Freeze-drying Food at Home

Comments: One Comment Post Date: September 6, 2020

Freeze-dried food ranks as the most delicious and high-quality survival food out there. However, the downside is the cost. Recently, the availability and quality of home freeze dryers has improved. This article will give you an overview of freeze-drying and details about the home freeze dryers that are available so that you can make an informed decision. Although freeze-drying is an amazing food preservation method, it is not for everyone. 

Advantages of Freeze-dried Food 

  • High quality 
  • Preserves nutrients better than canning 
  • Long shelf life. Many foods will last at least 25 years when freeze-dried and sealed properly. 
  • Space efficient 
  • Lightweight 
  • Easy to prepare 
Freeze-dried yellow squash.

How to Freeze-dry Food 

There are no short cuts to freeze-drying food. You must buy a freeze dryer designed for home use. 

Currently, Harvest Right is the main source for quality freeze dryers. They offer freeze dryers in three sizes. Each is small enough to fit on a kitchen countertop. If you’re serious about freeze-drying, it’s worth it to get the medium or large model. The small model is nice too, but I know that most people are going to be excited about freeze-drying and will likely use it instead of canning. If you only want to freeze-dry certain things, then the smaller model might work for you. 

Freeze-drying your own foods allows you to create custom lightweight meals that are less expensive than traditional MREs. This makes it a lot easier to accommodate special dietary needs.  

Freeze Dryer Costs 

These are not inexpensive food preservers. However, if you raise a lot of your own food or shop for bargains, you’ll be surprised how quickly a freeze dryer will pay for itself.  Harvest Right offers a layaway program that allows you to make payments with a minimum $250 initial payment. When you are done paying, they send out your freeze dryer. They also have sales quite often and shipping to your door is included.

Better than Canning 

I used to can a lot of food but not anymore. I have a small house, and canned goods take up a lot of space. Living in the South means hot summers that make canning even more unpleasant.  

The COVID-19 pandemic is still causing shortages of canning jars and lids. I recently saw a dozen quart jars and lids advertised for $20 through a NextDoor group. That is double what they were the last time I bought them! Just buying lids costs $4 for 12. Not a good time to start canning. 

Space Efficiency  

One critique of prepping that I have seen repeatedly is that while the advice might be sound, who has the space for all the stuff that is recommended? 

I get it. I live in a 480 sq. ft. house with a 160 sq. ft. loft. We have some outbuildings and barns and a little room in the basement. 

When I started dehydrating food rather than canning it, I was shocked by the difference it made in the amount of storage space vs calories and nutritional value. Freeze-drying is even more efficient. If you don’t believe me, just go online and check out the weight of a bucket of freeze-dried food designed to last two people for a month. You’ll find that it’s around 35 lbs. 

Freeze-drying Prep Tips 

  • Never freeze-dry meat and vegetables at the same time unless you are freeze-drying a prepared meal such as beef stew. The time required for each kind of food is a lot different. 
  • Clean, peel, and cut up food into smaller pieces. Sure, you could freeze-dry a whole steak if you wanted to, but chances are that dicing your beef is a lot more practical for survival cooking. 
  • Start out by freeze-drying some basic foods before you move on to more advanced things like freeze-drying whole entrees. This will allow you to get a feel for how your machine works and fine-tune the process. 

Helpful Hint: Freezing food in the dryer trays in your deep freezer before putting it in the freeze dryer will drastically reduce the amount of time it takes to freeze-dry a batch of food. My friend Wynn says that it knocks 9 hours off the time when he does a full load of food in his medium-sized Harvest Right. This trick is not included in the estimate of how much food you can process in a freeze dryer per year. That means that you can process a lot more food than the Harvest Right estimate for a particular size of freeze dryer.  

Spare Parts and Repairs 

When Harvest Right Freeze Dryers first came on the market, you had to send them back to the manufacturer if any repairs were needed. Although the factory warranty covered this, it was still a bit of a hassle and the wait could be lengthy. Now, you can get some spare parts online and take care of things yourself. This is especially handy once the standard warranty period has expired. 

Canning and Dehydrating Replacement 

I wouldn’t say that freeze-drying can be considered a total replacement. Things like jams and jellies are always nice to have on hand and they are a canned product. I also continue to buy honey in a jar. For meat, vegetables, fruit, and entrees, freeze-drying could totally replace the way you are doing things now.  

Fewer Freezers 

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, I decided to buy a small freezer. I didn’t do it because of the pandemic though. I did it because we had two lambs to butcher and no freezer space to accommodate them. I was lucky to find a freezer. A few days later, the only freezers left were very large and very expensive. Freezers are still challenging to find in smaller sizes.

