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Freeze Drying vs Canning: What You Need to Know

Although you might be new to the concept of freeze-drying foods yourself, you’ve almost certainly encountered freeze-dried things before without knowing! A common use of freeze-drying is to preserve helpful biological elements in medicine, such as penicillin — so if you’ve ever had antibiotics then you’ve eaten freeze-dried things before. The medical applications are all very well and good, but most of us don’t actually manufacture penicillin at home (I think anyway…), so what are the benefits of using a freeze drier at home, and how does it compare to the much more familiar canning process?

Freeze drying is a method of preserving food by treating it quickly in a cold vacuum to remove water content. Canning uses liquids, salts, heat, and sugars to preserve foods in a jar (or can) safely. Canned goods can last up to several years, while freeze-dried goods can be stored up to 25 years.

Water, heat, and oxygen are the most critical components of food in terms of durability, as they allow bacteria to grow. So let’s do some comparison and contrasting of freeze-dried versus canned goods – and which is better. Spoiler – they’re both awesome. And they both have their places in any homesteader’s pantry. So let’s get into this.

Image of freeze dried tomatoes and asparagus on an old wooden board

Pros and Cons of Freeze Drying vs Canning

Now, like I said, both canned goods and freeze-dried goods have a valuable place in any homesteader’s food storage plans. So let’s do some talking about both so that you can see when it’s more appropriate to use one method over the other. But first, let’s do a quick review of the processes involved – I find that knowing the process helps me better understand the uses of each method.

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Or if you want the TLDR (too long, didn’t read), know that a freeze dryer is totally worth having. I recommend you get a Harvest Right freeze-dryer as part of your food storage plan.

Canning – a quick review of the process

With canned goods, you’re taking food, putting it in a jar (or a can), and prepping it for long-term storage. Now, there are different kinds of canning methods (fermented versus water bath versus pressure), and they all have their places.

  • For instance, some foods have to be canned using pressure.
  • Other foods can be canned in a regular water bath that will help to remove as much oxygen as possible while also sterilizing and sealing the jar.
  • Other foods can be canned using various fermentation processes, though they may need to be combined with either water bath or pressure sealing methods.

Now, canning does cook (or at least parboil) some of the foods. But that’s okay because canned foods are still very delicious. In fact, I’m totally enjoying some home-canned, home-grown peaches while I write this article. They’re pretty much the best thing ever.

Freeze-Drying – a quick review of the process

When you freeze dry something, it is placed in a freeze dryer on trays and then frozen in a vacuum. Using relatively heat is enough to sublimate (skip the water stage and go straight to gas) the ice crystals that form inside the foods.

Once the process is done, the food only has about 2% of its original water content, which is what helps to give it much longer shelf life, as well as making it much lighter. Because, hey. It’s lost 98% of its original water content.

If this process sounds a little complicated, that’s because it is, and for good reason! Freeze drying was originally invented in the late nineteenth century but became better known during World War 2 as a way to preserve biological entities (such as blood samples) to be able to travel.

Using a vacuum to freeze-dry things was a way to avoid conventional methods of preservation, which generally require the application of a lot of heat — which would destroy biologically sensitive material. Materials that had been freeze-dried could then be transported without a need for expensive and impractical refrigeration.

Anyway. Cool history lesson over. Let’s dive into the pros and cons.

Canned VS Freeze-dried: Pros of freeze-dried

In my opinion, freeze-drying is just chock-full of pros. Here are some of the top ones as compared to canning.

Pro #1: Freeze Dried Foods Taste Fresher

Freeze dried foods aren’t just practical. The way that they freeze super quickly means that water crystals form in large sizes. Large water crystals are exactly that — just pure water. These crystals don’t take in other elements, and thus all the oils, spices and other lovely flavours stay in your food just waiting to be reheated!

When you can foods, you first need to heat them at high temperatures, which can begin the process of the foods breaking down. Freeze drying avoids this completely, as the food never reaches those high temperatures. It’s almost exactly the same as it was before, just with the water removed.

While air drying also removes water from food, the significant advantage here is the lack of heat involved in the process, avoiding changing the structure of your food as much as possible!

