How does a dehydrator work and what are the advantages of having one?
Although some things vary from model to model, there are a few key components to every dehydrator. They all rely on a fan, heating elements, vents, and food trays to get to the final result.
The heating element, fan, and vents all work together to circulate the right amount of air maintained at the right temperature over food that’s arranged on the trays. The combination of heat and air circulation releases moisture from the food which is then carried through the air by the fans and escapes from the vents. Any moisture that remains is typically collected in a drip tray at the bottom of the machine. Air moves either horizontally or horizontally, depending on where the fan is located.
There are a few different types of trays out there including plastic, mesh, and solid, non-stick trays. For jerky, mesh trays are best but any tray with vents will work. This ensures that the air circulates around the entire piece of meat, drying out the bottom as well as the top.
There are a lot of advantages to having a food dehydrator, especially if you have large quantities of food on hand. Hunters find them especially useful because they provide another way to preserve meat other than deep freezing. Gardeners find them useful, too, because it’s another way to enjoy the harvest and it’s a lot easier than canning.
Dehydration safety concerns
Believe it or not, dehydrating food is the oldest method of preservation and was something people all over the world could do long before the tools needed for canning and freezing were invented.
The science behind dehydrating is that, by removing the moisture, enzymes are no longer able to effectively react with food. These enzymes include bacteria and those that occur naturally to break down raw food. The reason that temperature is so important, especially with meat and poultry, is that bacteria must be destroyed before the food can be safely dehydrated. If not, it will continue to live in the dehydrated food and become more resistant. So, as long as the temperature in a dehydrator is hot enough to kill the bacteria before dehydrating, the process is completely safe.
Here are some other tips to make sure you’re being as safe as possible.
- Always practice good hand hygiene. Wash your hands with soap and water before and after touching any meat products, especially raw meat.
- Meat should be kept in the refrigerator when marinating. Don’t save leftover marinade.
- Defrost meat in the refrigerator, not on the counter or in the sink.
- The best way to make sure meat is being cooked to the right temperature before dehydrating is to steam or roast the meat until the internal temperature reaches 160°F, or 165°F for poultry.
- In order to make sure the meat stays safe throughout the hydrating process, the machine should be able to maintain a temperature of between 130 and 140°F for drying.
What makes a dehydrator perfect for jerky?
There are some specific things to look for to know whether or not a dehydrator is good for making jerky.
Dehydrator type and airflow
The main reason to consider the two different types of dehydrators is that each style uses a different directional airflow. Really any type of dehydrator will work to make jerky but choosing the best machine will make the whole process a lot easier.
There are two styles of dehydrators, box and shelf designs and stackable models. Box and shelf machines like the Excalibur 2900ECB resemble a small oven. There are multiple racks inside that are adjustable so you can use food that’s a variety of thicknesses without worrying about the racks being too close together. The racks are completely removable, too, so you can leave them out if you need more vertical space for something tall. These machines typically have a transparent door on the front so that you can look inside to monitor progress.
In a box and shelf style dehydrator, the fan and heating element are located in the back of the machine which means that the air flows horizontally over the various trays of food.
Horizontal airflow is a little better than vertical because it’s more uniform although you do have to make sure that the food in the front of the tray is getting the same amount of air as the food in the back that’s closest to the fan and heating element.
One of the best things about this style is that the trays are square in shape which makes it easy to take advantage of every last inch of space available. Depending on what you’re dehydrating, it can be difficult to maximize the space on a circular tray.
Stackable dehydrators like the NESCO FD-75A are a little different than the boxy style. They’re usually round in shape and the heating element and fan are located at the top or bottom. This means that these machines use vertical airflow.
The biggest perk to having a stackable design over a box and shelf one is that stackable models can be expanded simply by adding another tray to the top of the stack. If you have a large family or are planning to dehydrate a lot of different types of food, having the option to expand is very useful.
There are some slight downsides to each type of dehydrator but none of them are really detrimental. Obviously, box and shelf models have limited space inside and can’t be upgraded. They’re also a little more involved as far as setup goes because it takes a little more time to get the trays in place than just placing them on top of one another as you do with a stackable model. That said, stackable models have round trays which can make it a little more difficult to maximize the surface area. There’s also always a risk that adding more height to a machine with vertical air flow will affect how evenly the air is being spread around.
Capacity and dimensions
When it comes to the size of these machines, you have to consider two different things. First, how much space is it going to take up on your counter or in storage? And second, how much food will you actually be able to fit inside?
Some of these machines are pretty big. The smallest one we found in our research is the Presto 06301, a stackable model that’s 14.5 x 15 x 7.2 inches. The smallest box and shelf style in our reviews is the Ivation IV-FD60RB at 17.7 x 13.6 x 12.4 inches. Remember that these machines are going to have to sit out on your counter for long periods of time. Dehydrating food takes a while so this isn’t an appliance like a juicer or mixer that you’ll only use for an hour or so and then be done with.
Depending on the cut of meat, it can take up to 15 hours to make jerky so you’ll need a machine that comfortably fits somewhere on your countertop.
When it comes to capacity, you need to think about how much food you’ll actually be dehydrating. Some of the box and shelf models are pretty spacious. For example, the Excalibur 2900ECB has nine trays and a total of 15 square feet of space. That said, stackable models can always be expanded so if you’re not sure what you need, a stackable option might be a good place to start.
