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Ronco to the rescue! My dehydrator emergency and how I solved it (I hope) [UPDATE: EPIC FAIL]  RSS feed

 
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In a recent post Joseph Lofthouse wrote:

I often dehydrate melons, squash and cucumbers. The melons and cucumbers are great as a sweet snack.



That's been on my mind, but I don't (quite, yet) have a big enough cucumber surplus to try dehydrating those.  And the only melon plants that survived my spring neglects were some vine peaches that are just starting to produce.  (A second wave of melons I planted later is just starting to set fruit.) 

Then today I got sent on short notice to the big city for an eldercare-support errand, so I took the chance to raid a Sprouts grocery to see what kind of loss-leader fruit and veg they might be selling for cheap.  (They pretty reliably have something I want at a near-giveaway price.)  Today the standout bargain was some absolutely huge canteloupes from Arizona that were priced at 88 cents apiece.  They didn't really pass the sniff test (smelled green and musty like straw, not sweet and fruity like melon, when I sniffed at the "belly button" where the stem detached) so I assumed they would be green and crunchy and hard with that slightly-bitter flavor that unripe supermarket melons usually have.  But for that basement price, I thought I might have the makings of a dehydrated-melon experiment.  The concentration of sweetness you get when you dehydrate any fruit should overwhelm (I reasoned) the basically underwhelming flavor and mild sweetness of picked-too-soon supermarket melon.  I guestimated that three melons would more than fill my five-tray Waring Pro dehydrator (a gift from my sweetie about a year ago, which I like because it has a fan-only setting and a fairly nuanced set of three ascending temperature settings) so three melons I duly bought.

Got them home, cut into them, and sure enough, too crunchy to eat with enjoyment.  But actually quite sweet.  OK, perfect for the experiment. 

Got out my dehydrator, washed the trays (because the last use was turning some unpleasant hot banana peppers from my sister's garden into functional hot pepper powder), and spent most of an hour cutting up crunchy muskmelons and carefully stacking the trays.  Turned the knob and ... no fan.  Dead.  No spin.  Uh, oh, that really sucks.

Aside:  The weather right now is perfect for solar dehydrating.  Have I built my solar dehydrator yet?  No.  It's an engineering challenge; it's got to be build like a fortress if it's going to repel dogs and racoons and possums, keep bugs out, and not blow away in the first thunderstorm.  It's on the list, but it's not gotten to the top of the list yet. 

What to do?  I put a fair bit of effort and a smidgeon of cash into buying and prepping these crunchy melons that aren't pleasing to eat in their current state.  It would suck to compost them!

My first notion was to fix the dehydrator.  The last time I used it (to dry the peppers) things were so humid I had to use a heated setting, and that was putting too much capsaicin into my breathing air, so I moved the dehydrator out onto my porch.  It was nearly a 100-degree day and I forgot to turn it back down to fan only, so it got really hot, dehydrated the peppers in record time, and slightly melted (just enough to warp them visibly, not enough to impair their function) a few of the thin plastic filaments comprising the bottom-most of the plastic racks that came with the Waring.  My hope now was that the unit getting so hot also fried the lube out of the electric motor in the middle and siezed it up.  So I took out a bunch of screws, got the unit apart, and evaluated the fan.  Nope, not siezed up, spinning freely, no lube needed.  Must be genuinely burned out.  Worse luck, it's wired with some chintzy crimp-on connectors and no spare length of wire, so it would need an electrical artisan with skill exceeding my own to swap in a replacement motor even if I could get one off of Ebay or Amazon before my melon bits turned to mold.  No quick fixes; this unit is officially defunct.  Bah.  

I repeat, what to do with my soon-to-be-mouldering melon slices?

And then I remembered: about a month ago, I found a $5.00 dehydrator at an estate sale, apparently new in dirty box with all papers and plastic wraps intact.  It was a genuine finest kind vintage-1993 As-Seen-On-TV™ Ronco™ #1876 5-tray electric "Food Dehydrator™ and yogurt maker Beef Jerky Machine™".  I bought it with low expectations, but the price was right and having a spare dehydrator for dehydrating emergencies seemed prudent.  And what was this, if not a dehydrating emergency?

