What is Freeze Drying?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Freeze drying, which scientists might call lyophilization, uses both a vacuum and a freezing process to remove water from perishable foods and medicines. The result is a product that can be stored at room temperature for years without spoilage, or packed in limited storage spaces and reconstituted with water later. Makers of instant coffee often use a freeze drying process, as do dietitians creating meals for campers, soldiers and astronauts. This process is also used in the pharmaceutical industry to preserve the integrity of air or moisture-sensitive medicinal compounds.

The basic structure of fruits and vegetables will not change when freeze dried.
The basic structure of fruits and vegetables will not change when freeze dried.

Drying foods with heat for preservation is an ancient concept, but it has certain drawbacks. The water inside the food is in liquid form, but the heat of the sun or other source slowly converts it to a gas. As the liquid passes out of the food, the cell walls are often damaged and the essential flavor and texture of the food is lost. Adding water to foods dehydrated with heat does not always restore flavor or texture. This is why freeze drying has an advantage over heat dehydration in the preservation process.

Freeze drying is used to create meals for astronauts.
Freeze drying is used to create meals for astronauts.

Freeze drying first involves cooling the food or chemical compound, often far below the freezing point of water. At this point, all of the water contained inside the food should be frozen into solid crystals. The basic structure of the fruit, vegetable or meat has not changed, but the water content is in the solid state. Half of the process has been accomplished at this point through temperature reduction.

Freeze dried foods are popular among hikers.
Freeze dried foods are popular among hikers.

The drying process involves the use of a vacuum chamber. The frozen foods or chemicals are placed into the vacuum chamber, and the surrounding air is pumped out. If this process were performed at room temperature, the food would most likely be destroyed as the liquid water forced its way into the vacuum chamber. However, the frozen water crystals actually change from solid ice to a gas, bypassing the liquid state altogether.

This process is called sublimation. It's the same effect that causes solid dry ice to virtually disappear when struck with a hammer. During the freeze drying process, the solid water converts to a steamy gas in the vacuum chamber, leaving all of the solid food materials dehydrated.

Once the water has been removed through freeze drying, the dried foods or chemicals are often stored in vacuum-sealed packs to keep air and moisture from reaching them. These packs can be stored at room temperature, since bacteria and other harmful organisms cannot survive without air anyway. Freeze drying also leaves behind tiny pores where the frozen water crystals used to be. This is why instant coffee grounds mix so quickly and thoroughly with hot water. Freeze drying is also a popular process for creating 'space age' ice cream desserts and backpack-friendly meals for hikers and campers.

Many fruits can be freeze-dried into a crispy snack.
Many fruits can be freeze-dried into a crispy snack.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


During the freeze drying of coffee, what is the trend of microbiological loads in freeze drying process of coffee.


@James Pahl - it's dangerous to talk about "typical" anything in freeze drying. Anon 50828 is correct in that heat must be applied to the frozen product to counteract the effects of sublimation cooling. How much you can apply without risking collapse or damage will depending entirely on the specifics of your product, equipment, batch size, etc. However, most freeze dryer shelves have an upper heating limit of around +65'C to +70'C, so you could use this as a guide.


Canagra Technologies Inc. has the largest custom freeze drying facility in Western Canada.


who are the largest freeze dried manufacturers other than Kraft, Nestle, Folgers and now Starbucks? Thanks


Nobody ever talks about the heat portion of freeze drying. Once placed in the vacuum chamber it can be hit with as high as 135 degrees F of infrared heat for up to 72 hours.


The typical temp is minus 50 ºC and can vary from minus 42 to minus 52 ºC. This is valid for a stainless belt continuous coffee freezer. J Arcidiacono


During the freeze-drying process, what is the typical maximum temperature of the heat that is applied to the item being dried?

Thank you,

James Pahl

Oceanside, CA

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