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I first started getting into the whole being green scene quite a few years ago, and when I did so, I felt sort of in awe of the people I chatted to on the internet, and whose reviews I read, of products I'd never even heard of let alone dreamt of owning. The other week, I strangely found myself in the odd position of having someone new to the whole thing saying how amazing it was that I knew so much and I felt kind of proud about how far I've come. - Why am I telling you this? Well because for me getting my Excalibur dehydrator was one of the bigger steps I've taken towards being greener with food.
Ok The Excalibur is a dehydrator - for those who aren't in the know, simply speaking, a dehydrator dries food that you place inside it so that you can store it for a reasonable length of time (months) in dried format rather than having to freeze it, or can/bottle it.
There are a number of different dehydrators on the market, and the first one I owned was a Westfalia dehydrator. Small, round, and with stacking trays, it was useful, but a bit inconvenient at times because things didn't dry very evenly, and you had to restack the trays every so often, and virtually take the whole thing to pieces to check to see how things were drying. Also, its design meant there were certain types of thing I just couldn't dry because they were too large. It was because of all these little niggles that I craved an Excalibur dehydrator - large, square, with a door at the front, and trays that slide in and out, and can be removed to allow extra space if you have something deep to dry, all these niggles would be gone.
The worry - Expense!
Excalibur dehydrators are not cheap to buy. I seriously umm'd and ahhh'd for quite a long time before taking the plunge and buying this. They do a few different sizes - 4 tray, 5 tray and 9 tray, and each with or without timer, but of course what I really wanted was the expensive 9 tray, though I felt I could manage without the timer, so I had to do a bit of saving first. Mine cost me £219 plus delivery.
The other issue with expense is running costs. It doesn't sound very green to use electricity to dry food for storage really does it. The thing is, when you sit and work it all out, it is more efficient to do this than it would be to store it in many other ways. For example, if I wanted to store a sack of carrots in the freezer, I'd have to prepare them, blanch them (using power to do this, and icy water), then I'd have to have space in a freezer to keep them for months. The whole time they were being stored in the freezer they'd be using power, so by using the dehydrator to dry them, yes I use a bit of power initially, but then they just go in jars in a cupboard, so it's a one off expense rather than an on going one.
The design - Clever!
The Excalibur is designed with fan and heating element etc. all at the back of a large box. It then has trays which slide inside the box in front of the fan and heater, onto which you put whatever you want to dry. In front of the trays is a kind of door - it's not hinged or anything, you just lift it off when you need to. The door helps to keep the warmth inside the dehydrator so that it rotates around all the trays.
Because all the trays are removable, if you have something thicker than the allotted gap between two trays that you want to dry, you can simply remove a tray or two from above, and create a larger gap. This means that as well as slices of food you can also use the Excalibur to dry things like flowers and bouquets, bunches of herbs and other larger items.
The noise - minimal!
I was a little worried when I bought this, that it might be rather loud. We live in a house that's quite open plan, so noise from appliances is something I consider to be quite important. To be honest, I actually find this dehydrator better than my previous one for volume. I think actually in terms of actual volume they're about the same level, but because the Westfalia hummed at a higher pitch it sounded louder and was a bit more invasive than the Excalibur is. Really it's just like having a fan on in the background, so not too bad at all.
The use - easy!
This really is one of the simplest dehydrators to use because of its design. You take a tray out, place the food you want to dry on it - say slices of carrots for example. Slot the tray back into the dehydrator, fill the next tray etc. until the device is full, and then turn it on to the heat setting recommended for that foodstuff.
Leave it alone for some hours and when you come back, your slices of carrot will be smaller, a bit shrivelled and hopefully dry. Sometimes I've found you do need to swap shelves around a bit, but that's so easy to do that it's not really an issue. I've also found that things placed in the corners of the trays don't seem to dry quite as fast as those in the middle, but I'd expect that to be honest, so again it doesn't really bother me. When the stuff in the middle is done, I remove it, slide the rest inwards away from the edges and leave it to dry for a bit longer. What's really amazing is if you weigh the food first, and then again after - you can really understand why people who go on long walking/hiking trips use dried food, the weight difference is vast, as is the storage space taken.