So I went outside and dug it out of the storage midden where I keep my garage sale treasures. 



Reader, I was not impressed when I opened the box.  It turns out that this Ronco dehydrator is utterly fanless; it operates by convection, using just a smidge of heat provided by a cheesy little heating element that looks a lot like one of those things you dip in your teacup to boil a single cup of tea.  On the bright side, the trays, though flimsy, have much wider spacing and allow for much better airflow than the defunct Waring.  The Waring is dead in the water without a fan; the Ronco, although it can't do my preferred no-heat forced-air dehydrating, at least looks like it ought to operate as designed. 

So I washed all the trays, transferred all my fruit (discovering in the process that the Ronco's five circular trays actually have more stacking area - by approximately 10% -  than the Waring) and plugged in the Ronco.  It is now emitting moist warm melon-scented air from its top vents, so I guess it may work.

So here's how today's experiment in frugality tallies up: I'm feeling a little foolish about buying $2.64 of crunchy melon, I'm feeling downright stupid at apparently having burned out my Waring Pro whilst making perhaps five tablespoons of unexceptional hot pepper powder, and I'm feeling just a tiny bit smug that my garage sale hoarding habit appears to have maybe saved the day.  I'll update this thread with an edibility assessment of the dried melon when it's done.
 
Dan Boone
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OMG, such a perfect trifecta of failure have I engineered for myself!

After 24 hours, some pieces of melon in the Ronco dehydrator appear about half dried.  But:

1) My house began to fill with a strong smell of fermented melon (not particularly pleasant, but distinctively beery);
2) Upon inspection, some pieces of melon, the "most dry" but still only about half dried, were showing mold spots and spreading filimentous fiber networks;
3) Other pieces of melon, hard and crunchy yesterday, were turning into soft, almost liquid, goo.

It appears that conditions inside the Ronco were so perfectly conducive to spoilage that yeasts, molds, and bacteria all attacked simultaneously.

My "Ronco to the rescue" title was intended to be at least a little bit ironic.  So much more ironic than I knew!

Game over, man.
 
Dan Boone
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Friends, I threw that Ronco hot-convection piece of crap away with extreme prejudice, but I did save the trays.  Which turned out well, because a "better" Ronco base turned up at another garage sale for a buck, if by "better" you mean this one had both a fan and a heating element. 

Since that time I have become quite a snob about garage-sale electric dehydrators.  I never pay more than five bucks for them, and for my own use I won't buy one that doesn't offer fine-grained controls -- at the least, a fan-only option and a low-heat option.  I keep two such in my active collection (they do seem to fail fairly often) and often a spare.  Surplus units I give away, including ones that don't meet my standards.  (Any electric dehydrator seems stupidly expensive to buy new!) 

I would still like to build a nice big solar dehydrator, but it's lower on the priority list than fowl management structures and hoard-storage infrastructure.
 
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I love that you have a "storage midden."

I dehydrated a whole machine full of onion for soup stock one time.  I got used to the onion smell in the house and forgot all about it.  Next day at work, I was opening windows, moving fans around, trying to get rid of the awful smell in the building.  I had the early start time and when my co-worker came in a couple hours later, he immediately sniffed the air, "Smelly client?"  Finally, half-way through the day I suspected the smell might be me.  A sleeve in the face of my co-worker confirmed.  Be careful what you dehydrate.
 
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Old thread, but I wanted to throw in my 2 cents. If that had been my dehydrators crashing (and it has, I dehydrate a lot) and I had anything other than rain going, I'd have taken those trays, as is, outside and put them on something like an oven rack held up by bricks (for air flow,) not stacked, just laid out flat. Toss a sheet over them to keep flies off, and it's better than zero. They'll dry, and you won't lose your produce. Pearl's half assed emergency solar dehydrator (TM.)

