables and meats are not recommended for sun drying. Vegetables are low in sugar and acid. This increases the risks for food spoilage. Meats are high in protein making them ideal for microbial growth when heat and humidity cannot be controlled. 
 
To dry in the sun, hot, dry, breezy days are best. A minimum temperature of 86°F is needed with higher temperatures being better. It takes several days to dry foods out-of-doors. Because the weather is uncontrollable, sun drying can be risky.

 

High humidity is a problem. Humidity below 60% is best for sun drying. Often these ideal conditions are not available when fruit ripens.

 

Fruits dried in the sun are placed on trays made of screen or wooden dowels. Sketch of outdoor drying rack.Screens need to be safe for contact with food. The best screens are stainless steel, Teflon coated fiberglass or plastic. Avoid screens made from "hardware cloth." This is galvanized metal cloth that is coated with cadmium or zinc. These materials can oxidize, leaving harmful residues on the food. Also avoid copper and aluminum screening. Copper destroys vitamin C and increases oxidation. Aluminum tends to discolor and corrode.

 

Most woods are fine for making trays. However, do not use green wood, pine, cedar, oak or redwood. These woods warp, stain the food or cause off-flavors in the food. 

 

Place trays on blocks to allow for better air movement around the food. Because the ground may be moist, it is best to place the racks or screens on a concrete driveway or if possible over a sheet of aluminum or tin. The reflection of the sun on the metal increases the drying temperature. Cover the trays with cheesecloth to help protect the fruit from birds or insects. Fruits dried in the sun must be covered or brought under shelter at night. The cool night air condenses and could add moisture back to the food, thus slowing down the drying process.

 

Solar Drying

Recent efforts to improve on sun drying have led to solar drying. Solar drying alsoSketch of homade solar dryer. uses the sun as the heat source. A foil surface inside the dehydrator helps to increase the temperature. Ventilation speeds up the drying time. Shorter drying times reduce the risks of food spoilage or mold growth.

 

Pasteurization

Sun or solar dried fruits and vine dried beans need treatment to kill any insect and their eggs that might be on the food. Unless destroyed, the insects will eat the dried food. There are two recommended pasteurization methods:

  1.  Freezer Method - Seal the food in freezer-type plastic bags. Place the bags in a freezer set at 0°F or below and leave them at least 48 hours.

  2. Oven Method - Place the food in a single layer on a tray or in a shallow pan. Place in an oven preheated to 160°F for 30 minutes. 

After either of these treatments the dried fruit is ready to be conditioned and stored.

 

Drying Foods Indoors

Most foods can be dried indoors using modern dehydrators, convection ovens or conventional ovens. Microwave ovens are recommended only for drying herbs, because there is no way to create airflow in them.

 

Food Dehydrators

A food dehydrator is a small electrical appliance for drying food indoors. A food dehydrator has an electric element for heat and a fan and vents for air circulation. Dehydrators are efficiently designed to dry foods quickly at 140°F.
 
Food dehydrators are are available from department stores, mail-order catalogs, natural food stores, seed catalogs and garden supply stores. Costs vary from $40 to $350 or above depending on features. Some models are expandable and additional trays can be purchased later. Twelve square feet of drying space dries about a half-bushel of produce.

 

Oven Drying

Everyone who has an oven has a dehydrator. By combining the factors of heat, low humidity and air flow, an oven can be used as a dehydrator. 
 
An oven is ideal for occasional drying of meat jerkies, fruit leathers, and banana chips or for preserving excess produce like celery or mushrooms. Because the oven is needed for every day cooking, it may not be satisfactory for preserving abundant garden produce. 
 
Oven drying is slower than dehydrators because it does not have a built-in fan for the air movement. (However, some convection ovens do have a fan). It takes about two times longer to dry food in an oven than it does in a dehydrator. Thus, the oven is not as efficient as a dehydrator and uses more energy.

 

To use your oven - First, check the dial and see if it can register as low as 140°F. If your oven does not go this low, then your food will cook instead of dry. Use a thermometer to check the temperature at the "warm" setting.
 
For air circulation, leave the oven door propped open two to six inches. Circulation can be improved by placing a fan outside the oven near the door. CAUTION: This is not a safe practice for a home with small children.

 

Because the door is left open, the temperature will vary. An oven thermometer placed near the food gives an accurate reading. Adjust the temperature dial to achieve the needed 140°F. 
 
