By Eric Capstick
The potential bounty of my very first vegetable garden this summer sparked a personal interest in the possibility of using a food dehydrator as a means of preserving the potentially epic wonder of the harvest. This led me, naturally, to Excalibur, an American company that has been manufacturing food dehydrators and taking good care of their employees in Sacramento, California since 1973; opening the doors to a nutritional kingdom of remarkable quality and value for all people who embrace their well-designed, dependable products. You see it turns out that dehydrating vegetables, fruit, and, meats for jerky, is an extremely efficient, low-cost option for naturally preserving all the good food we need to eat. Dehydrating food is less demanding to accomplish than canning and requires none of the energy and storage space requirements of freezing an abundant garden harvest. Food dehydration also is the healthiest of all preservation options because the essential goodness and viability of health enhancing vitamins, minerals and live enzymes are kept intact throughout the process. Not only are properly dehydrated vegetables and fruit, jerky, yogurt, and fruit roll-ups created from dried fruit puree, delicious, easy to store, and light in weight, but dehydrated natural foods will keep for decades until the time when you’re ready to use them. Dehydrated fruits and vegetables can also be blended into powders for use in nutritional juicing, adding more punch to the fresh veggies and fruits that are used to create uber-healthy raw juices.
Excalibur trumpets their food quality dehydrators as designed to perform a host of other useful tasks that come up in busy households. These include a number of surprising applications, such as; drying fresh herbs and pasta, re-crisping crackers, making granola, drying bread for bread crumbs, making all-natural pet treats, accelerating bread rising times, drying photographs, effective use as a humidifier and more. The Excalibur can even be used as an air freshener and aroma therapy device when used to dry fresh evergreen branches or other fragrant sprigs or concentrated natural potions from the outdoor world. Other scrappy uses for the food dehydrator include preserving leftovers for future use in soups, stews or rice dishes; and drying wet mittens and gloves from a day in the slush of winter. Excalibur food dehydrators are versatile machines that cost only pennies to operate, providing a most efficient way to maintain a low carbon footprint while not only preserving foods but also performing a number of other useful functions. The key aspect of dehydrating food is that 75% or more of the water is removed during the process and nearly 100% of the nutrients, minerals, vitamins and live enzymes remain intact so long as the temperature does not exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit. These nutrients are present in the meaty and fleshy parts of the food and the only threat to deterioration during storage is the remaining water. So, it’s better to over-dry than under-dry when the object of your dehydration efforts is long-term storage.
As it turned out, the garden was successful but the harvest was not overly abundant. I had planted two fifteen foot long wide rows with Royal Burgundy beans, cabbage, carrots, Swiss Chard, Early Wonder beets, zucchini, Patty Pan squash, Straight Eight cucumbers, Sugar Snap peas, eggplant and Edemame in an organic effort. I’d bolstered the acid soil with ground limestone and sweetened it with nutrients by adding dried blood, bonemeal and loads of finished compost. I’d also converted a handmade bed that the girls had used when they were little into a raised bed where I planted Blue Lake beans and Quinoa. The final touch for this year’s garden was another raised planter that I fashioned from a couple of elaborate rectangular windows that I didn’t have the heart to throw out but had no other use for. Detroit Red beets and Nantes carrots are currently thriving in that spot, and I can leave those vegetables in the ground until we are ready to consume them. Overall, the garden did very well without the use of any chemicals or the chore of building a fence to keep out the animals. Perhaps the French Marigolds I planted were able to ward off deer but in any event the garden did not suffer a great deal of damage. The wide row that borders the forest though was less successful than the other wide row and I suspect that it served as a barrier reef of sorts that protected the plants on the interior of the garden. In any event, we were able to eat most of the produce that we grew while it was fresh, and so I didn’t have to use the Excalibur this year to save our homegrown veggies from spoiling.
I have, however, been using a 5-tray Excalibur dehydrator with a convenient 26-hour timer and adjustable thermostat for drying bananas and apples as well as zucchini and cranberries, to great effect. My family loves to snack on these dried treats and they are welcome additions to the kitchen pantry. Dried foods can be eaten in their dehydrated state, or they can be easily reconstituted by soaking in water (root, stem and seed veggies in cold water; spinach, kale, cabbage, chard and tomatoes in warm) or steaming. Uncooked ‘living foods’ that are free from animal products, organic, easy to digest and highly nutritious, deliver tremendous health benefits for those who make a point of emphasizing raw foods in their diet. Dehydration also offers an opportunity to cash in on produce sales when in season. One can load up on apples in the Fall, for example, and preserve them for use throughout the Winter and Spring by slicing them up – with the skin intact if you like – and creating bags of delicious dried apple chips that can be used for a number of purposes like making your own trail mix by adding nuts and seeds. In fact, such tasty natural snacks are even sweeter than a fresh apple because the process concentrates the natural flavors in fruits and vegetables, without adding sugar or chemicals.
The dehydration process is quite simple and generally requires cutting the foods to be dried in uniform sizes, or slicing or poking holes in berries, and then arranging them on a easy-to-clean Polyscreen tray liner before sliding the tray into the Excalibur for drying. The manufacturer provides a handy book of recipes and drying temperature guide times with each unit, as well as a host of nutritional information. Excalibur offers dehydrators in a variety of models with the patented Parallexx™ Horizontal Airflow Drying System which is the most efficient heat/dry technology combination available to consumers. There are white and black polycarbonate units that come in 4, 5 or 9-tray configurations and are extremely lightweight, durable and energy efficient. New offerings include models with a stainless steel exterior and stainless or polycarbonate trays and a polycarbonate interior for a somewhat higher cost. The black 5-tray polycarbonate model that I use is a great value and can be purchased for a price ranging from $249 to $299 from online outlets or factory direct.
We now use the Excalibur for drying all sorts of delicious fruit and vegetables, including apricots, strawberries, peaches, kale for chips, carrots and pineapples. As Fall sets in throughout the northeast I still have a rather impressive number of Quinoa plants that are loaded with buds that will need to be dried out for use throughout the Winter months. I plan on putting the Excalibur on that job when the time is right. I also experimented with a beef jerky project a little while back, with phenomenal results. Although I describe myself as ‘mostly’ vegetarian over the past year, I do still occasionally indulge in the consumption of meat. I think it’s really a question of balance and if one can maintain a healthy and resilient immune system through good fruit and vegetable-based nutrition, then eating modest amounts of harder-to-digest animal products will not over burden the body’s system. The key with making jerky is to slice the meat thinly and Excalibur recommends that you partially freeze the meat before slicing, advice that worked very well for me. I prefer to use antibiotic and hormone-free grass-fed meat whenever possible and I whipped together a spicy, tangy marinade for the strips of beef that had a tomato base with Worchester and soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, cayenne pepper, black pepper and ginger among other stuff. I let the meat slices sit in the marinade overnight and then put five trays of the stuff into the Excalibur for drying. A little more than four hours later I had a mother lode of delicious beef jerky ready to eat, at a fraction of the cost! In a world with rising food prices and a country with a startling amount of chronic disease in the form of diabetes, heart disease and cancer, not to mention an epidemic of obesity, Excalibur food dehydrators offer an affordable and dependable tool for budget and health conscious people everywhere.