Another possibility in emergency food storage is food dehydration. The concept is simple: just dry out the food because the decreased moisture level delays the action of bacteria and other things which cause food to spoil.
Buying an electric food dehydrator is the way to go, provided you don’t wait until the power grid crashes to get it out of the box. It takes a couple of trial runs to get the hang of it
The best food dehydrators are relatively inexpensive and come in all sizes with endless options.
Generally speaking, most people in preparing for an emergency will get the most enjoyment out of midsize models that will fit on a countertop. They are handier and more enjoyable than the largest ones.
How to use dehydrated food
To use the dehydrator, slice up the food into thin, uniform-sized pieces and lay them on the dehydrator shelves. The dehydrator circulates the warm air and dries the food out. Some foods require pretreatment such as ascorbic acid dipping solutions, water or steam blanching, or peeling.
A key to successfully dehydrating food for emergency preparedness is to use only prime cuts of meat and the freshest fruits and vegetables available.
To reconstitute the food during a crisis (rehydrating dehydrated food ), you simply soak it in water.
Some foods such as carrots, onions, and tomatoes tend to reconstitute better than others. Other foods do not need reconstituting at all.
Dried fruits and dried venison jerky make great dehydrated snacks.
The companies that make dehydrators want you to enjoy your new piece of machinery and they usually include a very good instruction booklet with complete directions and tips for success. But in case the manual is not enough, Food Storage For The Clueless by Clark and Kathryn Kidd is a very good book on the details of food dehydration.
Dehydrating food without a dehydrator
If you live in an arid climate, you can try air drying, but a lot of your food may spoil instead of drying. If temperatures are hot enough and humidity is low enough, you can dry your food in the sun.
You can also use your oven at home, but we do not recommend this. It can be a hazard to children since it involves leaving the oven door cracked. It also runs up your utilities bill and it can get hot in the house if you are running an oven during the summer months with the door ajar.
Foods that can be dehydrated
- Fish can be dehydrated but it doesn’t keep well.
- Pork should never be used for canning purposes because of the danger of contracting trichinosis. This is a condition caused by the ingestion of improperly cooked pork which contains tiny invisible cysts of the nematode worm Trichinella spiralis. Once in your small intestine, the larvae become adults in five to seven days. Each female will deposit up to 2,000 larvae which will enter the blood stream and be circulated to various skeletal muscles throughout the body. Once embedded in the muscles, the worms grow to an alarming size and the pain is excruciating. If untreated, trichinosis can be fatal.
- Lean beef works much better for dehydration, and beef jerky can be combined with dried berries, nuts and other ingredients to make pemmican.
- A favorite snack food to use a dehydrator for is venison jerky.
The instruction booklet that comes with your dehydrator will include several good marinade ideas, and it is important to let the meat soak overnight. There are also countless good marinade recipes and raw dehydrated food recipes available on the internet.
It has been said jokingly that properly cooked jerky can be sharpened and driven through a wooden plank.
Although that is perfect for emergency preparedness, most prefer jerky to be a bit more tender than that.
Making good jerky is a double-edged sword: the longer you dry it, the less water content it has and therefore the longer the shelf life.
At the same time, jerky that is dried until it is rock hard is less enjoyable to eat.
Extremely dry jerky can be used as a cooking ingredient. You will have to decide for yourself how long to dry it, but always follow the instructions for safety.
Most people do not cook the meat beforehand, but the USDA says that you definitely should. They recommend that any meat, fish, or poultry be cooked thoroughly before putting it in the dehydrator. For more advice on this, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline is 1-800-535-4555.
How long does dehydrated food last?
Some sources claim that dehydrated food will keep indefinitely. This is doubtful.
Although jerky is a great disaster preparation food, dehydration does not remove all the water from the food, just most of it.
Dehydrating done at home removes about 85% of the moisture from food, while commercial dehydrating removes about 95%.