Drying trays should be narrow enough to clear the sides of the oven and should be 3 to 4 inches shorter than the oven from front to back. Cake cooling racks placed on top of cookie sheets work well for some foods. The oven racks, holding the trays, should be two to three inches apart for air circulation.

 

Drying Fruits

Dried fruits are unique, tasty and nutritious. Begin by washing the fruit and coring it, if needed. For drying, fruits can be cut in half or sliced. Some can be left whole. See the table “Drying Fruits at Home” later in this publication for specific directions for preparing each fruit.
 
Thin, uniform, peeled slices dry the fastest. The peel can be left on the fruit, but Dried fruits laid out across a white background. unpeeled fruit takes the longer to dry. Apples can be cored and sliced in rings, wedges, or chips. Bananas can be sliced in coins, chips or sticks.
 
Fruits dried whole take the longest to dry. Before drying, skins need to be "checked" or cracked to speed drying. To "check" the fruit place it in boiling water and then in cold water. 
 
Because fruits contain sugar and are sticky, spray the drying trays with nonstick cooking spray before placing the fruit on the trays. After the fruit dries for one to two hours, lift each piece gently with a spatula and turn.

 

Pretreating the Fruit

Pretreatments prevent fruits from darkening. Many light-colored fruits, such as apples, darken rapidly when cut and exposed to air. If not pretreated, these fruits will continue to darken after they have dried. In the past sulfuring was used to pretreat fruits. The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service no longer recommends this method because some individuals have strong reactions to sulfured foods. The alternatives below work well for short term storage. 
 
Ascorbic Acid - Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) mixed with water is a safe way to prevent fruit browning. However, its protection does not last as long as sulfuring or sulfiting. Ascorbic acid is available in the powdered or tablet form, from drugstores or grocery stores. One teaspoon of powdered ascorbic acid is equal to 3000 mg of ascorbic acid in tablet form. (If you buy 500 mg tablets, this would be six tablets).

 

Directions for Use - Mix 1 teaspoon of powdered ascorbic acid (or 3000 mg of ascorbic acid tablets, crushed) in 2 cups water. Place the fruit in the solution for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove fruit, drain well and place on dryer trays. After this solution is used twice, add more acid.

 

Ascorbic Acid Mixtures - Ascorbic acid mixtures are a mixture of ascorbic acid and sugar sold for use on fresh fruits and in canning or freezing. It is more expensive and not as effective as using pure ascorbic acid.
 
Directions for Use - Mix 1 1/2 tablespoons of ascorbic acid mixture with one quart of water. Place the fruit in the mixture and soak 3 to 5 minutes. Drain the fruit well and place on dryer trays. After this solution is used twice, add more ascorbic acid mixture. 

 

Fruit Juice Dip - A fruit juice that is high in vitamin C can also be used as a pretreatment, though it is not as effective as pure ascorbic acid. Juices high in vitamin C include orange, lemon, pineapple, grape and cranberry. Each juice adds its own color and flavor to the fruit. 
 
Directions for Use - Place enough juice to cover fruit in a bowl. Add cut fruit. Soak 3 to 5 minutes, remove fruit, drain well and place on dryer trays. This solution may be used twice, before being replaced. (The used juice can be consumed.)

 

Honey Dip - Many store-bought dried fruits have been dipped in a honey solution. A similar dip can be made at home. Honey dipped fruit is much higher in calories.
 
Directions for Use - Mix 1/2 cup sugar with 1 1/2 cups boiling water. Cool to lukewarm and add 1/2 cup honey. Place fruit in dip and soak 3 to 5 minutes. Remove, drain well and place on dryer trays.
 
Syrup Blanching - Blanching fruit in syrup helps it retain color fairly well during drying and storage. The resulting product is similar to candied fruit. Fruits that can be syrup blanched include apples, apricots, figs, nectarines, peaches, pears, plums and prunes.
 
Directions for Use - Combine 1 cup sugar, 1 cup light corn syrup and 2 cups water in a saucepot. Bring to a boil. Add 1 pound of prepared fruit and simmer 10 minutes. Remove heat and let fruit stand in hot syrup for 30 minutes. Lift fruit out of syrup, rinse lightly in cold water, drain on paper toweling and place on dryer trays.

 

Steam Blanching - Steam blanching also helps retain color and slow oxidation. However, the flavor and texture of the fruit is changed. 
 
