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How to Dehydrate Food in 10 steps

Dehydrate food for fresh, delicious meals and snacks on the trail or at camp.

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Author holding his dehydrated food in jars

When you learn how to dehydrate food, you can create snacks, meals, and even emergency rations while saving money. Dehydrating food is a great way to preserve fruits, vegetables, herbs, and even meat for long-term storage or lightweight meal options while camping or hiking. 

Over the past several years, I’ve used a dehydrator to dry various foods, primarily fruits, for snacks. I have experience growing up around many dehydrated fruit leathers and wild game jerky.

When researching and writing this article, I dehydrated five fruits and vegetables: apples, bananas, kale, potatoes, and carrots. I didn’t use expensive equipment, and it was easy to do in our compact kitchen. I look forward to dehydrating many camping meals for our next outdoor adventures. 

1) Choose Fresh Food

Photo: ©Daniel Borkert/OutdoorFootprints.com

Choose fresh, ripe fruits, vegetables, and herbs for dehydrating. Ideally, the produce should come fresh from your garden or local farm.

Store-bought produce also works well if it is fresh and ripe.

Frozen vegetables can also be used since they are usually frozen when fresh. 

2) Prepare Your Equipment

Photo: ©Daniel Borkert/OutdoorFootprints.com

You don’t need special kitchen tools to start dehydrating, but I strongly recommend acquiring a standalone electric dehydrator.

You can use an oven to dehydrate, but it’s slow and inefficient. 

My basic electric dehydrator works perfectly for most homemade snacks and meals.

Electric Dehydrators

Electric dehydrators are standalone appliances that are best for dehydrating food at home. They usually have a built-in fan and an adjustable heater between 90-150°F (32 and 66°C).

Electric dehydrators are available in two form factors: stackable/vertical and box/horizontal.

Stackable dehydrators are less expensive and expandable, but you will need to cycle the trays in the stack for more even drying.

Box dehydrators dry more evenly and efficiently but are more expensive. Both electric dehydrators will require separate tray liners for drying liquids/mashes such as fruit leather or soups. 

Tips for Electric Dehydrator Use

  1. Use a dehydrator with an adjustable heater between 90-150°F (32 – 66°C)
  2. Check the dehydrator’s temperature about 20 minutes after starting, as temperatures often vary depending on the manufacturer. 
  3. Check the trays every few hours to evaluate how evenly the trays are drying.
  4. Use a nonstick cooking spray with fruits or other food that tends to stick to trays or liners.

Oven-Drying

Oven-drying isn’t recommended unless you’re just learning to dehydrate. It’s hard to keep a consistent temperature, and the drying process usually takes almost twice the time of an electric dehydrator.

Also, there’s the increased risk of a kitchen fire or risk of harm to kids or pets, or even accidentally burning the food.

Electric dehydrators work significantly better and are inexpensive ($50 for a basic electric dehydrator). Some newer ovens with convection features have a dehydrating cycle, which can work well. Most ovens are non-convection ovens.

Follow the manufacturer’s directions for dehydrating with a convection oven that has a dehydrating cycle.

For all other non-convection ovens, here is how to use your oven to dehydrate. 

How to Use an Oven for Dehydrating

  1. Set the oven at the lowest temperature, preferably  <140°F or 60°C.
  2. Place an empty baking sheet to catch any falling drips or food. 
  3. Place food on removable wire racks. 
  4. Leave the oven door cracked open 1-2 inches for airflow. 
  5. Place and use a fan outside the oven, blowing into a slightly cracked oven door. 
  6. Monitor the temperature with an oven thermometer and adjust oven heat accordingly. 
  7. Rotate food pieces as needed until dry.
  8. Do not leave the oven unattended. 

Other Dehydrating Methods

Sun-Drying

For thousands of years, sun-drying food was the traditional method of dehydrating food. Sun-drying food requires an air temperature greater than 90°F and a relative humidity less than 60%. This works best in the Southwest USA.

It is recommended to sun-dry only chile peppers and fruits, including tomatoes. Fish, meats, and other vegetables are not recommended for sun-drying due to a higher risk of spoilage. 

Home-made dehydrators

There are lots of DIY dehydrator ideas if you’re so inclined. These come in all different designs and sizes. The important factors to remember are an adjustable heating of the air and even airflow across the food. 

Cutting tools

Beyond a cutting board and a sharp kitchen knife, you don’t need any special cutting tools. If you want even slices, consider a mandolin slicer with a hand guard. Your food processor can also be used for slicing. 

Clean work surface

Clean hands, tools, and cutting surfaces to reduce the risk of pathogens that can cause food spoilage or food poisoning. 

3) Prepare Food

Photo: ©Daniel Borkert/OutdoorFootprints.com

Preparing food before dehydrating consists of evenly dividing it so it can dry consistently. This usually involves slicing fruits and vegetables evenly. I cut my cored apple into 1/4-inch slices.

Slice fruits and vegetables between 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch thick.

Slice meat to less than 1/4-inch.

Pretreat vegetables and fruits if desired. Marinate meat overnight if desired.

Precook food, including veggies and meat, that you would normally cook.

