For homemade jerky or fruit leather, a kitchen equipped with the best food dehydrator makes preserving food at home easy. These nifty appliances come in all shapes and sizes, but all work to dry food and preserve it by removing the moisture. To find the best dehydrator for you, consider the size of your kitchen and about how much food you want to preserve at a time.
Two major categories divide dehydrators: those with vertical airflow versus those with horizontal airflow. Dehydrators with vertical airflow tend to be more compact and budget-friendly, though they can be expanded with additional trays. But, if you have more space to work with and are dedicated to dehydrating food on the regular, you may prefer a machine with horizontal airflow, which tends to heat and dry more evenly, but will be larger and weigh more. In either style of dehydrator, food is placed on trays and the capacity among models varies.
If you're set on making jerky in a dehydrator, it may be worth investing in one with a higher temperature range. Meat destined for jerky needs to be heated to at least 160-degrees Fahrenheit (and to 165 degrees for poultry) before drying, so it's convenient to take that step in the dehydrator itself instead of the oven. A machine with more wattage (aka power) also means faster drying times, and for best results the minimum wattage you want is at least 500. Bonus features on a dehydrator may include a timer, automatic shutoff, inserts and extra trays, recipe booklets, and warranties.
Though it features a vertical, stackable style, this NESCO food dehydrator dries with the power of 1,000 watts and steady horizontal airflow. The Converga-Flow drying system forces air up and across the trays, converging in the center for fast, even, and nutritious drying. Wirecutter says it's the best food dehydrator, and it's highly-rated on Amazon for dehydrating fruits, vegetables, herbs, and jerky. The dehydrator comes with eight dishwasher-safe, BPA-free trays offering one square foot of drying area per tray, (though additional trays can be purchased to expand it up to 30 trays) and accessories: a fruit roll sheet, a “Clean-A-Screen,” a jerky seasoning sample, and a 52-page recipe and instruction booklet.
The temperature range is broad, from 90 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, but it wouldn't be high enough to prep poultry jerky.
Fans say: “The best for the money! I researched this before I bought it. I'd purchased an Excalibur before and while it worked great it was not expandable. This one is perfect! A major pro is that not only does it come with 8 trays, but also 8 fruit leather trays, and 8 of the netted trays. That's an amazing deal! It makes no more noise than any of the others and doesn't throw off any more heat than the others either. It also has larger size trays. It takes a lot of food to fill it up the whole unit. I highly recommend it!”
If you're going to be mostly using your dehydrator for jerky, this Excalibur dehydrator, with horizontal airflow and a 7-inch fan, is the one for you. With a temperature range of 105 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit and an adjustable thermostat, this 600-watt dehydrator also features Hyperwave Technology that provides safe, even drying—especially important when it comes to drying meat. Nine trays provide a total of 15 square feet of drying space, and it comes with flexible polyscreen tray inserts for dehydrating fruits, vegetables, meat (including poultry), and fish. It can also make bread and crackers crisp and soup mixes to be reconstituted later
Fans say: “Absolutely love the Excalibur 3900B. Easy clean up, works great, no rotating trays! It makes a bit of noise but [not] so much that it would annoying! Just made a 7 lbs Brisket into Beef jerky and only use 5 trays. 5 stars all day!"
NESCO's Snackmaster is a small but still mighty appliance for dehydrating fruits and vegetables. With four trays (expandable up to 12 trays) and a temperature range of up to 155-degrees Fahrenheit and 500 watts, it's no wonder Bon Appetit recommends this food dehydrator. The Converga-Flow drying system forces air up and across the trays for fast, even and nutritious drying. Accessories include a fruit roll sheet and two original-flavor jerky spice and cure packets.
However, it's worth noting that since this dehydrator doesn't get up to 160 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, it wouldn't be able to heat meat safely before the drying process, so you'd need to use an oven first.
Fans say: “I have had my dehydrator for almost two years. I use it heavily (3-4 times a week) during harvest season and about once a month during the rest of the year. I dry/cook a variety of items in my dehydrator. Granola bars, fruit leather, jerky, dried fruit and veggies. I love that I can adjust the temperature. [...]"
If you're well-versed in at-home food preservation and are ready to invest in the best commercial-grade food dehydrator, look no further than this deluxe model from STX International. With 16 square feet of drying space on 10 stainless steel trays, this powerful, 1,200-watt food dehydrator heats up to 165-degrees Fahrenheit with a horizontal airflow and rear-mounted fan. Regular users of dehydrators will appreciate the timer with 12-hour automatic shutoff, the only dehydrator on this list with that feature. It also comes with a digital control panel and a one-year warranty.
Fans say: “After researching food dehydrators, we chose the STX Dehydra 1200W-XLS. We liked the idea of 1200W and being able to dehydrate large [quantities] at once...with the 10 trays we were able to dehydrate all the ripe apricots at once. They turned out great! Clean up was very easy. We are looking forward to dehydrating other fruits and trying veggies, and of course jerky.”
This cookbook written by Sara Dickerman, a James Beard Award-winning food writer who also cooked at Chez Panisse, will take you and your food dehydrator far beyond entry-level jerky and fruit leather. Dried & True offers 80 recipes that include ways to incorporate dried foods into baking, cooking, and even cocktails. Think rose sugar, buffalo jerky with gin botanicals, and port wine grapes. It's highly-rated on Amazon, and reviewers love giving this book as a gift to someone who just got a dehydrator.
Fans say: “This book gives you plenty of ideas on what you can put in your food dehydrator. Unlike a lot of food dehydrator books, this one gives you recipes on what you can do with all of that dried food you’ll have after reading this book. I have been dehydrating foods for over 30 years. Anytime I find a new book on the subject, I’ll pick up a copy hoping it will give me some new ideas of things to try. This book did not disappoint. [...]”
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