Directions - Place several inches of water in a large saucepot with a tight fitting lid. Heat to boiling. Place fruit not more than 2 inches deep, in a steamer pan or wire basket over boiling water. Cover tightly with lid and begin timing immediately. See below for blanching times. Check for even blanching half way through the blanching time. Some fruit may need to be stirred. When done, remove excess moisture using paper towels and place on dryer trays.

 

Drying the Prepared Fruit

Whichever drying method you choose-sun drying, solar drying, oven drying or dehydrator drying-be sure to place the fruit in a single layer on the drying trays. The pieces should not touch or overlap. Follow the directions for the drying method you choose and dry until the food tests dry. Approximate drying times are given below. Food dries much faster at the end of the drying period, so watch it closely.
 
Determining Dryness of Fruits
Since dried fruits are generally eaten without being rehydrated, they should not be dehydrated to the point of brittleness. Most fruits should have about 20 percent moisture content when dried. 
 
To test for dryness, cut several cooled pieces in half. There should be no visible moisture and you should not be able to squeeze any moisture from the fruit. Some fruits may remain pliable, but are not sticky or tacky. If a piece is folded in half, it should not stick to itself. Berries should be dried until they rattle when shaken.
 
After drying, cool fruit 30 to 60 minutes before packaging. Packaging food warm can lead to sweating and moisture buildup. However, excessive delays in packaging could allow moisture to re-enter food. Remember, if you have dried fruit in the sun, it must be pasteurized before it is packaged.
 
Conditioning Fruits
When dried fruit is taken from the dehydrator or oven, the remaining moisture may not be distributed equally among the pieces because of their size or their location in the dehydrator. Conditioning is a process used to equalize the moisture and reduce the risk of mold growth. 
 
To condition the fruit, take the dried fruit that has cooled and pack it loosely in plastic or glass jars. Seal the containers and let them stand for seven to ten days. The excess moisture in some pieces will be absorbed by the drier pieces. Shake the jars daily to separate the pieces and check the moisture condensation. If condensation develops in the jar, return the fruit to the dehydrator for more drying. After conditioning, package and store the fruit.

 

Drying Vegetables

Vegetables can also be preserved by drying. Because they contain less acid than fruits, vegetables are dried until they are brittle. At this stage, only 10% moisture remains and no microorganism can grow.
 
Preparing Vegetables
To prepare vegetables for drying, wash in cool water to remove soil and chemical residues. Trim, peel, cut, slice or shred vegetables according to the directions for each vegetable in the chart below. Remove any fibrous or woody portions and core when necessary, removing all decayed and bruised areas. Keep pieces uniform in size so they will dry at the same rate. A food slicer or food processor can be used. Prepare only as many as can be dried at one time.
 
Pretreating Vegetables
Blanching is a necessary step in preparing most vegetables for drying. By definition, blanching is the process of heating vegetables to a temperature high enough to destroy enzymes present in tissue. Blanching stops the enzyme action which could cause loss of color and flavor during drying and storage. It also shortens the drying and rehydration time by relaxing the tissue walls so moisture can escape and later re-enter more rapidly. 
 
Vegetables can be water blanched or steam blanched. Water blanching usually results in a greater loss of nutrients, but it takes less time than steam blanching.

 

Water Blanching - Fill a large pot 2/3 full of water, cover and bring to a rolling boil. Place the vegetables in a wire basket or a colander and submerge them in the water. Cover and blanch according to directions. Begin timing when water returns to boiling. If it takes longer than one minute for the water to come back to boiling, too many vegetables were added. Reduce the amount in the next batch.
 
Steam Blanching - Use a deep pot with a tight fitting lid and a wire basket, colander or sieve placed so the steam will circulate freely around the vegetables. Add water to the pot and bring to a rolling boil. Place the vegetables loosely in the basket no more than 2 inches deep. Place the basket of vegetables in the pot, making sure the water does not come in contact with the vegetables. Cover and steam according to the directions.
 
Cooling and Drying the Prepared Vegetables
After blanching, dip the vegetables briefly in cold water. When they feel only slightly hot to the touch, drain the vegetables by pouring them directly onto the drying tray held over the sink. Wipe the excess water from underneath the tray and arrange the vegetables in a single layer. Then place the tray immediately in the dehydrator or oven. The heat left in the vegetables from blanching will cause the drying process to begin more quickly. Watch the vegetables closely at the end of the drying period. They dry much more quickly at the end and could scorch.