As we mentioned, the temperature range is very important, especially when it comes to jerky. It is absolutely necessary to cook meat to 160°F and poultry to 165°F in order to make safe jerky. Obviously, the dehydrator you choose should reach those temperatures at a minimum. It’s also a good idea to get one that goes even higher just to be on that safe side. If your machine has an unreliable thermostat, being able to set the temperature just a little higher can help you make sure that you’re being safe. That’s one reason why the top range of the products we chose goes anywhere from 158 to 167 F.
There are a lot of little things that don’t really determine how effective a dehydrator is but can definitely make them easier to use.
Adjustable thermostats are one of the most useful features to look for. Some of these machines only have a series of preset temperature settings to choose from that typically cover a range of 10 to 15 degrees or so. While these settings are definitely enough to get the job done, being able to choose a more exact temperature can come in really handy, especially when you’re making jerky and high temperatures are so important.
Timers are great, too. While it’s really easy to set a kitchen timer or use the one on your smartphone, having an integrated timer is super convenient. Some of these machines have timers that can be set for more than 19 hours at a time which covers just about anything you’ll be dehydrating.
Another thing to consider is automatic shutoff. Most of the machines with timers are also equipped with an automatic shut off and we really can’t overstate how much easier it makes the whole process. You don’t have to worry about scheduling an end time around your work schedule or getting up really early to make sure your food doesn’t get too dry. With an automatic shutoff, you really can set it and forget it.
Some of these machines come with different kinds of trays, including mesh and non-stick varieties. Mesh trays are great for making jerky and, if you’re planning to try fruit leather, a non-stick tray is essential.
Another thing to think about is cleanup. All of these machines have removable trays, but there are only a few that you can safely put in the dishwasher.
It’s always important to consider the warranty when you’re buying an appliance and these machines are all covered for one year with the exception of the Excalibur 2900ECB, our Editor’s Choice, which is covered for 5 years.
Keep in mind that warranties don’t cover everything that can go wrong. Make sure you read the fine print carefully so you know what to expect just in case something happens.
If you’re curious about making jerky but want to know a little more about what’s involved, here are some tips to make it as simple as possible.
- Start with a lean piece of meat. Fat limits the shelf life of jerky and changes the texture a bit so it’s best to trim off as much as you can during prep. If you’re buying meat from a butcher, the best cuts are flank steak, bottom round, or eye of round.
- In order to get good jerky, you have to cut the meat very thin which isn’t always easy to do. One trick to make it a little easier is to place the meat in the freezer for an hour or two. When it’s partially frozen, it will be much easier to hold onto and control. Use a very sharp knife to slice against the grain and aim for a cut 1/4 inches or thinner for best results.
- Choose or make your favorite marinade. It should be stronger than something you would use for grilling since some of the flavors will be lost in the dehydrating process. For best results, let the meat soak in the marinade overnight or even longer. Some experts recommend a maximum of 18 hours because the longer you let it sit, the more flavor your jerky will have.
- After you remove the meat from the marinade, soak up as much of the liquid as you can from the meat so that you’re not putting it into the machine with any unnecessary moisture. This will shorten the process a bit since you’re not adding in any extra moisture.
- The first few times you use your food dehydrator, it’s best to check on your jerky regularly. Toward the end of the dehydrating time, remove a piece of jerky to check for doneness. If it needs to cook longer, return it to the tray and recheck every 15 to 30 minutes until it’s done.
- Once you’ve been using your machine for a while, it’s not necessary to check the progress as often. If you have used it enough to know that it gives you consistent and reliable results, check on it less frequently and really take advantage of the automatic shut off if you have one.
- Although a lot of these machines specifically say that you don’t have to rotate the trays, this can be a simple fix if you notice that your food is dehydrating unevenly. For a box and shelf design, simply open the door and rotate each tray 180 degrees to make sure that the back of the trays, which is closest to the fan, isn’t overdrying.
- Properly done jerky should crack when you bend it. If it breaks, it’s overdone. That said, making jerky is a lot like cooking a steak. Everyone prefers something a little more or less well done. As long as the initial cooking was hot enough to kill bacteria, it’s all right if you prefer your jerky a little chewier.
- Let the jerky cool completely before you package it. When the jerky is still steaming hot, there’s still moisture coming off of it. If you bag it too early, this moisture collects in the bag or container and affects the quality of the jerky. You can also place it inside a paper bag for a day or so to let the moisture escape appropriately.
- Speaking of containers, how you store your finished jerky determines how long it will last. In a Ziploc bag, jerky lasts for about a week. In the fridge, it lasts about 2 weeks. If kept in an airtight container of vacuum sealed, it can last for as long as 2 or 3 months. You can also freeze it for up to 6 months although freezing it can alter the taste.
When it comes to price, there’s a definite distinction between the top and bottom of the range. Box and shield dehydrators cost significantly more than stackable machines. The biggest reason for this is that box and shelf models like the Magic Mill Commercial Pro Xl usually produce better quality results. This is due to the fact that horizontal air flow is slightly more effective than the vertical airflow you get with stackable machines.
Stackable dehydrators aren’t as reliable because they airflow isn’t as uniform. Inevitably, air traveling vertically will hit the top or bottom tray more intensely than trays in the middle. That said, it’s certainly possible to get good results with a stackable dehydrator, it just requires a little more diligence when it comes to preparation and monitoring the time and temperature.