Choosing the Best Food Dehydrator

Choosing the Best Food Dehydrator
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One of the most common questions I see is "Which food dehydrator should I buy?" First, let me answer by giving some specific advice, then I'll offer you my personal opinion, too.

Choosing Solar or Other Methods

Before I get into selecting an electric food dehydrator, I recommend you consider two other methods of drying food at home. One is solar dehydration - the original way to dry food. This simple method can work great if you live in a dry climate, or if you're only drying food during warm, dry periods of the year.

The plus side to solar dehydration is that it requires nothing except food and a clean surface. My dad used to talk about how his Grandma (who, in the 1940s and 50s, was still wearing long dresses and making lye soap) cut up thick pieces of apples and dried them on a bed sheet out in the sun. It really can be that simple! Or you can purchase baskets to hang in a sunny spot, or you can build a solar dehydrating "machine."

The downside to solar dehydration is that it just doesn't work in a humid or damp environment.

Another option is to use your oven. The end result won't be as high in quality as if you used a good electric food dehydrator, but if you're just starting out and aren't sure if you will like home dehydrated food, or if you just have small quantities to dry, it's worth trying. To make this method work best, turn your oven to its lowest setting, keep the door ajar, and place your food on a wire cooling rack on top of a rimmed baking sheet. If your oven has a warming drawer, this is an even better option. Click here for more details on that method.

dehydrating rose hips
Dehydrating rose hips.

Choosing an Electric Food Dehydrator

If you want to dry a lot of high-quality food, an electric dehydrator is your best bet. The following are must-have features:

* An adjustable thermostat that goes from 95 to 160 degrees F. This feature will produce higher quality food than a dehydrator without a thermostat. The lowest setting is for herbs, and the highest is for jerky - but even if you don't see yourself drying herbs or jerky, pick a dehydrator with these temps; it shows the manufacturer is interested in quality.

* An enclosed heating element that's on top of the unit. Heating elements that are on the bottom get sticky from food drip and are therefore more likely to stop working. The heating element should have a fan or blower.

* Double wall construction. This makes the dehydrator more efficient and cuts down on drying time.

* A UL seal of approval. Again, this is a sign of safety and quality.

The Best Food Dehydrator

If I had an unlimited budget and could buy any food dehydrator I wanted, I would still buy the Nesco brand I have today. This is because:

* I can add or subtract trays. If I only have a little bit of food, I can run the machine with just a few trays, making the process more efficient. If I have a lot of food, I can add additional trays.

* They are workhorses! I've been dehydrating for about 14 years, and my Nesco American Harvests run from spring until late fall, nearly non-stop. They haven't broken down yet. (The new American Harvest model is a bit different from what I have. The Snackmaster Express appears to be most like my older American Harvests.)

* I don't mind paying more for something that works better, but in my opinion, the more expensive brands do not work better than my Nescos.

Some people are put off by the idea of rotating trays, which is what you'll need to do with any brand that allows you to add or subtract trays. To me, it's no big deal. In the morning, I rotate the trays. If the food isn't done by bedtime, I do it again at that time. Nescos work extremely well and I see no reason to buy an expensive Excalibur or Cabella's machine to take their place.

Dehydrating ground beef jerky.

Add Ons

Over time, I purchased more trays for my Nescos, to increase their capacity. I also have fruit leather liners, which are useful for making fruit roll ups, drying smaller items (like blueberries), or for liquids.

Sometimes you can also buy smaller mesh liners for trays, designed to hold items like small herb leaves. Instead, I just dry herbs while they are still on the whole stem, then strip the leaves off once they are dry.

If you're just starting out and you don't want to buy either of these add-ons, a simple solution for things that want to fall through the trays is to use parchment paper. If your dehydrator has a hole in the center, this is for proper air flow; be sure to cut the parchment paper so it doesn't block that center hole.

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