If you have recently shopped for freeze-dried meals or dried fruit, you may have noticed that these long lasting foods are not getting any cheaper. Their extended shelf life and light weight are going to cost you. There is another option, however: You could dry your own food for a lot less money. Electric home dehydrator units are a great way to preserve many foods, while cutting down the food’s weight.
This is handy whether you are preparing food for a long hunt, a backpacking trip or a Bug Out Bag. But what happens if you don’t have electricity or a fancy dehydrator unit?
A less expensive option is to make your own dehydrator from something you probably already have—plastic window screens. You can pop the screens off your home windows, set them up on a few cinder blocks to allow air to flow underneath, and dehydrate many types of food in dry, sunny weather. Just avoid galvanized wire and other metal wire screens, as these can leach into your food creating off flavors, possibly breaking down some vitamins and probably introducing toxins into the food (especially from the galvanized screens).
To get started drying fruits, slice them thin. About ¼-inch thickness is good. Then apply a common grocery store product called Fruit Fresh or dip them in lemon juice. These treatments provide acid, which makes the fruit less inviting to bacteria and it helps to preserve some of the fruit’s nutrition. Dry the fruits in the sun for a day or more, until they become leathery. Bring the screens in every night to avoid dampness and animal thieves. Apples and pears are the best fruits to dry this way, although most fruits can be dried with good results.
The types of vegetables that are usually dried are leafy things like herbs; solid veggies like carrots, squash and zucchini; and fleshy things like tomatoes. The leaves can be dried as-is on the window screens, while the other foods should be cut thin like the fruit. The fleshier vegetables can be sprinkled with a little salt to help pull out the water and act as a preservative. Most vegetables are dried until brittle, except for tomatoes which will be leathery no matter what.
To dry meat, use only fresh raw meat. Cooked meat will go bad in a few days if you try to dry it, because the cell walls have burst in the cooking process thereby opening them up to bacteria. Red meat and most fish do very well for making dried meat; although the meat from any mammal, bird, fish, or larger reptile will work with this technique. Salt, sugar and spices are optional, but are very helpful if you have them.
Cut the meat thin and across the grain. Trim off all visible fat, and sprinkle on a little salt, sugar and/or spices like pepper, ginger, cumin, chili powder, etc. These additives are optional, but using salt will create a less hospitable environment for bacteria. Dry it out thoroughly over one day or several days, depending on the humidity. Flip it a few times during the drying process. Don’t leave it out overnight. When it becomes slightly brittle, it is done. Keep it in a breathable container like a cloth bag or paper sack. In glass, metal, or plastic, the jerky will sweat and go bad more quickly.