Dehydrated foods

First Look: Sunbeam Food Lab Electronic Dehydrator

Having my cousin over for lunch is exasperating. She won’t eat this because of the high sugar content, or that because it’s packed with preservatives. Her eight-year-old, meanwhile, refuses to eat anything but fast-food. Then there’s a mate who’s passionate about paleo and another who hates tramping because Sundays without smashed avo are sacrilege. Catering for them all is a challenge. Could a Sunbeam Food Lab Electronic Dehydrator DT6000 ($299) be the solution to accommodating their dietary quirks?

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Using the Lab

It took me a while to figure out how to get the best results from the Lab – I generally had to ramp up the heat or leave things for longer than what my cookbook or instruction booklet stipulated.

Apart from that, it was straightforward to operate, reasonably easy to clean (baking paper at the bottom catches most spills), and bulky but light (6.3kg). The buttons are flimsy and at high temperatures the plastic sides warmed up (but were still safe to touch).

When adapting recipes, I found I had to cut back on seasonings as flavours intensify through dehydration (my first attempt at biltong – a South African snack similar to beef jerky – was so salty it was inedible). Food also shrinks considerably (one cup of dried vegetables reconstitutes to two). And with whole meals, I had to chop everything finely to ensure even drying.

Apart from the obvious uses, including making fruit leather and semi-dried tomatoes, it’s good for culturing yoghurt, proving bread, making pot-pourri and salvaging wet shoes (I didn’t try this!).

Why dry?

  • Reduce waste and save money by not having to buy fruit or vegetables out of season.
  • Know what you’re eating: avoid sugar, salt, allergens and additives.
  • Preserve enzymes and vitamins.

Test recipes

Vegetable chips

Home-made vegetable chips were my low-calorie alternative to potato crisps loaded with sodium and saturated fats. Unfortunately, it’s those things that transform the humble spud into a guilty pleasure. Without the salt and oil, my wholesome carrot, parsnip and beetroot slices tasted “earthy”. My health-conscious cousin liked them, but they didn’t cut it with her kid.

Biltong

The Lab’s instructions suggest dehydrating meat at 70°C, but biltong requires a much lower temperature. Its coolest setting is 35°C – a tad high for purists. Nevertheless, the result was just the way my paleo pal and I like it.

Seed crackers

Seed crackers are a nice substitute for bread and are ideal for low-carb lunches. To preserve omega oils, I baked the mixture at 45°C for 16 hours as per the recipe. I wanted crunchier crackers, though, so I put them back in for longer – well worth the wait and a firm favourite with my guests.

Cheese

Clockwise from top left: Fruit leather, semi-dried tomatoes, vegetable chips, seed crackers, nut cheese
Clockwise from top left: Fruit leather, semi-dried tomatoes, vegetable chips, seed crackers, nut cheese

It sounds nutty to make cheese out of almonds, but my “feta” recipe resulted in a delicious, creamy spread. Previously, when I’d made cashew “camembert”, I’d had to keep a close eye on the oven, but with the dehydrator, I popped the concoction in and forgot about it until the beeper sounded 12 hours later. It was so convenient, it was almost too Gouda to be true.

Dehydrated meals

For hikers, preparing a hearty dinner at the campsite isn’t practical, but with a dehydrated meal, all you’ll need is hot water. In anticipation of our trek through the Tararuas, I blasted chilli con carne at 70°C for several hours (a few too many, to be honest, as it was slightly rubbery after being reconstituted). It was still tasty, though not quite avocado on toast.

What to consider

  • Dehydration takes hours, so try to cook as much as possible in one session. Rectangular shelves have a bigger surface area compared to round trays, so can fit more food.
  • Certain foods (such as beetroot and plums) can stain plastic shelves, so if this is likely to bother you, get a model with metal racks.
  • The Lab’s thermostat jumps in 5°C increments from 35°C to 70°C. Some dehydrators have just one heat setting; others let you increase the temperature one degree at a time.
  • Setting and forgetting is convenient, so buy a plug-in timer if your unit doesn’t have one.
  • Dehydrators take up space. The Lab is the size of a medium microwave (330 x 440 x 340mm) so if you don’t have room in the kitchen, keep it in the garage.

Round vs square

A complaint with round models is uneven drying: hot air is forced either upwards or downwards, so the top or bottom layer respectively takes longer to dry. To avoid this, you have to rotate the trays. With rectangular models (like the Lab), air is blown horizontally across the racks. Also, a circular unit might take up the same space as a rectangular model, but you won’t be able to fit as much food on the trays. Another plus for square models is you can remove shelves to accommodate bulkier items such as bowls and bread dough.

So would I buy it?

In a heartbeat. Dehydrating is a slow process (we’re talking days, in some cases), but constantly slaving over a hot stove isn’t my idea of fun, so being able to forget about what’s cooking until the timer sounds makes the Lab a winner.


By Julia Addison
Technical Writer



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