Home Freeze Drying – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Home freeze drying - All the information (including the messy bits) you need to decide if a home freeze fryer is right for your food preservation needs.

I’ve been curious about home freeze drying ever since a did an interview with Dr. Prepper back in 2015. The doc raved about his home freeze dryer. He loved the quality of the food, how much money it saved him, and what a great addition it was to his preps.

Fast forward to earlier this year. Harvest Right home freeze dryers contacted me to do a review of their product. I could purchase it at a discount, as long as I did a review. My other option was to get it for free, if I committed to a series of endorsements. (I know other bloggers who have chosen the second option.) Being the stubborn individual that I am, I didn’t want to commit to selling you something that was such a big investment without thoroughly testing it myself.

Those of you who follow me on Instagram know that I’ve freeze dried plenty of fruits and veggies, but I also tried some more interesting items like sausage patties an fajita filling. There are many foods I still want to try, but I feel that I’m now comfortable enough with the machine that I can give you an experienced review. We’ll do a quick overview of how home freeze drying works, followed up with specifics on the Harvest Right freeze dryer.

What is Home Freeze Drying AKA Lyophilization?

Here’s the official definition of freeze drying from the FDA:

Lyophilization or freeze drying is a process in which water is removed from a product after it is frozen and placed under a vacuum, allowing the ice to change directly from solid to vapor without passing through a liquid phase. The process consists of three separate, unique, and interdependent processes; freezing, primary drying (sublimation), and secondary drying (desorption).

So, how do we do that at home? First, you get a heavy duty freezer (the Harvest Right unit drops to at least -30°F (-34°C)). Second, you pair this up with a completely airtight chamber that can hold a vacuum (no oxygen) every single time you use it. Third, you tie in a high end vacuum pump strong enough to suck the stripes off a zebra. Fourth, you add a heater and thermostat, so you can cycle the temps up and down, repeating the sublimation process for hours on end. Fifth, tie in a humidity sensor to make sure the water is out, triggering the cycle completion.

There’s a reason the big commercial freeze drying units are priced from $5000 to over $100,000 – the freeze drying process is significantly more complicated than other home food preservation options.

Harvest Right Home Freeze Dryer Basic Information

Here’s some basic information everyone should know before purchasing one of the Harvest Right freeze dryer units. Although they come in different colors, sizing is the same on all units. They do have a larger unit under development due to customer requests. No joke, some folks are in love with their freeze dryers and keep them running day and night, day in, day out. It may be an obsession, but at least it’s a useful one!

Freeze dryer dimensions: 30” Tall, 20” Wide, and 25” deep

Freeze dryer weight: Just over 100 pounds. Moving this unit is a two person job, unless you put it on a rolling cart, which many owners do.

Warranty length: 1 year Limited Warranty

How much does it cost? Around three thousand dollars. A little under for colors, a little over for stainless steel finish.

Power requirements: Standard 110 volt, but it’s best to have it on it’s own circuit if possible. If you try to pair it with another heavy load appliance, you’re likely to trip a breaker.

How much food can you freeze dry at one time? The unit can hold 6-10 pounds of food at one time, which dries to about 4 quarts volume (1 quart per tray), or 1.5 to 2 #10 cans.

Why can’t I stuff more food in, and stack those trays fuller? During the freeze drying process, ice builds up on the walls of the freeze drying chamber. Above 10 pounds of food, and the ice build up will get too thick for the unit to work properly.

What foods can you freeze dry? Fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy products, meals, desserts, and more. Freeze drying is safe for preserving cooked pasta and grains, unlike canning.

What foods can’t you freeze dry? Anything that’s mostly fat or mostly sugar. Fat won’t dry – but it can heat up and melt in the unit and coat every surface. (Yuck. More on this in a bit.) Sugar binds to water, trapping it in the food. This is great for inhibiting bacteria growth, but it means you can’t freeze dry jams and jellies that are mostly sugar. Fruit on its own and most desserts are just fine.

Can you mix foods in the freeze dryer? Yes, but watch placement. The website claims that flavors don’t mix, but we have found that they do. We ended up with freeze dried kiwis with a hint of green beans. Advice from the freeze drying groups suggests placing stronger flavored items on the upper shelves, milder items on the lower shelves.

How do I store the freeze dried food? (THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT!) Once the freeze dry cycle is complete, package the food in containers that moisture and oxygen proof, such as mylar, mason jars or cans. Adding an oxygen absorber is also recommended to ensure freshness.

How’s the customer service? Obviously, I was contacted directly by Harvest Right, so you would think I’ve had a good experience with them – and you would be correct. Paging through posts in the online groups that I’m in, my experience is not unique. Harvest Right seems to be one of those rare businesses that still strives to do right by their customers – answering questions, shipping replacement parts, offering no interest layaway and even accepting returns without a hassle.

Home freeze drying - All the information (including the messy bits) you need to decide if a home freeze fryer is right for your food preservation needs.

Things I Love About the Harvest Right Freeze Dryer – The Good

Hands down, my favorite thing about the Harvest Right freeze dryer is the quality of the food. The commercial freeze dried food I’ve tried has been okay, but our home freeze dried products are amazing. I mailed some to a friend recently as part of a gift exchange, and she wrote back, “Okay, Laurie, spill the beans on how you freeze dried the fruits. My kids are absolutely in love with them!”

The texture of freeze dried food is light and crisp – more like chips than jerky – even freeze dried meat. We freeze dried fajita meat strips, and they tasted like crunchy little meat flavored Cheetos. When we prepped some for dinner, all we did was add a little water to the pan with the food, cover and heat through. Dinner was ready in under 5 minutes. (If you happen to have a Sun Oven, they work very well for rehydrating freeze dried meals.)

