What is Desiccation?


(a) The addition of a solute creates a hypertonic environment, drawing water out of cells. (b) Some foods can be dried directly, like raisins and jerky. Other foods are dried with the addition of salt, as in the case of salted fish, or sugar, as in the case of jam. (credit a: modification of work by “Bruce Blaus”/Wikimedia Commons; credit raisins: modification of work by Christian Schnettelker; credit jerky: modification of work by Larry Jacobsen; credit salted fish: modification of work by “The Photographer”/Wikimedia Commons; credit jam: modification of work by Kim Becker)

OpenStax Microbiology

Drying, also known as desiccation or dehydration, is a method that has been used for millennia to preserve foods such as raisins, prunes, and jerky. It works because all cells, including microbes, require water for their metabolism and survival. Although drying controls microbial growth, it might not kill all microbes or their endospores, which may start to regrow when conditions are more favorable and water content is restored.

In some cases, foods are dried in the sun, relying on evaporation to achieve desiccation. Freeze-drying, or lyophilization, is another method of dessication in which an item is rapidly frozen (“snap-frozen”) and placed under vacuum so that water is lost by sublimation. Lyophilization combines both exposure to cold temperatures and desiccation, making it quite effective for controlling microbial growth. In addition, lyophilization causes less damage to an item than conventional desiccation and better preserves the item’s original qualities. Lyophilized items may be stored at room temperature if packaged appropriately to prevent moisture acquisition. Lyophilization is used for preservation in the food industry and is also used in the laboratory for the long-term storage and transportation of microbial cultures.

The water content of foods and materials, called the water activity, can be lowered without physical drying by the addition of solutes such as salts or sugars. At very high concentrations of salts or sugars, the amount of available water in microbial cells is reduced dramatically because water will be drawn from an area of low solute concentration (inside the cell) to an area of high solute concentration (outside the cell). Many microorganisms do not survive these conditions of high osmotic pressure. Honey, for example, is 80% sucrose, an environment in which very few microorganisms are capable of growing, thereby eliminating the need for refrigeration. Salted meats and fish, like ham and cod, respectively, were critically important foods before the age of refrigeration. Fruits were preserved by adding sugar, making jams and jellies. However, certain microbes, such as molds and yeasts, tend to be more tolerant of desiccation and high osmotic pressures, and, thus, may still contaminate these types of foods.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology


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