Best Food Dehydrators of 2018
A food dehydrator allows you to dry a wide range of foods, and it can save you money. Our shopping guide is here to help you find the best food dehydrator for your family's snacking preferences.
DIY Jerky: Your Guide to the Best Food Dehydrators
With a food dehydrator, you can make beef or turkey jerky at home and so much more. Perhaps your kids love fruit roll-ups as a snack, but you want to avoid added sugar or preservatives. Or maybe you have a vegetable garden with an overabundance of produce.
Not only does a food dehydrator allow you to dry a wide range of foods, including meat, fruit, and vegetables, it can save you money, too. Choosing a food dehydrator, however, can be a challenge. With so many models available, how do you find the right food dehydrator for your kitchen?
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How Do Food Dehydrators Work?
Dehydration is simply the process of removing moisture from food. People have been dehydrating food for almost as long as there have been humans; there is evidence that food was set out to dry in the hot sun of the Middle East as far back as 14,000 years ago.
Modern technology has made dehydrating food quicker, easier, and more sanitary with food dehydrators. Electric food dehydrators have a heater, usually set between 95°F and 150°F depending on the food being dried, and a fan that blows the hot air across multiple trays of food. The food dehydrator's ventilation system blows out the moisture and circulates dry air, speeding up the drying process.
Snack Time: Tasty Reasons to Buy a Food Dehydrator
So why would you want a food dehydrator? What benefits does yet another appliance in your kitchen provide? Quite a few, actually.
- By using a food dehydrator, you cut down on spoiled, wasted food. Dried food lasts much longer than fresh food, often up to a year or longer if stored properly.
- You can dehydrate organic fruits and vegetables while they are in season, keeping them handy all year round.
- Few nutrients are lost during dehydration. Dried food retains more of its nutritional value than most canned and many cooked foods.
- As moisture is removed, the flavor of food is concentrated, producing extra-sweet, delicious fruit for snacks.
- Drying your own food is much less expensive than buying dried fruit or jerky.
- You can reap the savings of bulk purchases by using some food fresh and drying the rest.
- Dehydrating food adds interest and variety to a raw food diet.
- With a food dehydrator, you know exactly what is in your food, and you can avoid added sugar, preservatives, colors, or flavors.
Which Is Better? Stackable vs. Shelf Food Dehydrators
When shopping for an electric food dehydrator, there are two basic options to consider: stackable food dehydrators or shelf food dehydrators.
Stackable Food Dehydrators
Stackable food dehydrators, also called vertical flow food dehydrators, are generally smaller and less expensive than shelf food dehydrators. However, they aren't as efficient at drying meat, and you'll need to switch the trays around during the drying process to achieve uniform results. Also, many stackable food dehydrators have round trays with a hole in the center, which cuts down on usable shelf space and makes it difficult to dry larger pieces of food.
On the plus side, stackable food dehydrators normally allow you to add or take away shelves as needed. This is very convenient if you have a wide range of foods to dry, want to stagger your drying times, or like drying a small amount of food at a time. There is some mixing of flavors in vertical airflow food dehydrators, which may be a positive or negative depending on your personal preferences.
Stackable food dehydrators either have the heat source on the top or the bottom. Most have fans to circulate the warm air, but not all stackable food dehydrators have this feature.
- Top Heater: In a stackable food dehydrator with a top heater, the top tray of food tends to dry more quickly than the rest, and there is more mixing of flavors as the air travels down through the trays. These food dehydrators tend to have less even heating throughout the unit.
- Bottom Heater: Stackable food dehydrators with bottom heaters provide good heat distribution as the warm air naturally rises up through the trays, but the bottom tray tends to dry faster than the rest. Liquid can drip onto the fan when it's in the bottom of the food dehydrator, making a mess for you to clean.
You'll find stackable food dehydrators for as little as $30, but for dependable performance, desirable features, and more shelves, the $40 to $60 range is the sweet spot.