A freeze dryer may cost more, but it will save you storage space and the cost and space that even a small chest freezer will take up. While smaller freezers are quite energy efficient, they still rely on the power grid or at least a solar backup to keep foods frozen. A lot of preppers figure that if their freezer reaches a point where the food in it is thawing, they’ll eat some food first and can the rest using a propane backup or similar. 

Easy Meal Prep 

This is important when you consider that during a long emergency, the power may be off and other fuels for cooking could be hard to come by. Even if you have an extra supply of cooking fuel, you might run out, so it’s important to be conservative with what you must use. Those with ample wood supplies or who live where they can scavenge wood for cooking are at an advantage. However, smoke will draw attention that you might not want. Also bear in mind that wood can become harder to find if others are also scavenging wood for cooking and heat. 

Freeze Dryer Options 

Harvest Right makes three sizes of freeze dryers for home use. They also manufacture commercial freeze dryers for those who are interested in large volume food production. 

Harvest Right Small 

  • Food per Batch Fresh: 4–7 lbs. 
  • Food per Batch Freeze-dried: 1–1.5 gallons 
  • Annual Yield: 840 lbs. fresh and 192 gallons freeze-dried 
  • Dimensions: 16.5″ W x 18.5″ D x 25″ H
  • Includes 3 trays (7.75″ W x 14″ L x 0.75″ H)
  • Total Weight: 61 lbs.

For 1–2 people who just want to freeze-dry occasionally, the Harvest Right Small is ideal. This machine weighs less than half that of the large and can fit on the countertop of even a small apartment. My biggest issue with this model is that the capacity is so much less, but the cost is not. For $500 more and not that much extra space, you can get the medium and nearly double your food processing capacity. 

Harvest Right Medium  

Medium Harvest Right with standard vacuum pump.
  • Food per Batch Fresh: 7–10 lbs. 
  • Food per Batch Freeze-dried:  1.5–2.5 gallons 
  • Annual Yield: 1,450 lbs. fresh and 312 gallons freeze-dried 
  • Dimensions:18″ W x 21.25″ D x 28.5″ H
  • 4 trays (7.5″ W x 18″ L x 0.75″ H)
  • Total Weight:112 lbs.

My friend Wynn has the medium freeze dryer and from what he tells me, it seems to be the most logical choice for those who want to put back a lot for their family. Most people are just not going to need the volume of the large model, so the extra cost and space are not worth it.  

Harvest Right Large 

  • Food per Batch Fresh: 12–16 lbs. 
  • Food per Batch Freeze-dried:  2–3.5 gallons 
  • Annual Yield: 2,500 lbs. fresh and 546 gallons freeze-dried 
  • Dimensions: 20.25″ W x 23.75″ D x 30.75″ H
  • 5 trays (9″ W x 20.5″ x 0.75″ H)
  • Total Weight: 138 lbs.

If you’re reading this and have a productive farm, you may be considering the larger model of freeze dryer. This would allow you to preserve fresh foods that might otherwise go to waste or require more expensive processing than freeze-drying. Consider a small farmer who sells produce weekly at a farmer’s market. What happens to what doesn’t sell? While donating some may be a kind gesture, over time, the unsold food could really cut into profitability. A high-dollar fruit crop like blueberries is a perfect example of how freeze-drying could help with profitability. I mention blueberries because they are one of the more fragile fruits, and they do not do well in a traditional dehydrator. Freeze-drying is the only drying method that produces a high-quality dried blueberry. 

Using the large freeze dryer, you could put back a variety of foods for your family and still have freeze-dried items to package and sell to others. If half of the large capacity was used to preserve excess food for sale, that would mean an outstanding 1,000-quart bags of freeze-dried food. Laws regarding preserving and selling foods from your home vary, so be sure to check and see what’s required in your area. 

Pump Options 

There are three vacuum-seal pump options to choose from. The cost of an upgrade is substantial, so you should carefully review the following information before spending the extra money. The biggest difference is in how often you need to filter or change the vacuum oil that is essential to the machine’s operation. Here are the costs and benefits of each pump. 

Original Pump (included) 

  • Included in standard price 
  • Requires oil to be filtered every 4–5 uses 

Upgrade 

  • $695 added cost 
  • Pump oil must be filtered every 20–25 uses 
  • Requires a special vacuum oil 

Oil-free Pump 

  • Adds $1,495 to the total cost 
  • Low maintenance, no oil to filter or change 

Vacuum oil can be expensive if you buy the name brand. However, oil can be filtered many times, so you don’t have to change the oil every 4–25 uses depending on the model of pump you have. Other brands of professional vacuum oil can be used with the included pump. This oil costs $16 per gallon instead of the nearly $54 per gallon for the Harvest Right brand. The upgraded pump requires a different oil that is quite specific. 

Oil-free sounds nice, but at $1,500, the added convenience is not worth the cost.  