 

Determining Dryness of Vegetables
Vegetables should be dried until they are brittle or "crisp." Some vegetables would actually shatter if hit with a hammer. At this stage, they should contain about 10% moisture. Because they are so dry, they do not need conditioning like fruits. 

 

Packaging & Storing Dried Foods

After foods are dried, cool them completely. Then package them in clean moisture-vapor-resistant containers. Glass jars, metal cans or freezer containers are good storage containers, if they have tight-fitting lids. Plastic freezer bags are acceptable, but they are not insect and rodent proof. Fruit that has been sulfured or sulfited should not touch metal. Place the fruit in a plastic bag before storing it in a metal can.
 
Dried food should be stored in a cool, dry, dark place. Most dried fruits can be stored for 1 year at 60°F, 6 months at 80°F. Dried vegetables have about half the shelf-life of fruits. Fruit leathers should keep for up to 1 month at room temperature. To store any dried product longer, place it in the freezer.

 

Drying Fruits at Home

Fruit

Preparation

                                                                              

Pretreatment

   

Drying Times

Dehydrator*(hours) 

   

Sulfur

(hours)

Steam

(minutes)

Syrup

(minutes)

Other  
Apples Peel and core, cut into slices or rings about 1/8 inch thick. 3/4 3-5 min, depending on texture 10

-ascorbic acid mixture

-ascorbic acid solution

- fruit juice dip

- sulfite dip

6-12
Apricots Pit and halve. May slice if desired. 2 3-4 10

-ascorbic acid mixture

-ascorbic acid solution

- fruit juice dip

- sulfite dip

24-36**
Bananas Use solid yellow or slightly brown-flecked bananas. Avoid bruised or overripe bananas. Peel and slice 1/4 inch to 3/8 inch thick, crosswise or lengthwise.      

- honey dip

- ascorbic acid solution

- ascorbic acid mixture

- fruit juice dip

- sulfite dip

8-10
Berries (Firm) Wash and drain berries with waxy coating (blueberries, cranberries, currents, gooseberries, huckleberries)      

- plunge into boiling water 15-30 seconds to "check" skins. Stop cooking action by placing fruit in ice water. Drain on paper towels. 

24-36
Berries (Soft) Wash and drain. (boysenberries, strawberries)      

- No treatment necessary

24-36
Cherries Stem, wash, drain and pit fully ripe cherries. Cut in half, chop or leave whole.     10 (for sour cherries)

- Whole: dip in boiling water 30 seconds or more to check skins.

- Cute and pitted: No treatment necessary.

24-36
Citrus Peel Peels of citron, grapefruit, kumquat, lime, lemon, tangelo & tangerince can be dried. Thick-skinned navel orange peel better than thin-skinned Valencia peel. Wash thoroughly. Remove outer 1/6 to 1/8 inch of peel. Avoid white bitter pith.      

- No treatment necessary

8-12
Figs Select fully ripe fruit. Immature fruit may sour before drying. Wash or clean whole fruit with damp cloth. Leave small fruit whole, otherwise cut in half.  1 (whole)    

- Whole: Dip in boiling water 30 seconds or more to check skins. Plunge in ice water to stop further cooking. Drain on paper towels. 

6-12**
Grapes (Seedless) Leave whole.      

Dip in boiling water 30 seconds or more to check skins. Plunge in ice water to stop further cooking. Drain on paper towels.

12-20
Grapes (with seeds) Cut in half and remove seeds.      

No pretreatment necessary. 

12-20
Nectarines & Peaches When sulfering, pit & halve; if desired, remove skins. For steam and syrup blanching, leave whole, then pit and halve. May also be sliced or quartered. 

2-3 (halves) 

1 (slice)

8 10

- ascorbic acid solution

- ascorbic acid mixture

- fruit juice dip

-sulfiting

36-48**
Pears Cut in half and core. Peeling preferred. may also slice or quarter. 

5 (halves)

2 (slices)

6 minutes (halves) 10

- ascorbic acid solution

- ascorbic acid mixture

- fruit juice dip

-sulfiting

24-36**
Persimmons Use firm fruit of long, soft varieties and fully ripe fruit of round drier varieties. Peel and slice using stainless steel knife.