Now, if you’re wanting the flavor of canned foods (applesauce and peaches being two of my favorite canned foods), then canned will win every time. The freeze-dryer can’t replicate those flavors, though it can be used to enhance the shelf-life of those foods after they’re prepped.

Pro #2: Freeze Dried Foods Have Better Texture

For the same reason, freeze drying your foods avoids the mushy textures you can get when something stays in water in a can too long (just think about the mushy canned peas…).

Again, if you’re going for that mushy texture, then canned wins. But if you generally dislike mushiness, then freeze-dried foods win.

That being said, not all vegetables freeze-dry well. Some, when reconstituted in water, become quite mushy. So you’ll want to use them in a stew. That being said, they’re still less mushy than if they were canned.

Pro #3: You can Freeze Dry Way More Foods

Whereas canning relies on you want to store foods that are easily put into jars or cans (which generally limits you to foods that can be boiled, too) you can freeze dry literally anything that has water in it.

It’s unimaginable to can ice cream, steaks, or eggs, but all of these things have been successfully freeze-dried!

In fact, astronauts on the International Space Station (who use freeze-dried foods as the light weight is perfect for being transported on rockets where weight limits are everything) have more than 100 different choices of freeze-dried meals.

Keep in mind that not every food can be freeze-dried. But I do have a list of 77 foods that can be freeze-dried, along with 17 foods that just can’t work in the freeze-dryer. I recommend you give it a read next.

Pro #4: Freeze Dried Foods Last Longer

The freeze-drying process removes much more water content than canning, which is a significant aid to preservation. In fact, most freeze-dried foods can last years pretty easily, depending on the sugar and fat content of the food.

However, the question of whether they always last longer is a little more complex! More on this later.

Pro #5: Freeze Drying is Simpler than Canning

Canning can be a whole bunch of effort to heat and prepare foods. With freeze-drying, you just put them on a tray, put them into the freeze-dryer, press a button, and then wait!

In other words, freeze-drying is generally easier than canning. That doesn’t mean it takes less time. In fact, it usually takes a whole lot more time – because each load takes anywhere from 24-72 hours, depending on the water content of what’s being processed.

Compare that to canning – where you can easily process a whole lot of produce in an afternoon. Or a ton of produce (not a literal ton – but a “whole lot” ton) in a full day’s work. In either case, you can process a lot more food in a day’s work of canning than your freeze-dryer can process in 2-3 days.

Pro #6: Freeze Dried Foods can be Stored More Easily

Freeze-dried foods can be stored in Mylar bags or packets easily, avoiding hefty aluminum cans or glass jars. Once foods are freeze dried, they’re also much lighter than before because of their significantly lower water content.

Because of this, freeze-dried foods are popular with people who need to be efficient with weight, such as the military, campers, backpackers, astronauts, and your average Joes preparing for the zombie apocalypse.

Pro #7: Freeze Drying can Deal with More Sensitive Materials

As mentioned before, freeze-drying is a much more sensitive process towards biological material. In the unlikely event that you need to preserve something of this nature, freeze-drying is the way to go! 

Pro #8: Tacos Can Be Freeze-Dried, but Not Canned

Look, I know that tacos aren’t a vital life-sustaining food to everyone. But they are to me. And let’s face it – I can’t can tacos. But I can freeze-dry them – either as separate ingredients for making them later or as already-assembled meals.

Just remember that fully-assembled, freeze-dried tacos won’t last as long as if you do the ingredients separately. And they don’t reconstitute as well – the tortilla tends to get a bit soggy. Mostly that’s because I’m impatient when tacos are for dinner.

image of my food storage mylar bags with freeze-dried peaches
Here’s a sneak peek at how I store food in mylar bags in our food storage. Freeze-dried peaches are amazing.

Canned VS Freeze-dried: Cons to freeze-dried

While freeze-drying is amazing, there are a few issues with it. So let’s dive into the cons of freeze-drying, especially when compared to canning.

