all you need to know about dehydrators
By Karen Knowler
There is a certain amount of controversy among raw food fans as to whether a dehydrator is a 'good' thing or not. For my own part, I say it's purely personal. If owning a dehydrator makes the difference between you choosing cooked or raw, or prevents you from feeling bored or deprived, then I'm all for it. If you're still sitting on the fence about this one, hopefully what follows will enlighten you sufficiently to be able to make a decision as to whether a dehydrator is for you...
What is a dehydrator?
A dehydrator is typically an oven-shaped piece of equipment (you can get round ones), usually powered by electricity, that gently dries food out - as opposed to cooking it - resulting in a crunchier and crispier version of the food than what went in.
How does it work?
There are currently two different methods of drying employed by the models on the market today. The first, and most popular, is the fan method, where warm air is generated within the machine and the fan at the rear distributes it evenly throughout the unit - this is the most effective. The second method uses a heating element, often located at the base of the unit, which relies on the heat rising up through the trays to reach the top, drying each tray as it goes. Perhaps you can already see that the potential problem with this is that the lower trays dry more quickly than the top ones, so you need to rotate them!
Raw fooders who are conscious of the need to preserve enzymes (which is essentially what a live food diet is all about, right?!) don't set the thermostat above 125°F. Although enzymes are killed at 118°F, the temperature of the food on the inside is always less than the temperature on the outside, so it's really not an issue. Far better to have it set slightly high and it dry more quickly than set it too low and have the food ferment!
When should I buy one?
When you feel like you've eaten just one salad too many! OR when you really fancy something crunchy and crispy and nuts and seeds just don't hit the spot anymore ... OR ... when you've spotted a raw recipe that you long to make but a dehydrator is required to make it ... OR ... when the cold weather hits and you want something more comforting and moreish than what's gone before.
But before you buy, of course you need to be sure that this is not a fad or a whim purchase. Investing in a dehydrator should ideally be a statement to yourself that you are taking a raw food lifestyle seriously (or at least to another level) and to be clear and happy that this is an investment in you and your health rather than yet another gadget that will get relegated to the garage or attic! You'll know when the time feels right...
Which model is the best?
In my opinion it is the Excalibur. It's not that the other machines don't do the job, but they simply don't do it as well, and most people regret choosing the cheaper option very soon after buying. No other make comes with the special sheets that prevent the food from sticking to the trays. Excalibur has these sheets specially made for them (previously known as Teflex, now known as Paraflexx) and while they do not come as standard and are an optional purchase, I highly recommend them as they are super-easy to clean and last for years - otherwise you'll be using copious amounts of greaseproof paper for the rest of your days!
The Excalibur comes in two models: 5-Tray and 9-Tray. One final word of advice: Many people make the mistake of opting for the cheaper version. I did this myself. When I first started I bought a 5-tray Excalibur rather than a 9-tray because of the price difference and because I thought, "well, it's just me using it". The problem with this is that we all generally tend to make our food in batches, so what happens is that we load up our 5-tray to the max only to find that we're now stuck for the next 24+ hours waiting for that batch to dry before we can make any more recipes. Very frustrating! So best to just bite the bullet up front and buy the 9-tray, and I promise you won't regret it...
Next stop - the exciting bit - how to get started!
How do I get started?
"I've got my dehydrator, now what do I do with it?!"
As with all new pieces of equipment, I encourage you to start small with something really basic - first simply to get on and get started and to do something and second to get your courage up so that you can go on to make even bigger and better things.
In the case of the dehydrator, here's a list of things to play with ordered from the easiest to the more complicated:
Slices of fresh fruits and vegetables: Start with some simple classics such as slices of apple, banana, cherries, strawberries, mango, tomatoes, courgette (zucchini), carrot, red bell pepper and so on.
Biscuits, snack bars and cookies: A great next step (and a rewarding one at that!) is to move on to the crunchy snacks and treats such as flapjacks and cookies, made from simple, easy to find ingredients (usually nuts, dried fruits, maybe some oats or sprouted grains) that you just need to grind together in a food processor. To get started simply pick an appealing recipe from a raw recipe book that appeals to you, assemble your ingredients and just go for it!
Burgers and loaves: It's lovely to have something more 'meaty' to bite into sometimes, and a good juicy veggie or nut burger served with a fresh crisp salad and mouth-watering dressing can often be just what the taste buds ordered! Either that or serve the burger wrapped inside a large lettuce leaf or cabbage leaf like a bun, pile it high with assorted toppings and sauces and you can have something which looks and feels really naughty!
Flax crackers: Flax (or linseed as it is also known) is a great seed to get started with, extremely good for you (full of EFA's) and very cheap and easy to use. Below you can find my recipe for Italian Flax Crackers which anyone with a food processor can make - it's simply a case of JUST DO IT. And when you do, you'll be very glad you did! And they last for months in an airtight container - provided they don't get eaten in the first week...
Pizza bases: These are just as easy to make as flax crackers, but need the toppings added after dehydrating, so therefore the recipe as a whole takes longer. The pizza base I make tastes so good that I always make extra and score it with a spatula before drying so that I have crackers as well. In fact it has been known for past students of mine to not even get to pizza making stage as they've eaten the base just as it is!
Breads: My first forays into bread making were a complete disaster. Mainly because I made it about 5 inches deep and tried to dehydrate it in an oven with the door open! With these two factors combined it took so long to dry (well, it actually never did dry) that it fermented and stunk my mother's kitchen out and I was banned. Need I say more?! The good news is that, believe it or not, you can make raw breads (which can be wheat-free or made from sprouted wheat which is practically allergy-free) and (this is the exciting bit!) you can create amazingly delicious raw sandwiches that look and taste far superior to any Tesco's Triple Pack you may care to mention!
And beyond... There are many places to go from here, but this was, after all, just about getting started! Hopefully seeing the path ahead mapped out for you you're now inspired to dust off your dehydrator (or buy one if your mind is now made up) and just do it! When you compare a few apple rings to an herbed almond bread sandwich, well, what more impetus could you want to start working your way through the dehydrating ranks?
Where to buy
Excalibur dehydrators are available from The Fresh Network starting at £179 for a 5 Tray without Paraflexx sheets. Go here to find out more.
Recipe: Italian Flax Crackers
* 2 cups flax seeds
* 1 red bell pepper
* 1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes
* 2 cups fresh tomatoes
* Juice of 1 lemon
* 1 clove of fresh garlic +/or 1/2 large onion, chopped
1. Blend all ingredients together in a food processor. Add water if a little too dry.
2. Press mixture flat onto a Paraflexx sheet into a large square or rectangle, making sure that the mixture stands only a few millimetres tall. (The thicker the cracker the harder to eat and the longer to dry).
3. Score the size of crackers you'd like with a knife or spatula before dehydrating. (I usually score the large square 3 x 3 or 4 x 4 depending on what I want to use them for).
4. Dehydrate around 115°F - 125°F overnight and flip over once one side is dry. Dry to completion.
Store in an airtight container, somewhere close to hand for when the cravings strike!
This article appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of Get Fresh! magazine.