Pretreating

Pretreating vegetables and fruits can help decrease or stop browning, toughness, or spoilage. Some people prefer not to pretreat, arguing that it may destroy nutrients or digestive enzymes.

There are multiple ways to pretreat fruits and vegetables [1]. Most vegetables are best pretreated with steam or water blanching, while fruits and berries are best pretreated with soaks or dips. 

Steam-blanching

Use a steamer pan or basket to steam the food. 

Water-blanching

Photo: ©Daniel Borkert/OutdoorFootprints.com

Dip food into boiling water to water-blanch. I water-blanched my potato slices in boiling water for 5 minutes, then soaked them in acidic water for 10 minutes.

Syrup-blanching

Syrup-blanching is for fruits only and can add softness and retain fruit color. 

  1. Add 1.5 cups of sugar with 2.5 cups of boiling water. 
  2. Add fruit and adjust the heat to a simmer.

Soaking in acidic water 

 Acidic water soaking reduces browning in fruits, potatoes, and turnips. 

  1. Add 1 to 3 cups of lemon or lime juice or 1 to 3 teaspoons of citric acid powder per quart of water. 
  2. Soak food for 5 to 10 minutes in solution. 

Soaking in sulfite solution

Sulfite solution pretreatment comes with risks for people with asthma and allergies to sulfa-based products. I recommend trying other methods first, but sulfite soaking is often discussed in the dehydrating community. 

  1. Add 1 tablespoon of sodium metabisulfite powder in 1 quart of water (NOT sodium bisulfate or sodium sulfite). 
  2. Soak in solution for 5 minutes.

Soaking in fruit juice

Soak fruit in orange or pineapple juice for 5 minutes. 

Dipping in pectin 

A pectin syrup solution can be used to glaze fruits and berries.

  1. Add 1 box of pectin to 1 cup of boiling water
  2. Add ½ cup of sugar
  3. Add an additional cup of cold water
  4. Cool completely and glaze fruit with a thin film

Dipping in honey

  1. Add ½ cup honey with 1 quart of water.
  2. Dip fruit in honey solution.

Commercial fruit protector

Multiple products are available at the grocery store that are designed to decrease fruit browning. 

Spraying with lemon juice

Mist fruit on dehydrator trays with lemon juice.

4) Spread Food Evenly

Photo: ©Daniel Borkert/OutdoorFootprints.com

Keep space between food pieces to allow for airflow. It’s okay to mix and match different fruits and vegetables on the same tray. I mixed my apple slices with my bananas. Just keep in mind that they may dry at different rates.

Also, avoid mixing and matching strong-flavored foods such as garlic with mild foods such as fruit. Spread prepared meals or leathers less than ¼ inches thick on tray liners.  

5) Start Dehydrating

Photo: ©Daniel Borkert/OutdoorFootprints.com

I dehydrated my apples and bananas at 135°F (63°C). Every few hours, I checked the dryness and turned the slices or rotated the trays.

Time

The time to dehydrate varies significantly depending on the relative humidity and size of the pieces. It’s not uncommon for some larger pieces and chunks to take over a day to dry.

Here are several common foods and their general drying times: 

  • Precooked meals vary significantly (usually until crumbling) 
  • Fruit leathers take 6-15 hours.
  • Apple slices take 5-10 hours.
  • Bananas take 7-12 hours.
  • Blueberries take 8-24 hours. 
  • Cherries take 10-20 hours. 
  • Corn takes 6-12 hours. 
  • Cranberries take 14-25 hours.
  • Cucumbers take 4-6 hours. 
  • Grapes take 12-20 hours. 
  • Greens take 3-5 hours. 
  • Herbs take 2-18 hours. 
  • Jerky takes 4-8 hours. 
  • Mangoes take 6-12 hours. 
  • Mushrooms take 3-6 hours. 
  • Onions take 6-10 hours.
  • Oranges and other citrus take 9-13 hours. 
  • Peaches take 6-12 hours. 
  • Pears take 6-15 hours. 
  • Peas take 5-9 hours. 
  • Peppers take 6-10 hours. 
  • Chile peppers take 4-15 hours. 
  • Pineapples take 8-14 hours. 
  • Plums take 8-18 hours. 
  • Potatoes take 7-12 hours. 
  • Raspberries take 12-20 hours. 
  • Strawberries take 7-14 hours. 
  • Tomatoes take 8-12 hours. 
  • Zucchini takes 7-15 hours. 

Temperature 

Dehydrators usually have a temperature setting. However, the temperature of most dehydrators fluctuates by several degrees.

The following are guideline target temperatures for drying food:  

  • Vegetables with a target of 125°F (52°C)
  • Fruits with a target of 135°F (63°C)
  • Prepared foods such as soups with a target of 150°F (66°C)
  • Precooked meat (for jerky) with a target of 140°F (60°C)
  • Fruit leathers with a target of 135°F (63°C)

Turning and stirring

You should check the pieces every few hours and turn and stir, if appropriate, to make sure everything dries evenly. 

6) Test for Dryness

Photo: ©Daniel Borkert/OutdoorFootprints.com

I prefer my dried apples a little crisper, so when I bent it, I was looking for a snapping or cracking sound.