Con #1: Setting up Freeze-Drying Equipment is Expensive

There’s, unfortunately, no way to get around the reality that setup costs of freeze-drying are expensive. A small freeze dryer (capable of handling 4-7 lbs of food per batch) will cost about $2000, while bigger home units can cost upwards of $5,000. That’s before you even consider commercial units and higher quality vacuum pumps, which can drive up costs massively as they are much more expensive.

Now, if you’re going to get a freeze dryer, I recommend that you get a Harvest Right Freeze-Dryer. They’re not only the only company that sells to families, they’re also hands-down the best price on a freeze-dryer unit. We’ve had ours for going on 4 years and it’s rock solid.

Ongoing costs are also inevitably much higher than those of canning, though they’re not as bad as you’d think.

Con #2: Freeze Drying (at least initially) is More Difficult to Set Up

Freeze drying isn’t just expensive, but also difficult to set up. When you buy your freeze-dryer, it may be an option just to get someone to install it, though we didn’t get that option.

You need to connect a vacuum pump, and by their nature, the dryers can be pretty hefty equipment, not the kind of thing you’d find in a small apartment! It’s going to need a countertop – and some space. Plus, it gets loud (and warm) when it’s on, so ideally it needs to be in a room where you can close the door.

Canning by contrast is easy, and can be done in almost any kitchen with a minimum of fuss.

Con #3: Freeze Dried Food Needs to be Reconstituted or even (Re)cooked

If you’re someone who’s considering these foods for the purpose of storing food to eat while adventuring, freeze-dried food can be at a slight disadvantage. While we’re all familiar with the cliche of adventurers slurping down canned peaches in disaster movies, freeze-dried food will need to be at least rehydrated. And you may still want to cook them, too.

Foods also are often best freeze-dried raw, so might need proper preparation rather than simply reheating as you would with canned goods.

Con #4: Freeze Drying Takes More Time

While the low temperatures involved in freeze-drying are advantageous for preserving foods, they’re a drawback when you consider how much time it takes to dry food. The whole process can take between 20 and 72 hours, so it’s much longer than canning.

As you have limited space in your freeze-dryer, this can be frustrating if you’re someone looking to prepare large amounts of food in short amounts of time, which you could easily do canning in a basic kitchen.

Still, the time is less frustrating when you realize that your actual time commitment is minimal, just popping trays in the drier and pressing a button. A little waiting seems a fair trade for freeze-dried food. And the work for freeze-drying is minimal compared to all the preparation of canning!

What Are The Costs of Freeze-Drying Compared to Canning?

It goes without saying that freeze-drying is a more expensive option than canning. Canning is an old process that needs very basic equipment (sometimes even as simple as just jars in its simplest form), while freeze drying requires some relatively high-tech equipment. It’s not just the cost of the dryer itself, but you’ll need to budget for electrical running costs and extra supplies, such as mylar bags for storing dried food.

Expect to spend somewhere between $3-5 for a load of food (if pre-frozen, estimating the time that is taken to be around 36 hours), plus the cost of the actual food that you’re drying! For a more thorough exploration of the costs of owning both a freeze dryer and its associated accessories, check out our handy guide here. It’ll walk you through all the costs associated with a freeze-dryer, using actual data we collected over several years.

Is a Freeze Dryer Worth it?

If you’re someone who enjoys storing your food, you’ll love owning a freeze dryer. Despite the costs and time required, the process stores much higher quality food than canning, and is a lighter, more efficient, and need we say cooler (pun intended) way to go about doing this.

If you’re someone who would have gone out to get shop-prepared freeze dried food, then investing in a freeze dryer is even more worth it. Home prepared freeze dried food will be much cheaper than anything you could find in a shop (most likely a military or nature store), not to mention that you’ll have an infinite choice of things to prepare compared to the limited options commercially available.

Which Lasts Longer in Storage: Freeze-Dried or Canned Food?

As mentioned above, in theory freeze dried food should last much longer than canned food due to its much lower water content (although it has to be said, canned foods can already last a long time). There are many reasons that this isn’t necessarily the case in practicality.

A key factor in storing foods in canned units is that it can protect the food from rodents and insects. Freeze dried foods are normally stored in bags, which definitely won’t be as effective in keeping these critters out! If you freeze dry food in an unmonitored environment like a shed or basement, consider putting it inside stronger containers to make sure your precious food supplies stay nice and safe.

