A Dry Run
I borrowed a fancy food dehydrator. Here's what happened.
For such traditional applications, it became clear to me that one advantage of having your own dehydrator is being able to control “doneness.” If you’re not worried about packaging your food for really long periods of time, you can go for a slightly moister finishing point—something that retains more fresh-fruit flavor than the standard grocery store dried fruit. (Working with just-in-season fruit helps the flavor, too.) You can dehydrate without common additives, like sulfites, or plumpers like coconut oil or apple juice. Or you can purposely add your own outré additives. I made a batch of dried cherries with fruit marinated in sweet vermouth—a ready-to-go Manhattan garnish.
Not everything turned out perfectly: I bungled a few things in the machine. Raw-food devotees like to make flaxseed crackers from a mucilaginous slurry of seeds soaked in water. I’ve had them before and liked them for their unrelenting homespun crispiness—more granola than granola itself—but my own batch turned out wildly oversalty. (Note to self: Dehydration concentrates the effect of salt.) I also tried to make “onion glass”—a sort of ethereal onion wafer—from Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot’s Ideas in Food. I didn’t have any glucose syrup in the house and substituted corn syrup, which might explain why my finished product was less like onion glass than leather—which my friends and family agreed, after tasting, is not something the world needs. And I don’t even want to say how badly my own recipeless attempt at carrot “raisins” turned out.
On the lookout for other, possibly more manageable, modern takes on dehydrated food, I called Chris Young, the co-author, with Nathan Myrhvold and Maxime Billet, of Modernist Cuisine, the six-volume epic devoted to contemporary avant-garde cooking. Young told me that almost, but not totally, dried food—say a piece of mostly dehydrated duck skin (or even more unexpectedly, watermelon)—can puff up exuberantly in the deep fryer. He mentioned the carrot tuiles he’d made when he directed the research kitchen at Fat Duck—you just whiz together juiced carrots and a stabilizer like gellan gum, and dry out the mixture until you get translucent wafers, which are pliable when warm but crisp when cooled off. But for a really simple recipe, at least by Modernist Cuisine standards, he sent along a technique for Watermelon Bulgogi: A vegan sweet-soy Korean “beef.” (Watermelon-as-meat is all over the food press these days; see Mark Bittman’s somewhat recent watermelon burgers in the New York Times Magazine).
I did not complete the full watermelon recipe, which calls for a kimchi of watermelon rind and some homemade Korean chili paste, but I did make the centerpiece. I brined watermelon in a vacuum bag, then dried it for several hours, then seared it in a pan and brushed it with a sweet ginger-soy glaze. After all the pressing and drying, the watermelon draped like a piece of raw meat, and the veining in the fruit actually mimicked a well marbled piece of flesh. (The recipe recommends leaving a thin sliver of the white rind to simulate a beefy fat cap.) Even more weirdly, the texture was juicy-slithery and chewy in a way that closely approximated a rare piece of meat. Of course, despite the punchy glaze, the meaty taste wasn’t quite there, and a distinctly familiar, not entirely appealing end-of-picnic smell of hot watermelon lingered in the air.
The experiment definitely took the dehydrator into new territory—an utterly unfamiliar and entertaining frontier of texture. It made me wish I had more free time to play around. Time, by the way, being something you need in spades if you’re planning to try out fan-driven dehydrators. Though none were especially labor-intensive, each project took several hours of monitoring at the minimum. If I weren’t juggling a hectic summer schedule of kid-wrangling, moving house, and crashing deadlines, I would have tried again to make a really flavorful wafer (like those carrot tuiles Chris Young mentioned), maybe an airy meringue or two, and I would also have made a few batches of half-dried tomatoes, which develop a chewy, extra-sweet quality in the dehydrator.
Despite the potential fun to be had, a large, effective dehydrator like the one I tried is a serious investment of not just time, but cash and counter real estate. You probably won’t make watermelon meat in great quantity, so the relative value of an at-home dehydrator depends entirely on your snack habits. If you’re a jerky and trail mix connoisseur, then by all means, get one. You can customize to your own exacting standards, and end up with a better product than what you’d buy at the store. For the rest of us chip and pretzel eaters, Trader Joe’s capaciously stocked dried fruit aisle may be enough.