Dryness varies depending on the dehydrator, food type, humidity, and temperature. Guidelines for how long to dehydrate a specific food are just recommendations, as the variables, especially relative humidity, are difficult to control completely at home. Testing for dryness is critical to ensure the food is dehydrated properly. 

How to test for dryness of food in 3 steps

  1. Cool a piece of the food to room temperature before testing. 
  2. Compare to the description of finished dehydrated food:
  • Leathery or supple dehydrated food should be dry on the surface and able to bend. 
  • Brittle, dehydrated foods should break or snap when you bend them. 
  • Overdry food is better than underdry foods. 
  • Moisture should not be present in the center. 
  1. If food isn’t done at the end of the day, you can run a dehydrator overnight at a reduced temperature of 90-100°F (32-38°C). 

7) Remove Pieces of Food

Photo: ©Daniel Borkert/OutdoorFootprints.com

I would periodically remove pieces that felt done and let them cool for a few minutes. I would then test for dryness as above. Pieces that passed the dryness test went into a glass jar. The apples took about 8 hours to finish, and the bananas 11 hours.

Food in the dehydrator often dries at different rates, so remove individual pieces as they finish. Remember, overdrying is much better than underdrying [2]. 

8) Condition or Pasteurize Dried Food

Photo: ©Daniel Borkert/OutdoorFootprints.com

Dried fruit especially benefits from conditioning to equalize the moisture content among the pieces. This is usually done on the counter in a glass jar, which you can shake daily for several days.

Conditioning recently dehydrated food, especially dried fruits, is recommended if you plan to store it for more than a few weeks. Conditioning equalizes the moisture throughout the newly dried pieces, reducing the risk of spoilage.

To condition your newly dried food, place it in a glass jar and seal tightly. Remember only to place one food type per jar. Set the jar aside at room temperature away from direct sunlight. Gently shake the jars daily and check for any moisture or haziness on or in the jar (if so, return the food to the dehydrator for a few more hours and try again). 

Pasteurization is recommended for sun-dried foods or optionally for unpeeled fruits or veggies. Sometimes, insects lay eggs in the peels or sun-dried foods that don’t get killed in the drying process.

Pasteurization is achieved in two main methods: heat at 175°F (80°C) for 15 minutes or freezing at 0°F (-18°C) for 48 hours. Pasteurization may change the flavor and nutrients. 

9) Package Dried Food for Storage

Photo: ©Daniel Borkert/OutdoorFootprints.com

The final stage of dehydrating food consists of storing it for future use. The primary idea is to reduce air exposure to the food.

Consider storing foods in smaller containers as moisture will enter the food and container after you open it. Most properly stored fruits and vegetables will stay preserved for several months or more [3]. Homemade jerky lasts up to 2 months at room temperature or longer in the freezer [4]. You can best achieve good dehydrated food storage as follows: 

  • Air-tight containers such as glass jars
  • Vacuum sealed bags
  • Jars or bags with oxygen absorber packets 
  • Jars or bags with Silica gel packets for moisture protection 

Dehydrated food needs airtight containers, such as glass jars, to prevent absorbing moisture and spoiling. Then, store your dehydrated food in their containers in a dark, cool, dry place.

10) Rehydrate Food when Ready to Use

Of course, the whole purpose of dehydrating food is to use it at some point. Most dehydrated foods, such as dried apples, banana chips, or jerky, are consumed dry.

Some foods, such as dehydrated soups or many veggies, require rehydration before you can enjoy eating them. 

Two Methods to Rehydrate Food

  1. Hot-soaking – takes approximately 15 min to hours to rehydrate.
    • Pour boiling water to cover the dehydrated food in a container. 
    • Let stand with occasional stirring. 
  1. Cold-soaking – takes overnight or several hours to rehydrate
    • Pour room-temperature purified water to cover the dehydrated food.
    • Refrigerate overnight.

You can create dehydrated food at home with simple preparation, equipment, and testing. Follow the 10 steps in this article to get started and experiment with different ingredients and recipes. Check out our camp meals for inspiration.

Don’t forget to start your camping checklist before your next outdoor adventure. If you’re just getting started exploring the outdoors, look at our hiking for beginners while making some homemade dried snacks.

Please leave any comments or ideas below! 

FAQs

Why dehydrate my own food for camping and hiking?

I find dehydrating food interesting because it’s a great way to preserve food for camping and hiking.

Dehydrated food is lighter and more compact and doesn’t require refrigeration, making it perfect for hiking and backpacking trips.

You can also dehydrate many premade meals, such as soups, then rehydrate them on the trail or at camp.

You can also save lots of money when dehydrating your own food compared to the expensive freeze-dried food you get at the store. 

Sources

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AUTHOR
Daniel Borkert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Outdoor Footprints, a website that tells you everything you need to know about camping and hiking. He is an avid outdoorsman with almost four decades of experience in hiking, camping, caving, and fishing. Daniel loves to involve his wife and kids in his outdoor pursuits and inspire other families to do the same. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his family and an energetic Boston Terrier named Zion.

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