I love all forms of food preservation. I also love reducing my environmental footprint whenever possible. I’ve often thought about the energy involved in canning, freezing and using my electric food dehydrator to save my summer garden harvest for wintertime eats. For me, a solar food dehydrator is the best of both worlds: I can dry food using the free, renewable energy of the sun (unlike the energy needed to boil water for my canner or run my electric food dryer), and my resulting dried food can be stored without any added energy (unlike the frozen foods in my freezer). A solar food dehydrator would allow me to literally save a bit of summer’s sunshine for the short, dark days of winter.
I’ve studied and dreamed about the plans on our site to build a solar food dehydrator for a couple of years now, but I was always stymied by my lack of DIY skills. Luckily, I got the opportunity to try my hand at building a SunWorks Solar Food Dryer Kit. All the pieces came in one large box, I had step-by-step instructions at hand and a short list of other tools (all with names I recognized and could find at home) to help bridge my DIY-skills gap.
All told, building this solar food dehydrator took me about 5 hours. (Let me be totally honest here: I had never used a staple gun, changed the bits on a drill or used a spline roller before, so it could take someone with these skills already under their belt less time.) I only had minor confusions while reading the instructions, which were easily cleared up by our resident DIY editor, Robin Mather, and Hank Will, Editor-in-Chief of Grit magazine and super-experienced handyman. I still swell up with pride just looking at the completed food dryer, a sentiment many of you DIYers are familiar with, I’m sure.
Anxious to test out my handiwork, and hopeful despite the short, cool days we were already experiencing here in mid-October, we set the solar food dehydrator out on Oct. 24, at 10 am. Fellow editor Heidi Hunt and I halved a large bowl of cherry tomatoes (snacking on a few in the process), loaded the dryer racks, tilted the back vent open and left the food dryer facing South toward the sun and warmth. Within only an hour, the food dehydrator reached an internal temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit, a high enough temperature to start turning our cherry tomato halves into delicious sun-dried tomatoes. It continued to warm throughout the day, reaching over 140 degrees by 1 pm. The tomatoes were visibly drier at the end of the first day, and by the end of the second day we were well on our way to a successful batch of sun-dried tomatoes.
The third day, however, rain, clouds and much colder temperatures set in, and by the end of the fourth day (still cold and somewhat overcast), we saw the beginnings of the end: mold spots.
I’m still excited to put our solar food dehydrator to work next summer, when the warmer, longer days with much more direct sunlight will kick our solar food dryer into high gear. Plus, the few bites of nearly sun-dried tomatoes that we snuck throughout the process were well worth the late-season attempt!
Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can find Jennifer on Twitter or Google+.
Photos by Jennifer Kongs