Yes! You certainly can dehydrate food without a dehydrator, but …
And yes, there is a “but”, so before you read further, here’s the quick and dirty:
- Most importantly, be sure your end product will be safe to eat. Get a good food dehydration guide that covers issues such as proper temperatures required for safely drying meats or heavy-moisture foods. (See “Summary” below for more detail.)
- Be prepared to experiment before you get it right. With these methods you’ll have limited control over temperature ranges, which can result in problems such as spoilage or loss of nutrients.
- The only free method is sun drying. Otherwise, consider any “hidden” costs involved, such as the energy required to operate your oven for numerous hours.
I don’t mention the above points to discourage you. On the contrary, knowing the risks and drawbacks ahead of time will help you avoid wasting time and money.
In fact, there are two good reasons not to buy a food dehydrator: (1) a tight budget*; and (2) a tiny kitchen with no counter or storage space. Or maybe you’d just like to give dried foods a try before you invest in a dehydrator.
Here are four do-it-yourself options. Each one has certain drawbacks, and we’ve included those to help you decide which idea you’d like to try.
In Your Oven
Perhaps the most common method is to make use of your standard kitchen oven. Simply place the foods you want to dehydrate on a cookie sheet or pan with a safe, non-stick surface. For very sticky foods you may want to line the pan with something like parchment paper. Set your oven to its lowest temperature setting, and leave the door open slightly. To provide some air flow it’s best to use a fan. This will help prevent condensation.
Timing will depend on several factors, including the type of food you’re drying, the temperature of your oven, and the amount of air flow you are able to create. You will need to check your food often and possibly turn the pan or the food itself.
One downside to this method is the energy consumed, not only that used by the oven but in summer your air conditioning unit will have to work harder as your oven heats up the house. Also be aware that if your purpose is to create a raw food product, this may not work well because even your oven’s lowest temperature setting may be too high, or as food dries it may become overheated.
In a Toaster Oven
If you have a countertop toaster oven with a “bake” setting, you can follow the same procedure described above. Set it to lowest temperature possible, leave the door slightly ajar, and place a fan in front of the oven to help create some air circulation. Check your foods often during the drying process.
An advantage here is that a small toaster oven will use far less electricity than a standard oven, and it won’t heat up your house nearly as much (if at all).
Invent Your Own
It’s certainly possible to simply create your own dehydrator. Basically, all you need are a box large enough to hold your tray of food, a source of heat, and some air flow. The heat source can be a small light bulb, and air flow can be created with a fan. For a free energy source, instead of using a light bulb you could place your homemade dehydrator next to a window where it will receive direct sunlight.
I’ve never attempted this and would definitely put it in the “adventure” category. As with any of these four methods, it would be wise to experiment first with some inexpensive ingredients just in case the results aren’t what you expect. Hopefully you can fine tune your method before wasting any rare or expensive foods.
In the Sun
This would certainly be the most natural way to dry foods, and many people swear by it. I’ve heard of people placing foods on a window sill indoors, in a greenhouse, or outdoors in the open. Your drying tray might be anything from a kitchen pan to an old window screen that you’ve scrubbed clean. (Screen of some type is a popular choice because it allows for better air flow.)
One issue here is that the sun may heat foods far too much for raw foodists. Be aware that you may lose nutrients (which to my mind defeats one of the main purposes of dehydrating my own foods). Also note that while sun drying can work great in desert type regions, it can be much more difficult in very humid climates.
Another problem you have to deal with is critters. Indoor drying can attract ants. Outdoors, you have to find ways to protect your food from all sorts of insects and animals.
Summary – Dehydrate Foods Without a Dehydrator
Any of the above methods can work well. The more you experiment, the more you will learn, and the better results you will get. It’s a good way to try out dried foods without a big upfront investment, or it may be fine for those who only plan to dehydrate small amounts of food a couple of times a year.
Remember to Put Safety First!
With any method you choose, a key point is food safety. The importance of this cannot be emphasized enough.
Before you try any of these methods, do your due diligence! Research the facts on safe temperature requirements and drying times. This is especially important if you plan to make jerky. With any food, improper temperatures can result in spoiled food that is unsafe for consumption, and insufficient air flow can allow condensation that will also result in mold or other spoilage.
There are many resources on the web that provide dehydration guidelines. Here are some tips to help you find the best information:
- Search for the specific food you plan to dehydrate. For example, search for phrase like “how to dry apples without a dehydrator” or “how to dehydrate fruit in the oven” (type those phrases into a search engine without the quotation marks).
- As you look through your search results, pay close attention to the source. You’ll find lots of blogs and websites created by raw food enthusiasts, emergency preppers, people living off the grid, etc. Some of those may offer very good information, but you can also look for articles and white papers from university agricultural departments.
- Note the date on the post or article. How old or recent is the information?
- Read more than one reference. If you find conflicting information, keep reading, and again, consider the sources to determine which ones you believe are the most trustworthy.
Whether you decide to purchase a food dehydrator or use a do-it-yourself method, give it a try. Make your own dried foods at home and discover just how delicious healthier eating can be!