At first, there is nothing.
All at once, it hits!
The spring and summer harvest is on. It came out of nowhere, and all of a sudden, there are piles of herbs, fruits, roots, and botanicals that need to be preserved ASAP.
So what is the best way to preserve all of that herbal goodness, fast and efficiently? Thankfully there are a few options and we're going to dive into those here.
Before we start:
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Dehydrating fruits, roots, and herbs can be one of the simplest ways to preserve the harvest, but it can also be one of the most frustrating forms if not done in the right way.
We get lots of questions on the farm about how to know when herbs are dry, how to store herbs, and if there are ways to dehydrate without using a dehydrator. Once you really get going on your own herbs and botanical production though, you might want to step up the dehydrating options a notch to save on time and money.
Dehydrating without a dehydrator is something we still do here on the farm though we do much less than we use to. Hang drying is a great way to dehydrate a bunch of herb at one time. We favor this method for our lavender. It is easy to hang with its extended cut stems and not so finicky with the temperature and moisture control of the room. If our electric dehydrators are full, we go with hang drying to make sure to get the most out of our harvest when it is ready.
Some other great ways to dehydrate without an electric dehydrating are oven drying, air drying, and a dehydrator cabinet. We wrote more extensively about these options in our 5 Ways to Dehydrate without a Dehydrator post if you would like to dive into those options.
The most efficient way to dry herbs and botanicals on a medium scale is by using electric dehydrators. If you have a whole field of herbs, this might not be the best option for you, and many larger farms will air dry in drying houses or hoop houses. Electric dehydrators work best in big batches for homesteads and/or super excited herbalists.
There are basically two kinds of electric dehydrators. There are the most common ones that blow air vertically and then horizontal air blowing dehydrators.
Most people will start out with a vertical air dehydrator. They are the easiest to find and most commonly found in local retail stores. There are many off-brands, but the most well-known brand is Nesco. These vertical air blowing dehydrators send the heat up the center of the dryer from the bottom of the dehydrating trays. Some of these dehydrators will have fans that help to move the air circulation more evenly. Depending on the price range, though, some of these dehydrators will not have a fan.
Dehydrators with fans will give you a more consistent outcome with your herbs and botanicals that one without a fan. Another feature to look for is a dial that will adjust the dehydrating temperature. Some vertical air dehydrators won't have this feature, and the herbs and botanicals will have to be watched more closely.
Vertical dehydrators often come in two different shapes. The most common ones are round, but there are some rectangular and square ones as well.
While round is more easily found, the square and rectangular ones provide much more space on the dehydrator tray for placing your fresh herbs and botanicals. Their round counterparts can make it challenging to fit your abundance, mainly depending on the shape and size of the herb. I find the round ones tend to work well with small compact items like fruits. While the square and rectangular trays work better for long thin herbs and broad leaves.
While the vertical air-flow food dryers work great and are certainly better than air-drying small batches, this version of the dehydrator has downsides.
While the air naturally flows through the middle of the machine, some dehydrators come with fans. The heat still usually tapers off near the top of the dehydrator. Depending on how many trays high, you have stacked the top racks may not dry at the same time as the bottom trays closer to the heat source.
This creates the need to continually rotate the trays to get the right consistency throughout your herbal material. There is also the risk that if the racks are not rotated that the top trays will mold. The bottom trays may even burn.
The best way to solve the issue of rotating dehydrating trays is to go with a horizontal air dehydrator. These dehydrators blow air from the back of the dehydrator and often send the hot air from a larger area. These horizontal dehydrators don't depend on the air going up through the center of the trays. There is even more space for your herbs and botanicals. There is also more freedom in the size of the material that you are dehydrating.
The most popular of horizontal air-flow dehydrators is the Excalibur. Excalibur dehydrators are workhorses meant to dry a lot of herbal material, and they last a long time. Our personal 5 tray Excalibur machine came to us used and is likely 20 some years old. It still works fantastic, and they are well worth the investment!
Depending on the dehydrator brand, you can add more or fewer trays and still get a pretty good consistency throughout the drying process. With our Cabela's 24 tray dehydrator, we do have to rotate some top and bottom trays. However, they still dry more constantly than a vertical air-flow dryer.
These dryers also come with many different options, from heat settings to timers and automatic shut-offs, depending on the price range you are looking at.
The horizontal air-flow dehydrators and especially the Excalibur, are my top pick for homestead and small farm dehydrating equipment. Not only are they excellent for drying herbs, fruits, roots, and botanicals, but they can also be used to proof bread, make yogurt and defrost meat. They are an excellent all-around machine built to last and worth the investment.
I'm curious! Do you already have an electric dehydrator? What brand and what is your biggest struggle with using it? Let me know in the comment section below.