Looking for a way to store perishable food for longer than its typical shelf life? You have a few options, including canning, smoking and dehydrating. When it comes to the latter, you have even more choices for dehydrating the food, including specialized appliances or homemade outdoor dehydrating stations that harness the power of the sun.
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But if you have a convection oven, there's no need to go to any great lengths to purchase or build a special food dehydrator. Your dehydrator is already sitting in your kitchen!
Why Dehydrate Food in a Convection Oven?
Still need a little convincing about choosing dehydration as your preferred food storage method? Think about it this way: it's more versatile than canning or smoking. You can dehydrate anything from fruit to meat, and because the moisture has been removed, the food becomes inhospitable to mold, mildew and bugs. However, despite the loss of moisture, dehydrated food retains its delicious flavor.
Best of all, once the food prep is complete, you just put it in the oven and walk away. No need to sweat over a hot stove as in canning. Plus, dehydrated food doesn't take up much space in your pantry. It's a win-win no matter how you look at it.
You also don't need any materials you don't already have if you choose to dehydrate food in a convection oven. You just need a sharp knife for food prep, a cooling rack, an oven and a chunk of about 6 to 12 hours where you'll be around the house and ready to keep an eye on the proceedings.
Is Your Oven a Convection Oven?
The next thing to think about is the type of oven you own. A convection oven is a type of electric oven that has a fan at the back instead of a metal coil at the bottom. The fan helps to circulate hot air, heating food through a process called convection.
Convection ovens are more efficient at lower temperatures than gas and conduction ovens. This makes them ideal for dehydrating because the temperature ranges for dehydrating food are all below 160 degrees Fahrenheit, and the fan helps to circulate the air evenly around the food as it dries.
So, if your oven has an electric plug and has a fan at the back with no coil on the bottom, congratulations: you have a convection oven!
Start With Proper Food Prep
The first thing you need to do is prepare the food. If you want to dehydrate vegetables or fruits, wash them the way you would if you intended to eat them or cook with them right away. That means scrubbing dirt off of root vegetables and rinsing the produce in water, or scrubbing with soap if you like. If you don't like peels on your fruits and veggies, now is the time to remove them.
If you wouldn't normally eat the veggie raw, steam it first to improve its taste when it comes out of the dehydrator. Feel free to add some spices to liven things up.
Prepping Meat for Dehydration
To prepare meat for dehydration, you may want to look up a particular recipe. That's because you'll want to marinade the meat or create a dry rub for it before you dehydrate it. This way, the flavors are thoroughly blended into the jerky once it's done. You also want to trim away any and all fat on the meat, because fat does not dehydrate well and can lead to spoiled jerky.
As with any other cooking method, it's important that meat reaches a certain temperature so that it's safe to eat. But because you'll be storing this meat on a pantry shelf, it's absolutely crucial to kill any pathogens in the meat. You can precook the meat to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit before putting it in the oven for four to six hours to dehydrate. You can also choose to zap the meat at a higher temperature after dehydrating it, or use a meat probe to ensure the internal temperature has reached 160 degrees.
Thin Slices Work Best
Next, it's time to slice the food into strips that are a 1/2 inch wide or smaller. The thinner you can slice them, the faster they will dehydrate. But perhaps more crucial to the success of this operation is not the exact width you settle on, but consistency in your slicing. This is definitely the time to dig out the mandolin slicer for consistently sized veggie and fruit pieces.
If you don't have a slicing gadget to help you, just take your time. Same-size pieces will dehydrate at similar rates, which means you won't have to fiddle with the food by taking thin slices out early and leaving thicker ones in to dry longer.
To make convection oven beef jerky, you can save yourself some frustration by asking the butcher to give you thin slices when you buy the meat.
Set the Correct Temperature on Your Convection Oven
The temperature you set depends on the food you dehydrate. Fruits and vegetables should be set to 120 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, while meat requires 140 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
Some ovens are more efficient than others and may even have a convenient preset like the KitchenAid oven dehydrate mode. But if your oven isn't great at regulating its own temperature, you may need to crack the oven door if it gets too warm or turn it up a notch if it gets too cool. You can get accurate readings with an oven thermometer.
Time to Dehydrate the Food
Next, arrange the sliced food onto a drying rack or oven dehydrator trays. This ensures that air can get to the bottom of the food for an even drying process. Don't let the food overlap; it should lay in a single layer.
Put it in the oven and set a timer for six hours, which is the minimum time it will take. Some foods may not dehydrate fully for 12 hours, based on their composition and the thickness of the slices. Keep an eye on the oven thermometer and make adjustments as needed.
You'll know when the food is done because it will be completely dry to the touch and dry inside if you slice it open. Take the food out of the oven and let it dry for 24 hours before you store it in an airtight container. It should keep on the shelf for quite a while. Some dehydration enthusiasts claim fruits and vegetables will be shelf stable for years, but use your best judgment before consumption.
Should You Get a Dehydrator?
Dehydrating food in a convection oven is certainly convenient for most people, but if you've been bitten by the dehydration bug, you may want to invest in a special dehydrator. That's because using a convection oven actually requires more energy than a dehydrator. You can also maintain more temperature control with a dehydrator if your oven proves finicky.
All in all, a dehydrator may be a good investment if this turns out to be a great way for you to store food long-term. You can get countertop models or much larger versions for bulk dehydrating. Whatever you choose to do, enjoy the process and the delicious end result!