Here’s how we store our foods. You’ll note that we do keep both canned and freeze-dried goods in our storage. And we keep the Mylar bags in a clear tote for safer storage from pests.

image of some of the freeze dried foods in our pantry including home canned peaches, jams, freeze dried foods in individually marked mylar bags inside tubs, and commercially purchased food storage in white boxes

Of course, another factor in why it might not last as long is that you’ll probably choose to eat your delicious freeze-dried foods first instead of the salty, mushy canned beans at the back of the store cupboard.

That being said, we’ve had our freeze-dryer for a few years now. So far, the food stays good for several years easily. Our friends who’ve been freeze-drying even longer than us have easily hit the 5-10 years mark with some foods – and it’s still 100% safe to eat.

Let’s compare that to the disaster that was trying to eat 15-year-old canned… I’m not sure what they were other than “purple goo.” But I’m amazed I didn’t get sick from trying it.

Is Freeze-Drying the Best Way to Preserve Food?

There are many different ways to preserve food, and in reality it may be that the best way to store foods depends on your circumstances. For sure freeze drying is a great way to store food if you’re looking to keep it tasty and lightweight — but if you’re after something at a basic price point that you just need to keep in your house then canning is also a solid option.

Many people getting into food preservation use a variety of ways to keep a store that’s balanced. Wet foods such as peaches or peas do well in cans; for more gourmet choices try air drying and freeze drying. Ultimately the methods you choose are up to you; as all these methods preserve food well, it’s about your choice in balancing all the factors such as taste, cost, time, and simplicity.

Safety When Freeze Drying Foods

Now, freeze-dried foods tend to store safely. This is true whether they’re evaluated on their own or compared to canned foods.

Is Freeze-Dried Food Safe?

There’s no reason why freeze dried food can’t be some of the safest stored food around. However, as with anything, you’ll need to make sure that before the food is dried it’s prepared and handled well.

If it’s stored with harmful bacteria, for example, the bacteria will likely be preserved along with your food. As long as you treat your food with care, freeze-dried food is completely safe.

Can you get Botulism From Freeze-Dried Foods?

No! In fact, freeze-drying is one of the best processes for preserving food, especially when compared to canning in this regard. The germ Clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism, cannot live in environments without water and oxygen, and the freeze drying process removes both.

This is a significant advantage over canning. Any food with a low pH level is susceptible to this germ, and although you cannot taste it, the consequences of botulism can be very serious or even deadly.

Key Takeaways on Canning Versus Freeze-Drying

In my experience, it’s totally worth it to do both canning and freeze-drying. Yes, it means more equipment. But it also means that your food storage has so much more potential. You’re not going to be limited to just a few things anymore. Instead, the sky’s the limit.

So not only will you be more prepared to enjoy your favorite foods during the zombie apocalypse, but you’ll also be able to build eating and rotating your food storage into your regular life – which means you’ll be able to live a healthier, happier, and richer life – and that you’ll want to do more gardening.

So if you’re just starting out and the budget is an issue, start by learning how to can. Then, as your budget and food storage ability grow, then you can expand into buying a freeze dryer, too. And what’s cool? Is that Harvest Right does do a layaway program so that you can lock in a sale price and pay off the freeze-dryer of your dreams over several payments. We did that when a sale came up – and we knew that the rest of our freeze-dryer money was coming in shortly. We aren’t fans of debt – but that sale was too good to pass up.

If you want to check Harvest Right for a sale, here’s their link again.

Resources

It’s important to learn from your own experience, but it’s also smart to learn from others. These are the sources used in this article and in our personal research to be more informed as homesteaders. 🙂

  • “Freeze-Drying of Foods.” Google Books, Google, books.google.com.au/books?hl=en&lr=&id=4N08AAAAYAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP4&dq=freeze%2Bdry%2Bvs%2Bcanning&ots=DjGz9H1G0K&sig=e8_HBnxJRzwwLXLK9FPWivFUiNg&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false.
  • Want more freeze-drying articles here on Backyard Homestead HQ? Click here to get all the articles on freeze-drying.

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