Since the food does retain a small amount of moisture, the bacteria and molds are not completely thwarted and will eventually spoil the food.
It is reasonable to expect properly dehydrated and stored fruits to keep for about three years, and dehydrated vegetables about five years if properly stored.
To extend its shelf-life, dehydrated food should be sealed in a zip lock bag after it cools, and then stored in a plastic or metal container in a cool dark place like the rest of your emergency supplies.
Advantages of dehydrating food at home
Food dehydration at home does have its advantages in an emergency preparedness plan.
- It is easy to do
- It can be a fun hobby
- And it takes very little time once the food is all sliced up.
- Dried food is very light and compact, since most food has a very high water composition in its normal state. That means dried food is easy to store and takes up very little room.
- Fiber and calories are retained in dehydrated foods, and vitamin and mineral loss is negligible. Blanching the food before dehydration helps minimize the loss of vitamin A, but vitamin C loss will vary.
- Dried foods require no refrigeration for emergency preparedness storage and are easy to cook with in a crisis.
It has been said that a disadvantage to dried foods is that water must sometimes be added to them, and in an emergency water might be in short supply.
Eating food in its dried form can also make you thirsty, which will require extra water during a crisis. That is why you should not rely exclusively on dehydrated foods in emergency preparedness plan. Instead make them part of a well-rounded supply of canned goods and dried food such as rice and beans
But remember this: if you don’t even have enough water to reconstitute dehydrated foods in a crisis, your emergency preparedness plan is doomed already.
Your water storage/procurement/treatment plan should provide enough water so that this is not an issue. If it is, then you need to rethink your entire disaster plan.
Buying dehydrated food at the store
While food dehydration is popular at home, it is also done on a commercial basis. If you don’t want to take the time or trouble to dehydrate food for your emergency preparedness plan, you can buy it already prepared and packaged.
Commercial food dehydration is usually accomplished by slowly extracting most of the water from the food with low heat in a large kiln without actually cooking the food.
Once the food is dried, it is stored in an airtight container with an oxygen absorber.
An oxygen absorber is basically a small packet of a finely ground iron powder called iron oxide that chemically reacts with the oxygen in the container or package.
The iron oxide pellets use up the oxygen as the iron rusts, or oxidizes. No other gases are produced. When all the iron particles are used up, the chemical reaction and the oxygen absorbing stops. Oxygen absorbers can be purchased separately to use with home food storage too.
Sometimes the packages of food are flushed with inert gas to remove most of the oxygen. Bags of potato chips are a good example. Inert gases are used because they extend shelf life by depriving oxygen to bacteria and other agents which promote food spoilage.
Some examples of commercially dehydrated food include instant oatmeal, Hamburger Helper, gravy mixes, macaroni and cheese, etc. If the directions say “just add water”, it is probably dehydrated. Dehydrated food billed as “storage food” also tends to be more expensive.
Dehydrated soup is great for an emergency preparedness plan. Dehydrated soup comes in a wide array of choices and can add much needed variety to an otherwise redundant disaster diet.
It is also a very useful ingredient in cooking many dishes. It can be nutritious and is good for the body’s hydration.
Dehydrated soups should figure prominently in your disaster food storage plan because they store well and they have such a wide range of uses.
Like any food preservation method, commercial dehydration has some disadvantages for emergency food storage.
The blanching process and the dehydrating heat causes the loss of some of the nutrients and the food may suffer a noticeable loss of taste and texture.
Studies performed by the United States Army and by NASA confirm that vitamins such as C and A are particularly susceptible to loss in the dehydrating process, as well as thiamine and niacin.
Since dehydrating food removes only moisture, fats and sugars remain in the food. These will break down over time and can cause the food to become rancid.
Additionally, dehydrated food that is stored too long is tough when it is reconstituted.
As with home-dehydrated foods, it is reasonable to expect properly dehydrated and stored fruits to keep for about three years, and dehydrated vegetables about five years.