I did something similar over the winter when I had problems, only I did it in the house, and put a small heater by it, and a fan. It worked, slower than the dehydrators I had running (I got 100 pounds of button mushrooms for $30.00!!) but it worked. Plus the house was warmer and mushroom scented ;)
 
Dan Boone
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Jan White wrote:I love that you have a "storage midden."



I am desperately short of storage.  I have an ambition to build a sort of sheltered pole barn, but in the meanwhile, I've got a defunct van flanked by pallets upon which there's an assortment of more-or-less weather-resistant containers.  Items not requiring weather protection are scattered around this core in a sort of debris field that looks a bit like a crashed airliner...
 
Dan Boone
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Pearl Sutton wrote:Old thread, but I wanted to throw in my 2 cents. If that had been my dehydrators crashing (and it has, I dehydrate a lot) and I had anything other than rain going, I'd have taken those trays, as is, outside and put them on something like an oven rack held up by bricks (for air flow,) not stacked, just laid out flat. Toss a sheet over them to keep flies off, and it's better than zero. They'll dry, and you won't lose your produce. Pearl's half assed emergency solar dehydrator (TM.)

I did something similar over the winter when I had problems, only I did it in the house, and put a small heater by it, and a fan. It worked, slower than the dehydrators I had running (I got 100 pounds of button mushrooms for $30.00!!) but it worked. Plus the house was warmer and mushroom scented ;)



My mind might have turned in that direction if I had not been merrily misdirected by the mirage of a brand-new-in-box backup dehydrator.  It was, after all, plenty hot and sunny outside.

But upon further reflection... I wonder what "outside" looks like at your house?  Do you perhaps have some clean-ish hard surfaces?  Concrete, asphalt, well-washed gravel driveway, even good hard bare dirt somewhere?

Because I don't really.  We've got a brick house and a few outbuildings that sort of sprout from the sod, with one overgrown gravel driveway.  Mowing is minimal and mostly for fire protection.  Pretty much anywhere I would put and cover the trays to keep flying insects away, they would still have bugs coming up from vegetation below.  I'd have to have engineered some sort of sealed fabric cube that would pass air but not gnats or ants

I'm not saying I couldn't have done it, just speculating in the rear view mirror about why my brain maybe didn't think of that.

(Speaking of rear view mirrors, I have indeed seen some people on here talk of using vehicle interiors as makeshift solar dehydrators.  I think some sort of rapid air exchange would be needed to avoid it becoming a solar oven, but that might have worked too.) 

Inside, I have the problem of dogs and dog hair.  We have a lot of dogs, and despite a perpetual cleaning process, dog hair gets pretty much everywhere.  The counters are up high enough to be fine but are not very large, but trays arrayed on floors or low surfaces would not be practical.  So I would have still have had to engineer a dog-resistant cube somewhere that would prevent dog hair from floating in and deter dogs from investigating with snouts.

Nothing unsolvable, but tricky.
 
Pearl Sutton
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Dan Boone wrote:  I'd have to have engineered some sort of sealed fabric cube that would pass air but not gnats or ants. 



It's surprising how well sheets work for that. Laying most things out on the sheet is not a good idea (think fruit imbedded in it) but with trays, as an expedient, it works. Lay sheet on rack, add trays, pull the other half over. If your other choice is losing food you want, it's better than zero.

Dog noses, you are on your own there :)

And isn't it weird how we trust the tech first? Wonder why we tend to do that?
:)
 
Dan Boone
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Pearl Sutton wrote:It's surprising how well sheets work for that. Laying most things out on the sheet is not a good idea (think fruit imbedded in it) but with trays, as an expedient, it works. Lay sheet on rack, add trays, pull the other half over.



Yeah, I can see how that would work.  But like you say, I leaped instead for the "as seen on TV" tech, with calamitous results.
 
Anderson gave himself the promotion. So I gave myself this tiny ad:
Solar Dehydrator Plans - Combo Package download
https://permies.com/t/solar-dehydrator
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