Each Harvest Right comes with valuable accessories, such as mylar bags and oxygen absorbers, a high-quality impulse sealer for sealing your mylar, a filter to use when filtering your vacuum oil, and a book on how to freeze-dry. 

Wynn’s Homemade Filter System 

My friend, Wynn, over at The DOPE Farm Podcast has added his own filtration system. This was far less expensive than going with an oil-free pump, and it cuts out a lot of the work of changing the oil. The pictures below illustrate his system. 

Wynn’s homemade filter system.

Noise Level 

The Harvest Right is not exactly quiet. At 63 decibels, it is not extremely loud either. A lot of people keep their freeze dryer in a utility room or garage. While that is not necessary, you might at least want to make sure it is some distance from where you sleep if you’re a light sleeper.  

One Major Disadvantage 

Freeze-drying is a fairly power-hungry procedure. The medium-sized freeze dryer needs a 20-amp 110V plug in. At its peak, the freeze dryer uses 16 amps, but it usually averages 9–11 amps. Although I won’t say it’s impossible to keep a freeze dryer going off the grid, the amount of panels and battery storage you would need is too much for the average person to dedicate to a single project or device. Freeze dryers are nice to have while the grid is going, but if it goes down, you just won’t be able to keep it going.  

Convenience 

Harvest Right freeze dryers have a sensor that automatically turns the freeze dryer off once the freeze-drying process is complete. You don’t have to be around the whole time or worry about the machine not turning off. This makes it a lot easier to fit freeze-drying into a busy schedule. 

Capacity Limits 

The medium Harvest Right comes with 4 trays.

Due the capacity of even a large freeze dryer, you may still need to temporarily freeze or refrigerate some foods until you have space to process them. 

Extra Trays and Staggering Your Batches 

Freeze-drying trays are made of high-quality metal. An extra set of trays for the medium Harvest Right Freeze Dryer costs about $90. I recommend budgeting for an extra set when you buy your freeze dryer so you can stick one set in the freezer while your other batch is processing in the freeze dryer. By the time that batch is ready, the other food will be frozen, saving the 9 hours of processing time previously discussed. If you have some extra freezer space, buying the extra trays are a better investment than getting the large Harvest Right. This gets the most out of the machine you are buying at the lowest cost. The medium Harvest Right fits in a smaller space and weighs less too. Regardless of which size Harvest Right you choose, with some planning, an extra set of trays, and a little extra freezer space, you could increase the amount of food your Harvest Right can process by a considerable amount.  

Freeze-drying Hamburger 

Wynn recently freeze-dried 3 lbs. of regular hamburger. After freeze-drying, it weighed 8.2 oz. That is pretty amazing, and incredibly efficient when it comes to stockpiling food.  

3 lbs of regular hamburger takes up a lot of freezer space. This freeze-dried hamburger will stay good for 25 years after it is sealed in a mylar bag.

A freeze dryer can significantly reduce the amount of food a family throws out or composts. The average family throws out enough food each year to keep a freeze dryer going all year, and the family would have all that extra food for emergencies. 

Pet Treats 

Okay, I know this is not a necessity, but let’s be honest, if you have a dog or cat, they’re part of the family. Liver treats are expensive. I like to use these for training puppies. They are bite size, delicious, and easy to carry in a baggy. Instead of spending a fortune on dog cookies or snacks that are little more than cheap flour, how about freeze-drying liver, chicken, or any other inexpensive meat you can find? Your pets will be healthier, and you’ll save money. I wouldn’t tell anyone to buy a freeze dryer to make pet food, but it is something you can do with your freeze dryer when not using it for your personal survival food stash. 

Conclusion: Freeze-drying is great for food preservation as long as you have electricity.  

Beyond that, the biggest disadvantage is the initial cost. It takes a little time to make the machine pay for itself. With so many people struggling to find space for extra food storage and preparedness supplies, freeze-drying is a great way to build up a stockpile over time.

The Harvest Right Medium offers the best overall value for the average household, whereas the Harvest Right Large is suitable for farms and large families who might want to make some extra money by preserving and selling their surplus throughout the year. Survival and mutual assistance groups could theoretically share a large Harvest Right and put back a considerable amount of food for future use. Of course, the problem is figuring out how best to share it. 

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Comment (1)

  • Wayne Johnson Reply

    I’ve had a FD for about 3 years. It’s great, since my wife hates canning. I love it for sweet potato stew and similar dishes. I would suggest getting really lean hamburger since “regular” burger has a lot of fat in it, which F drys poorly, and will shorten the shelf life. We have tons of FD peppers, squash, — just did a load of ripe cantaloupe! Try to preserve that any other way! No regrets at all on this purchase. Learning curve is easy. We have regular vacuum pump…. easy to maintain. Electric cost is about 2bucks per load—- well worth it.

    September 9, 2020 at 11:48

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