If I started cooking today, I don’t know how I would find my way through the marketing, the cooking shows, each calling for specific tools to “succeed.” It’s no wonder that people throw their hands up and buy frozen dinners. I was cooking a lot, even as a student, when I was moving every few months, by bus and cab. You don’t need much to be successful in the kitchen.
Today, after thirty years of stability, I have gathered quite a few cooking tools, especially for my preserving season. However, I still find the secret to cooking day to day, is keeping the preparation as simple as possible. If a knife will do the job in less time than it takes to use the food processor AND clean it, I use the knife.
Here’s an example: I have the dehydrators shown here. One is a really good one I scored at a thrift store, and the other a regular, department store version that was given to me. (I’m known as exceptionally frugal.) In harvest season, they both go night and day for weeks. The rest of the year, they live in the basement.
A few weeks ago, I found some rare, fresh, true Thai peppers in an Asian grocery store. I happily overheated my food with the fresh peppers for a few days, but there was no way I could use the full supply before they spoiled. There is nothing better for crushed chilies than Thai peppers, and to turn a fresh pepper into a dried pepper, you just need to dry them for a few days.
Did I pull out the dehydrator? No way! I laid them on a piece of paper towel for a few days. They dried just fine. It took up a little counter space, valuable in my kitchen, but the dehydrator does, too. Plus, it would have meant two trips to the basement, washing the tray before and after use, and hearing the fan, quiet, but still there.
The dried peppers have been keeping me in the best Hot Salt I have ever made. All dried peppers are not equal, and freshly dried peppers are amazing. Although dried foods don’t spoil, they do lose flavor.
In the world of food tools, I would put a dehydrator far down any list of recommended tools for most people. Unless you preserve a lot of food, you just won’t use it enough to warrant the storage space. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t dry food. Simply spread the food to be dried on an absorbent base, and let it dry. You can put a layer on top if you are worried about dust.
For larger amounts of food, or food that is thicker, you can also spread the pieces out on a baking pan, and dry for a few hours in the oven or toaster at the lowest temperature you can use. Prop the door open, if, like my big oven, the lowest temperature is 175F. Drying is best for most plant-based food at 140-150F. Drying time depends on how thick the food is, but plan on 4-8 hours as a minimum. Herbs will take less time.
Instead of assuming you need a tool, try accomplishing the task without. You may eventually decide that the tool would be well-used and worth the investment, but you will be buying with the knowledge of what you need, what YOU are likely to do with a tool.