Cleaning it is pretty simple, each tray removes, and can be washed, as can the mesh sheet which lays on it. Some parts can go in a dishwasher I believe, though I have to own up to not having read that bit in the guide as I don't own a dishwasher so it seemed a bit irrelevant to me.
The savings - huge!!!
Now when I bought this like I said before, I was a little concerned about the amount of money I was going to be spending on it. However, in the few months I've owned this for, it has already saved me a small fortune so I know that it is going to pay for itself very fast.
Some of the savings I've made have involved being able to buy things like carrots by the sack instead of in small quantities meaning they cost me a whole lot less to begin with. This is obviously because I can store them for much longer without them rotting or us having to eat masses of carrots all at once. I've been able to pick up a carrier bag of apricots from the market for £1 at the end of the day, and taken them home knowing I won't waste a single one, and I've been able to dry my own instead of having to buy dried apricots from the supermarket.
Other savings I've made through being able to pick more fruit from the trees that grow wild locally - things like plums, cherries, apples and so on, and then dry these fruits for use later in the year. Cherries are so expensive to buy that I love it when we can use the free fruits from the trees, and being able to save some for use later in the year is fab, and they taste excellent dried, or I can re-hydrate them for use in cakes and puddings.
I also don't need to buy tins much any more as instead of keeping a tin of mushrooms, peas or peaches in the cupboard for food emergencies, I have my jars of dried vegetables and fruits that I can dip into instead.
Using dried food - Simples!
You might think ok so you dry lots, but what are you going to DO with it once it's dry. Well you use it of course. It's only really quite recently that we've had the ability to refrigerate and freeze things, so learning how to work with dried foodstuffs is pretty easy. Things like Peppers, mushrooms, carrots, peas and so on can be added to stews, soups and casseroles in dried format, and they rehydrate during the cooking time. If you want to cook with them in other ways, you just pop them in water a few hours before you begin cooking, and then you can cook with them in other ways too.
Fruits like apple, plum, cherries, mango, apricots etc. are all lovely eaten dried as snacks, or they can be used in cakes, or again re-hydrated to plump them back up before you use them. There are a few things that don't dehydrate well - I don't recommend dried blackberries, they go really hard and tasteless, and they don't rehydrate well either (one of my very first failures back when I first started dehydrating things).
Can it do more? - Oooh yes!
If I've not raved enough about this yet, let me just add that this box is so clever, it can be used for making yoghurt, or as somewhere to leave your bread to rise (just remove all the trays!). I've not tried the yoghurt making, but I have tried proving my rolls and bread in it, and it does give a much better rising level than any other place I've ever placed dough.
Oh, and you can use this to make things like fruit roll ups, jerky, and yoghurt roll ups. I've not perfected the roll ups yet, and I've not tried jerky either, but I'm sure given time I will do, and I've got my Paraflexx sheets (Teflon sheets that the Excalibur people sell that are cut to fit the trays of the Excalibur perfectly).
My recommendation - Get one!
If you've even vaguely been considering one of these, then I say do it, do it now, and start saving money, energy, and feeling proud of your store cupboard. Ok, I know I sound like an advert now, but I seriously love this box for what it's able to do and how well it does it.
I debated things for months before taking the plunge, and I wish I'd gone ahead with it sooner. I sat and worked out that during the first 3 months of owning this, it had saved me over £50 because of all the free and cheap food I could now process and store. It's so much easier than having to make jams and chutneys, and bottle and pickle too - Although I'd feel quite sad if I stopped doing this completely.
My only small problem that I've had isn't with the product itself, it's been with registering it online (for the waranty). Excalibur is an American company, and when you go to their website, they don't have the special UK version listed as an option to register! It's rather frustrating, and several months after buying this, I'm still waiting for an answer from them by e-mail about how to do the registration.