Learning to Cook with Dehydrated Foods
The other day I was speaking with a friend, a very smart lady to be sure, who told me that she feels there is a disconnect when it comes to USING dehydrated foods. (Thank you Mandy, for your insights.) People just simply don’t know what to do with it once they have dehydrated it. There are plenty of informational tidbits out there to address how to dehydrate, but what about afterwards? What is the rehydration ratio? How much do you use? How do you prepare something tasty when you have no recipe specifically giving measurements for dried foods? You are NOT alone.
A lot of folks are under the impression that dehydrated food has to be eaten as is, without embellishment, in some grim survivalist fashion. It doesn’t have to be like that, though. You can easily and deliciously use your food to make wonderful meals..
I could go on and on with the questions that have popped up in regards to using dehydrated foods. It is a very gray area that few have addressed for those of us standing in our kitchens looking at all those pretty jars of food. I was in the same boat when I started dehydrating. I spent thousands of hours mulling over websites, books, and YouTube videos. I am hoping that what I have learned—through research, trial-and-error, reading all the books I could get my hands on, and many hours of questioning folks much smarter than me—will help to take the mystery out of cooking with dehydrated foods for you in this series.
To those of us who have jumped on the bandwagon, dehydrating is THE BOMB!
- Dehydrated foods don’t lose their nutritional value and maintain most water soluble vitamins and minerals. You can easily eliminate preservatives, additives, excess salt, and fillers. Because you dry it all yourself, you know exactly what’s in the food you’re preserving for your family. The beauty of drying is you do it yourself.
- Dehydrate your own herbs and you’ll never have to pay top dollar for them again or watch them rot in the refrigerator.
- Dehydrated foods are your friend if space is an issue. Twenty pounds of fresh tomatoes filled two half-gallon Mason jars in the pantry once they were sliced and dehydrated.
- You’ll never have to run to the grocery store at the last minute for carrots or onions or potatoes or celery or green beans if you have jars of the dehydrated versions in your pantry.
- Dehydrating serves my frugal (cheapskate) budget. Something is always in season. The best bargains in produce are usually found when a particular fruit or vegetable is in season. Farmer’s markets, food co-ops, fruit stands, and pick-your-own-produce farms can offer amazing bargains. All that fresh goodness is easily transformed into dehydrated versions at a cost far less than commercially dehydrated foods.
So with all this in mind, plus the fact that we are able to attain closer to a zero-waste kitchen, it is no wonder we think as we do.
Dehydrate BUT Learn to Use It
Perhaps you are storing for long term in the event there is an emergency. That is a fantastic goal, but an emergency situation is not the time to be wondering how to COOK these items that you have not used before. In an emergency situation you may not have a refrigerator full of foods to complement your food stuffs. You may not even have fresh tap water or electricity for heating your foods. Learn to use your dehydrated foods now, BEFORE the emergency is upon you.
Or you did your research and found that dehydrating saves time, space, and money. Increasing the nutritional value of your preserved foods is another worthy goal. These things are all true but using the food is key. I have heard people say it is easier to open a Mason jar of canned potatoes then it is to rehydrate sliced potatoes for a stew. That is simply not true. I can process dehydrated potatoes easier than I home can potatoes and rehydrating them is a breeze. I think the key here is just learning how to use it.
Maybe you fixed a big pot of chicken noodle soup, threw in a cup of carrot dices, and when you tasted it decided it was WAY too carroty? (Been there, done that…) Dehydrated fruits and veggies have INTENSE flavors! Each thin slice of dehydrated carrot packs a wallop of flavor that you don’t find in a fresh slice. To cook with these wonderful powerhouses of flavor, you have to learn that “moderation” is key. You also have to have the right amount of liquids so that you do not come back to find your pot overflowing onto the stove with re-hydrated veggies! (Again, experience talking here…)
Let’s get down to changing your view of using your dehydrated foods in everyday cooking. Let me give you a few quick answers today. In other parts of this website, I have broken down foods like potatoes, celery, strawberries, etc. and added them to recipes to give you a feel for how versatile your pantry of dehydrated food is. I have explained how to use them, what the approximate re-hydration values are, and supplied you with recipes for your food stuffs that will inspire you to create or change recipes on your own. For now though, I will hit upon the highlights of these topics.
How to Prepare Your Dehydrated Foods for Cooking
One of the first things I do before I prepare foods for my dehydrator is decide HOW I am going to use them. This may seem obvious, but to me it was a difficult concept to wrap my head around. For example, I sliced my first whole 25 pound sack of onions and dehydrated them only to realize that I usually chopped my onions into my meals. When I got past my “DUH” moment, I realized that there were many ways I used onions in cooking.
Slices, Dices, & Chopped. For your dishes that you make regularly, look at the ways your produce will be incorporated in the recipe. If I want a chunky tomato sauce, I am going to dice tomatoes and dehydrate them. When I make my bruschetta in the dead of winter, I like my sliced tomatoes with garlic, basil, olive oil, and vinegar, served on toasted slices of French or Italian bread. For my vegetable soup, I prefer my tomatoes in larger pieces. When I get a box of tomatoes, I take all of this into consideration and plan my prep accordingly. Store the items that you use everyday in the way you use them. Make a list and then determine the best way to dehydrate and store each item.
