I am really excited about the latest of my projects here for the homestead! I finished building my solar dehydrator yesterday, and I even started drying apples in it 🙂 I am so glad that I will be able to preserve part of our harvest from around the homestead by drying things out this year. ( So excited in fact, that I did a happy dance!)
Why a Solar Dehydrator
I have an electric dehydrator, and while it does work, it doesn’t work quite hard enough for me. I end up running it non-stop for about a week at a time, and it almost always overheats and shuts off. Then I have to let it cool off before starting again. Tricky business…I don’t want my food to spoil, so timing the drying is important. I will probably use both of my dehydrators this season, and next year I would like to build a second, larger solar dehydrator so that I can get even more food done in one day.
One of the things that led me to build a solar dehydrator was that it seemed silly to me to dry food indoors, taking up counter space (or floor space) when I am trying to process other food. I also dislike the constant hum of the fan when I am already running the washing machine or the A/C on really hot days. And why would I want to raise my electric bill just to dry some food when the sun can do that work for me?
I still like my electric dehydrator, it works well and there are probably a few foods like jerky that I will continue to make in it. I’d rather do jerky indoors because I don’t want any animals coming around because of the smell.
Building The Dehydrator
So that’s the “why” of this project, but I also have some of the “how” of this project as well. I didn’t take pictures of all of the steps, nor do I plan to write it all up for you. I used Home Depot’s instructions, and they worked fine. They lacked some detail in the written instructions, but for the most part, their pictures covered those flaws. I took some pictures of the progress, mostly the steps where I felt a little bit of confusion, and I will also share how I built my trays below. (Click through the pictures for descriptions.)
For the trays, I ripped 7/8″ thick barn wood I had sitting around into 1 1/8″ strips. Then I cut 8- 20″ pieces and 8-12 1/4″ pieces. I needed to build 4 trays total. I nailed the 20″ boards to the ends of the 12 1/4″ boards (everything was standing on the narrow edge), for a finished tray size of 14″x 20″ (outer measurements). Then I used some screen window material, cut pieces wide enough to cover one whole side of the frame, plus enough to wrap around two more of the sides of the boards. First I stapled one edge down, then I spun the tray around, pulled the material taut, and stapled that edge as well. Then I repeated for the last two sides. After stapling, I cut off the excess corner material and stapled on the outside corners of the trays to keep the material from ripping.
I wanted to build the dehydrator without spending any money because we just didn’t have any in the budget for it. Luckily I was able to find everything I needed in the workshop because everybody and their brother gives us their odds and ends 😉 (No, we aren’t hoarders, we just find a lot of good uses for things other people can’t.) For the door, I used an old window that was left up in the granary. I had started to build the door, but the Plexiglas I had wasn’t quite large enough, and I also didn’t feel like attempting to cut it! I used weather stripping to make sure I had a decent seal, and also filled some cracks inside with silicon caulk. I will probably end up giving the whole outside of thing another solid coat of paint to extend it’s life, but I don’t plan on leaving it outdoors all of the time. The window is attached to the frame with a long hinge I found somewhere in our belongings.
Test Run: Drying Apples
We gave the dehydrator it’s first test run immediately using apples from our trees. Using our apple corer/peeler/slicer, it took very little time to cut the apples. One nice thing about using one of these handy tools is that your slices are consistent in thickness which helps keep drying times a little more consistent. We used an average of 4 medium sized apples per tray for a total of 16 apples drying in the dehydrator at one time.
It took the better part of a day to dry the apples, probably about 12 hours. They aren’t crispy, but they are pretty dry. If I wanted them to be even crispier, I could always 1) dry them longer or 2) bake them in the oven for a little while. 16 apples dried up to equal about 10 oz. of dried fruit. Admittedly, that doesn’t seem like much food, but I will be able to save a lot of produce this way in addition to making apple sauce, cider, fruit leather, pies and just having eating apples around.
Once I get more use out of the dehydrator, I will share a little more about how it works along with what I have dried and how I plan to store it.
The only downfall of a solar dehydrator is that it is weather dependent. You can’t really dry out the food if it’s cloudy, and it takes longer if it’s humid. But it worked well, it’s not too heavy to move around, though I may add wheels and a handle to make moving it around even easier. I may also add some sort of prop stick so that I can open the door and put trays in without holding it up. I can open it all of the way, but I worry that the weight of the door might break the hinges or strip the screws out. Another factor to note if you are considering building one for yourself is location…you need to let it be south-facing. You can leave it stationary and walk away for the day, but it will do a better job of drying if you can occasionally turn it so it continues to face the sun as the sun moves through the sky, and it also helps to rotate the trays at least once during the drying process. You will probably want to rinse your trays before refilling if you are putting in a different food as you might get residual flavors on your dried product.
What kinds of foods do you like dehydrating? I am looking forward to quickly drying some of our herbs and definitely more apples. We will probably try zucchini and tomatoes as well. Share your favorites in the comments below, and if you have any special recipes for drying, I’d love to hear them! And if you have any questions about how I did anything for this project, please, ask away!