Shelf Food Dehydrators
Shelf food dehydrators, also called horizontal food dehydrators, are usually square or rectangular and take up more counter space than stackable units. Because of their size and configuration, it's easier to fit large or irregular pieces of food on the shelves of these food dehydrators.
In shelf food dehydrators, the heat source is in the back of the unit, along with a fan that blows the warm air evenly across the food trays. This means flavors do not mix and there is even heat throughout the food dehydrator, so you won't have to switch the trays around during the drying process for uniform results.
Most shelf food dehydrators have slide-out shelves, which make it easy to check on the progress. However, you cannot add more shelves the way you can with a stackable food dehydrator. This limits the amount or variety of food you can dry in one session.
The simplest shelf food dehydrators cost around $100 and are sufficient for most people's needs. However, if you want a very large unit, more desirable features, or a high-end shelf food dehydrator, you'll need to spend $200 or more.
Other Features to Consider When Buying a Food Dehydrator
- Size: Food dehydrators are available in a range of sizes. Small food dehydrators have less than four trays, medium food dehydrators have four to six trays (this is the most popular size for home use), and large food dehydrators expand to 10 or more trays.
- Power: Food dehydrators generally use between 300 and 1,000 watts of power, with larger units at the higher end of that range. Fans are typically between 4 and 7 inches in diameter. The bigger the fan, the more efficiently it will circulate warm air over food.
- Temperature Control: Being able to set a food dehydrator's temperature is a big plus. Meats require higher temperatures than fruits and vegetables, and you want to be able to tailor your settings for the quickest results.
- Timer: A timer reminds you to check on your food during the drying process. It's easy to forget you have a food dehydrator running, and over-drying will result in rock-hard food.
- Auto Shut-Off: Once the time is up, the food dehydrator automatically shuts itself off.
- Noise: Because of the fan and the exhaust, food dehydrators can be noisy. If that's a concern, look for a food dehydrator that claims silent performance.
Making Jerky in a Food Dehydrator
- Put meat in the freezer until it is firm but not frozen. This will make it easier to slice. Keep in mind that meat shrinks considerably during the drying process. A pound of raw meat will leave you with approximately one-fourth to one-third of a pound of jerky.
- Slice meat thin, between one-eighth and one-fourth of an inch thick. For chewy jerky, slice with the grain. For brittle jerky, slice against the grain. Cut away all visible fat.
- If desired, marinate the meat slices in the refrigerator for 8 to 24 hours.
- Pat the meat dry with paper towels.
- Place meat slices in single layers on the food dehydrator's shelves, and set the temperature on the highest setting, which is generally 150°F to 160°F.
- Depending on the food dehydrator, the moisture level of the meat, and the air humidity, it can take anywhere from 6 hours to 12 or more hours for the jerky to dry. Check frequently during the process, and remove your jerky when it reaches the consistency you desire. Cooked jerky should be a rich brown with no pink.
- Store in airtight bags or canisters. You can keep your jerky in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. Homemade jerky without added preservatives and nitrates won't last as long as the store-bought version.
Q. What types of food can I dry in a food dehydrator?
A. There's lots of variety when it comes to dehydrating food. Just about all meat works well, including beef, poultry, thick cuts of fish, and game. Potatoes, onions, and carrots are good vegetables to dry, and apples, bananas, pears, tomatoes, and grapes are tasty fruit options. You can also dry fresh herbs.
Q. Does the drying process in a food dehydrator change the food's taste?
A. Generally, dehydrating concentrates a food's flavor, giving you sweeter fruit, stronger meat, and more flavorful vegetables. Still, the flavor will not change drastically from the food's original taste.
Q. Does dehydrating food change its nutritional value?
A. Not for the most part, although some vitamins, in particular vitamin C, can be destroyed by the heating process in a food dehydrator. Drying does concentrate calories, as dried food is denser than fresh food. This means that a cup of dried fruit will have more calories than a cup of the same fresh fruit.