A Dry Run
I borrowed a fancy food dehydrator. Here's what happened.
Late last year at Portland, Ore.’s Castagna, a forward thinking restaurant that places a high value on thought-provoking textures—fluffy piles of flavored ice, silken bits of meat—I hit upon a sweet, chewy nubbin in a wintry elk dish that I couldn’t quite identify. Our waiter said it was a carrot that had been through a dehydrator, one of a few “root raisins” in the dish. Dehydration, he explained, concentrates sweetness, and also produces tender-chewiness almost as substantial as that of tender elk flesh.
It made me laugh to think that a high-end chef like Castagna’s Matt Lightner (who’s recently left for a project in New York City), is using the same tool as survival-minded food storage enthusiasts and adherents of the raw food movement. Of course, he’s not alone: Rene Redzepi at NOMA dries his signature savory meringues in a dehydrator, while Grant Achatz of Alinea concentrates the sweetness of grapefruit by drying it for a couple hours. For these chefs, no doubt, dehydrators are just one tool in a fully stocked kitchen, used to pursue the uncanny textures that are the hallmark of contemporary haute cuisine.
Does a dehydrating gadget also have value in a dabbler’s kitchen—like mine? Slate managed to get me a loaner dehydrator, and I played around with it to find out.
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Dehydration is a truly ancient technique. Before refrigeration, a fresh-killed woolly mammoth was a windfall and a bit of a liability—you couldn’t eat it all before it went bad. If, however, you dried out the meat, you’d have lightweight, protein-rich bits of food to nibble on for months and months to come. The lightness and shelf-stability (or in the case of our earlier hominid relatives, cave-ledge stability) of dried food continues to have its appeal: in the broad swaths of the world where electrical refrigerators aren’t a household given, for backpackers seeking minimal weight in their rucksacks, or for apocalyptically minded survivalists who buy emergency food by the yearful.
In the olden days, people dried food with moderate heat (from the sun) and air circulation (from hanging food or placing it on racks). Today there are a few higher tech options, including freeze-drying, which dries food very thoroughly, with an eerie faithfulness of color and aroma, but is prohibitively expensive. The most basic and accessible contraptions, however, still use moderate heat (from a heating coil) and air circulation (from a fan)—like the test dehydrator that Slate obtained for me from TSM. It’s a bit like a CPU tower without the circuitry—just a big (roughly 1 ½ feet cubed) stainless steel box with lots of ventilation, a fan at the back, and a heater that can warm the air up to approximately 155 degrees. There are 10 removable metal grid trays—allowing plenty of space for experimentation. The model costs about $450 retail, more than twice the price of the most basic entry-level versions with plastic trays and smaller capacities.
When life, or a publication, gives you a dehydrator, it’s natural to make beef jerky. I’ve already written about my fondness for jerky in Slate, but I’d only made the stuff in my oven before, which doesn’t go down to such a low temperature or possess the same airflow as a dehydrator, and my results were more brittle and tough than I would have liked. My recent attempt at beef-drying was not a finesse operation by any means. It took me a while to figure out, with the inexactly calibrated temperature dial, how to hold the dryer at around 150 degrees Fahrenheit, a good meat-drying temperature. And even then I had to hang around to check the meat with some frequency to avoid over-desiccation. My efforts paid off, however: I hit just the right balance between rawhide toughness and too-moist mealiness. I passed my homemade jerky (goosed with a bit of chipotle) around at a cocktail party, and though it wasn’t a typical hostess gift, it went over well with the crowd.
I made another dehydrated favorite, fruit leather, by pureeing some strawberries with a bit of honey and a squeeze of lemon, then spreading the mixture on a film of nonstick acetate. The resulting leather was significantly thinner and more vibrantly flavored than the gummy stuff we usually get at the grocery.