 

May syrup blanch. 12-15**
Pineapple Use fully ripe, fresh pineapple. Wash, peel and remove thorny eyes. Slice lengthwise and remove core. Cut in 1/2 inch slices, crosswise. 

 

No pretreatment necessary. 24-36
Plums (Prunes) Leave whole or if sulfuring, halve the fruit. 

1

   

- Sun drying: (whole) dip in boiling water 30 seconds or more to check skins. 

- Oven or dehydrator drying: rinse in hot tap water. 

24-36**

* Because of variation in air circulation, drying times in conventional ovens could be twice as long. 

**Drying times are shorter for slices and other cuts of fruit.

 

Drying Vegetables at Home

Vegetable

Preparation

Blanching Time-

Steam (minutes) 

Blanching Time - Water (minutes)

Drying Times

Dehydrator*(hours) 

Artichokes - Globe Cut hearts into 1/8 inch strips. Heat in boiling solution of 3/4 cups water and 1 tablespoon lemon juice.    6-8 4-6
Asparagus Wash thoroughly. Cut large tips in half. 4-5 3.5-4.5 4-6
Beans, green Wash thoroughly. Cut in short pieces or lengthwise. (May freeze for 30 to 40 minutes after blanching for better texture.) 2-2.5 2 8-14
Beets Cook as usual. Cool; peel. Cut into shoestring strips 1/8 inch thick. Already cooked, no further blanching required. 10-12
Broccoli Trim, cut as for serving. Wash thoroughly. Quarter stalks lengthwise.  3-3.5 2 12-15
Brussel Sprouts Cut in half lengthwise through stem. 6-7 4.5-5.5 12-18
Cabbage Remove outer leaves; quarter and core. Cut into strips 1/8 inch thick.  2.5-3** 1.5-2 10-12
Carrots Use only crisp, tender carrots. Wash thoroughly. Cut off roots and tops; preferably peel, cut in slices or strips 1/8 inch thick.   3-3.5 3.5 10-12
Cauliflower Prepare as for serving. 4-5 3-4 12-15
Celery Trim stalks. Wash stalks and leaves thoroughly. Slice stalks. 2 2 10-16
Corn, cut Husk, trim and blanch until milk does not exude from kernel when cut. Cut the kernels from the cob after blanching.  2-2.5 1.5 6-10
Eggplant Use the same directions as for summer squash. 3.5 3 12-14
Garlic Peel and finely chop garlic bulbs. No other pretreatment is needed. Odor is pungent. No blanching is needed. 6-8
Greens (chard, kale, turnip, spinach) Use only young tender leaves. Wash and trim very thoroughly. 2-2.5** 1.5 8-10
Horseradish Wash; remove small rootlets and stubs. Peel or scrape roots. Grate. none 4-10
Mushrooms (Warning: see footnote***) Scrub thoroughly. Discard any tough, woody stalks. Cut tender stalks into short sections. Do not peel small mushrooms or "buttons." Peel large mushrooms, slice.  none 8-10
Okra Wash, trim, slice crosswise in 1/8 to 1/4 inch disks. none 8-10
Onions Wash, remove outer "paper shells." Remove tops and root ends, slice 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. none 3-9
Parsley Wash thoroughly. Separate clusters. Discard long or tough stems. none 1-2
Peas, green Shell 3 2 8-10
Peppers & Pimentos Wash, stem, core. Remove "partitions." Cut into disks about 3/8 by 3/8 inch. none 8-12
Potatoes Wash, peel. Cut into shoestring strips 1/4 inch thick, or cut in slices 1/8 inch thick. 6-8 5-6 8-12
Pumpkin and Hubbard Squash Cut or break into pieces. Remove seeds and cavity pulp. Cut into 1 inch wide strips. Peel rind. Cut strips crosswise into pieces about 1/8 inch thick. 2.5-3 1 10-16
Squash, summer Wash, trim, cut into 1/4 inch slices. 2.5-3 1.5 10-12
Tomatoes, for stewing Steam or dip in boiling water to loosen skins. Chill in cold water. Peel. Cut into sections about 3/4 inch wide, or slice. Cut small pear or plum tomatoes in half. 3 1 10-18

*Drying times in a conventional oven could be up to twice as long, depending on air circulation.

** Steam until wilted

***WARNING: The toxins in poisonous varieties of mushrooms are not destroyed by drying or by cooking. Only and expert can differentiate between poisonous and edible varieties. 

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