Powders. There are many foods I dehydrate for powders; some of them being tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, garlic, pumpkin, and beets. These powders flavor my foods and taste so much better than what I could buy in the stores. There are many ways to use powders. My article, Why I Love Fruit & Vegetable Powders, will give you an overview on using these helpful products. In future articles, I will talk about the individual uses for powders as they pertain to the featured foods in the articles. For now, you can see a few examples of the more noteworthy flavors I incorporate into my cooking here:
- How to Make Fruit & Vegetable Powders
- If you Powder Nothing Else, Make Tomato Powder
- Onion & Garlic Powders-Homemade is Better!
- Add Savory Umami Taste with Mushroom Powders
- How-To: Making Bean Flours
- How to Make Chicken Broth Powder
Powdered dehydrated foods make great flours—think bean, corn, rice, or green flours. Make green flours by harvesting fresh green leaves of vegetables like spinach, kale, or amaranth. Use the flour in a ratio of 1 to 4 parts with other flours for making noodles, breads, smoothies, etc. As you become accustomed to using green flours you can make your own adjustments to suit your taste.
When making powders, it is not always best to grind large batches. Prepare what you can use in the short term (1-3 months). This insures freshness. Store the rest whole, to be prepared as you need it. If your humidity is high or you have other variables where you find caking and hardening is a problem, try grains of rice, a desiccant packet, or adding a bit of arrowroot powder to your mix.
Jerky, Barks, and Leathers. While these items are great for healthy snacking, they can also be used for cooking. I can take a sheet of tomato bark and throw it into a pot with liquid, cooking it down into a gorgeous sauce. Bean bark rehydrates well with hot water and lets you create flavorful and saucy meals using many kinds of beans plus extra flavors such as BBQ sauce, salsa and enchilada sauce. It also makes wonderful refried beans!
Note: If your food is not a good texture, it has not rehydrated long enough. That seems to be a big complaint. If you are not happy with the texture of your dehydrated food, just let it sit longer in water. You will find it will be what you expected.
Maintaining Maximum Nutrition and Food Safety
Raw or Cooked?
Obviously, the optimal way to dehydrate foods and keep as many nutrients as you can is the process of raw dehydrating where the food is just blanched at most and then loaded onto the trays. Even pureeing foods for dehydration can be done in the raw state. These methods are great for snack foods, using in foods that will be further cooked, or when grinding down into powders or flours.
But sometimes you just need to cook the food first, as in the case of cooked beans, rice, meat, pasta, and chicken. There are also vegetables, when used for meals that need to rehydrate just using water (like instant soups) that should be cooked before dehydrating. I have found that, in most cases, these foods retain more nutrients when steamed. I use my 5-quart food steamerto cook my foods whenever I can, allowing me a gentler way of cooking my foods to prepare them for dehydration.
I also slow-roast some vegetables to bring out the maximum flavor profiles. As long as you roast without oils, you can successfully dehydrate these vegetables.
Dehydrator Temperatures Matter
The temperature at which you dehydrate your foods is important for the optimum nutrient retention. There are exceptions, but the general rule of thumb in dehydrating foods is:
- Herbs, flowers, and fine leafy vegetables: 90-110°F (30-45°C)
- Fruits and vegetables, roots, beans: 125-135°F (50-55°C)
- Meats, poultry, and fish: (fish 155°F/68°C, beef 160°F/70°C and poultry 165°F/73°C). In order to safely dry meat at home, it is important to reach a sufficient temperature in the jerky drying process to kill pathogens (e.g. Salmonella and E. coli).
For more detail, check out these Dehydrator InfoGraphic Charts.
Safety First: Checking The Dehydrator Temperature
It is a good idea to periodically check your dehydrator temperatures. To determine the true temperature of the dehydrator and maintain safe temperatures for dehydrating foods, follow these easy instructions.
Safely Using Timers
Although many people use the timer features on their dehydrators, I do not. With the many variables involved in dehydrating, I find a timer to be more of a hindrance than a help to me. However, if you find it a help, please use it. There are some safety tips to keep in mind though.
- Do not allow the dehydrator to turn off and leave food in it for long periods of time., i.e., overnight. This exposes your food to moisture and ambient air which in turn can produce mold and bacterial growth.
- Do not turn your dehydrator off and go to work or leave your home, allowing the food to sit for hours without air flow and drying for the same reasons as above.
Remember, food processing in your dehydrator is just like any other food you prepare in your kitchen. Cooked food should not be left out of refrigeration for more than two hours. Similarly, your dehydrated goods should be packaged well for storage soon after drying.
To further understand the concepts of cooking with dehydrated foods, read the Guide How to Cook with Dehydrated Foods.
To learn how to Bake with dehydrated foods, try our Baking with Dehydrated Foods guide.
And please feel free to check out our Recipe Directory for over 300 recipes using dehydrated foods.
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