The fruit is so good – absolutely, intensely fruity, light and crisp. You can also powder your freeze dried fruits and veggies and use them as natural food colors (and flavors).

Filling the unit is easy. For meals or other prepared food items, simply cook your food, let it cool, load it on the trays, load the unit and press Start. For fruits and veggies, I prep them as I would for freezing or dehydrating. Blanching is recommended for vegetables, especially for cabbage family crops like broccoli. Without blanching, they are likely to outgas during storage, potentially bursting the storage seal. If you want to freeze dry soup or liquids (like milk), you can do that, too. It helps if you make your soup a little less watery than normal to cut drying time, but you can freeze dry “as is”.

The shelf life of properly stored freeze dried foods is amazing. Low fat content foods like fruits, vegetables, lean meat, rice, noodles, ect. have a shelf life of 20+ years when packaged properly. Higher fat foods have a 10-15 year shelf life. When fat reacts with oxygen it can cause the food to spoil – hence the importance of proper packaging.

Why bother with food storage that lasts so long? Because life happens. One year I might have an amazing crop of a particular item, then crop failures for several years. If there’s a job loss or an emergency, with my freeze dried food I know we’ll have a stash of food we actually like to eat. I have another friend whose daughter has EoE (an allegic swallowing disorder) that found out freeze dried foods didn’t trigger her gag reflex. She was finally able to eat more of a variety of foods.

One member of an online forum said he was having his aging grandmother cook her favorite meals and then freeze drying them to share with the family after she was gone. What an amazing gift to be able to taste a loved one’s cooking one more time. Another couple was freeze drying some of their wedding cake and the bride’s bouquet. Still another took meal pouches to work and just added hot water to have a real meal while her co-workers were gnawing on granola bars as they worked through lunch. Get creative!

Things I Don’t Like About the Harvest Right Freeze Dryer – The Bad and The Ugly

Before you panic, I’d like to say up front that none of these things would be a deal breaker for me if I was thinking of buying a unit. As I mentioned earlier, the freeze dryer does a complicated job, so there’s a little more to it than just flipping a switch.

First up – it’s a big investment. If you know you’re only going to use it a couple times per year (or not at all), spend the money on an ATV, paying down debt or something else you know that you will use. If you want more food security and food preservation options, read on.

Second, the unit eats up a fair amount of real estate. This is not a toaster oven or blender. You need space. The freezing unit is about the size of a dorm fridge, plus it has a hose and vacuum pump. Many owners buy a rolling table from a hardware store to hold the unit. I currently have mine on a counter in the garage.

Third, it makes noise. During the first part of the cycle, the refrigeration unit is running. During the second part of the cycle, the vacuum pump is running. The noise isn’t super loud – think vacuum cleaner, not jackhammer – but it is noticeable. I’d highly recommend planning to have it in an area where the door can be closed.

Fourth, it requires maintenance. Think lawn mower, not kitchen mixer. If you regularly abuse your power tools and don’t do basic maintenance, don’t get a freeze dryer. I know many of my readers fix and maintain not only their own things, but other’s people’s equipment, too, so I’m not too concerned about this. At minimum, you should drain off some oil after each use to remove the water that gets in it from using the unit. Then top off with fresh oil. (This is covered in the instruction manual.) The pump also needs to be power flushed periodically, which my boys do for me.

Like many owners, we drain all the oil after each use, filter it, and refill the unit with clean oil. This ensures we get all the water and food particles out. I keep enough oil on hand that we can freeze the oil before filtering. After freezing, we pour the oil off the top of the container into the filter. The water (as ice) sits in the bottom of the container.

This is where we have run into “the ugly”. Getting the oil level in the pump exactly right has required a fair amount of trial and error. There’s a site glass on the front of the pump, but it’s not entirely accurate. It can read that it’s properly filled when the pump is off, but once the pump kicks on, the oil level increases (due to turbulence and/or trapped oil in the pump). This leads to a fine mist of oil spraying all over the place from the pump vent. The oil spraying also happens if the pump can’t pull a vacuum for some other reason. It’s a hot mess – literally. The pump overheats, and you have to push the button to reset, then it waits an hour before it cools down enough to try again.

We’ve never had a batch fail, but we have had several oil sprays and resets. I was advised by support at Harvest Right to put a sock over the vent to contain the spray. This helps, but it’s still messy. I’m sure other people would probably develop a system to refill just right faster than we did, but I can also tell that it’s not an uncommon problem from watching the forums.

Again, hanging out in the forums, folks share all sorts of different maintenance options. Some we use (like the oil filtering), others we haven’t tried. I anticipate many years of experimentation ahead.

Home freeze drying - All the information (including the messy bits) you need to decide if a home freeze fryer is right for your food preservation needs.

Is Home Freeze Drying Right for You?

Do you:

  • Want more options for long term, healthy food storage that your family will enjoy eating?
  • Have someone with allergies who needs safe food options?
  • Need ready made meals to go?
  • Try to store abundant produce for when harvests aren’t so good?
  • Get excited about trying new food options and preserving special memories?

If any of these sounds like a fit, take a closer look at freeze drying. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have. If I can’t answer them, I’ll find someone who can. If there’s enough interest, I may be able to get a special discount for Common Sense Homesteading readers. Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts!

I’ll continue posting what we’re drying on Instagram, and sharing addition posts to address questions show off the yumminess. If you choose to purchase a Harvest Right freeze dryer through my site, I receive an affiliate payment at no extra cost to you. (Thank you.)

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You can watch the video below to see how I freeze dry strawberries. (These are the berries that had my friend’s kids raving about them.)

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