Choosing a Food Dehydrator

David Cavagnaro provides a guide to choosing a food dehydrator, including test results for four dehydrator models, the differences between stackable dehydrators and box-and-shelf dehydrators and dehydrator buying tips.
By David Cavagnaro
June/July 2003
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When choosing a food dehydrator you'll find they come in many shapes and sizes. (Left to right: L 'Equip Model 528, Nesco/American Harvest's Gardenmaster and Excalibur's Large Garden dehydrator.)
Photo by David Cavagnaro
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Dehydrating foods and making the most of the bounty.

Learn the pros and cons of four leading food dehydrators designed for drying fruits and vegetables before choosing a food dehydrator for the homestead.

When I lived in California, land of eternal sunshine, preserving food by drying was virtually effortless. Using big redwood trays salvaged from an old prune orchard and spread out on a huge barn roof in full sun, hundreds of pounds of peaches and pears were dried each summer. We also dipped and dried our own prunes and figs, made raisins from seedless grapes, and dried the walnut crop in the fall for winter storage. In the shade of a big fir tree, I dried and processed all our own herbs from the garden.

Life in the humid Midwest, where I now live, is another matter entirely. Even the thin leaves of basil start to mold on the drying trays unless I am extremely careful. I tried using the electric oven and, for wetter fare, the warming oven of the wood cookstove, but space limitations and the difficulty of controlling temperature stymied my efforts. Finally, the promised success of electric food dehydrators got the upper hand. I decided to find out just how well they worked.

Many different electric dehydrator models are available; I settled on four that best represent the various designs available: L'Equip's Model 528, Nesco/American Harvest's Gardenmaster, Excalibur's Large Garden and Living Foods' Jumbo dehydrator.

Home-food dehydrators fall into two categories: those with stackable trays, and those constructed of a rigid box with removable shelves. Size is a factor; most fit on a countertop, but larger models are free-standing and require more space. Some models have base-mounted fans that move hot air vertically; one has a rear-mounted fan for moving air horizontally; yet another uses convection drying, with no fan at all.

I put these four different models through their paces during the peak of the humid harvest season here in Iowa. Each dehydrator dried lots of herbs and vegetables with comparable ease, but the fleshy crops, like tomatoes and peaches, put the dehydrators to the ultimate test, determining their maximum capacity, efficiency and overall effectiveness.

Stackable Dehydrator Units Tested

L'Equip's Model 528, which has rectangular trays, and Nesco/American Harvest's models, with round trays, are plastic stackable units with base-mounted fans. The L'Equip has six trays, expandable to a stack of 20; two of the Nesco/American Harvest models have four trays, expandable to 12. Nesco's Gardenmaster, which is designed for less bulky harvests such as herbs or dried flowers, can accommodate up to 30 trays.

While these models may stack up to 30 inches tall, they have a small footprint and consume little counter space. They also provide the least expensive way to get started with food dehydrating, but they all share one big limitation: Uneven heat distribution in the stack means that the trays closest to the heat element and fan dry much faster than those at the top of the stack. Diligent tray rotation is critical, especially if very fleshy foods are being dried. And while perfectly suitable for drying fruits, vegetables, fruit leathers, herbs and jerky, these machines cannot readily be adapted for any of the other uses the box-and-shelf models can claim.

Box-and-Shelf Dehydrator Units Tested

I tested two rigid box designs with removable shelves that can be adapted for other warming or drying uses in addition to food dehydration: Excalibur's nine-tray large Garden model, with 15 square feet of drying space, and Living Foods' Jumbo model, with nine trays and 31 square feet of space.

Excalibur's dehydrator designs position the heat source and fan at the back of the shelves instead of beneath them. Hot air blowing across the shelves eliminates the bothersome need for tray rotation. And the Large Garden model is big enough, with some shelves removed, to allow other uses, such as leavening bread, culturing yogurt or drying bulky items.

Instead of using a fan, Living Foods' dehydrators rely on convection drying. Heat, generated by a heating element mounted at the base of the box, rises through the trays. Living Foods' founder Jen MacManiman says a benefit of convection drying is that it eliminates the possibility of contaminating foods with dirt that fans can suck into a dehydrator. However, placing the fan-powered dehydrator in a clean space remedies that potential problem.

Convection heating allows silent operation and less use of electricity but it also takes twice as long to dry bulky, moisture-laden foods like tomatoes and peaches. The longer the drying time (especially during periods of high humidity), the more the dried product's flavor and keeping quality are reduced.

Despite their slower drying time in humid conditions, Living Foods' dehydrators may be the most versatile on the market. Besides making yogurt and leavening bread, these dehydrators also can soften honey or butter, re-crisp crackers or popcorn, sprout seeds or hatch chicks. The company claims its machines have been used to dry not only fruits, vegetables and meats, but also flowers, paper mache crafts, fine lingerie, rain-soaked boots and gloves, pasta, freshly glued items, children's artwork, tie-dyed clothing and water-damaged books or papers.

As long as I avoided overloading the Living Foods' Jumbo with wet items during extremely humid conditions, I successfully produced an abundance of dried food. And the quiet, fan-free operation was an added bonus.

Choosing a Food Dehydrator: Tips Before You Buy

If you're considering drying specialty items, investigate which models can accommodate your needs. Stick-proof fruitleather sheets, tray screens, jerky spices or kits, and very good handbooks, including recipe books, are sold by most dehydrator dealers. Besides these accessories, Excalibur also sells a variety of peelers and slicers, and a 156-page, illustrated book, Preserve It Naturally II: The Complete Guide to Food Dehydrating, which contains many unique recipes. Living Foods markets a heavy-duty tray to support weightier jobs like yogurt-making; a grow box for starting seeds; a sprouting tube kit; and their food dehydrating handbook, Dry It — You'll Like It!

All of the dehydrators I tested have their appropriate applications, and all performed well under most conditions. Determine your needs, space limitations and budget before you buy. When it comes down to preserving food flavors and quickly drying fruits, vegetables and meats, especially when fully loaded and under humid conditions, the Excalibur Large Garden model won my highest praise. Its rear-mounted fan, in my experience, simply did the best job.

The Metropolis Beef Jerky Company of Chicago claims that the Excalibur far out paced other models for making jerky. Five machines with eight trays each produced 3 1/2 pounds of jerky in four hours, while the three Excalibur models tested produced 8 pounds in five hours, with a fraction of tray-cleaning time afterward. (Note: Making meat jerky is not as straightforward as drying fruits and vegetables. New, safer recipes for producing homemade jerky have been established following tests at Colorado State University that showed traditional methods may not destroy salmonella and E. coli bacteria in the meat.

Mechanical dehydration has restored the blessings of dried foods to my house. Jars of "un-sun" dried tomatoes and my very own Hungarian paprika now line my shelves, along with all sorts of dried fruits and other vegetables. Besides the satisfaction of having a full pantry, my family and I also benefit from the nutrition dehydrating preserves. And, calculating all the attendant costs, using a mechanical dehydrator costs half as much as canning and is almost seven times cheaper than freezing. Certainly, it's not as cheap as the sun, but, hey, we can't all live in California!


Need a Really Big Dehydrator?

If you need a very large-capacity dehydrator, check out the wood-fired chimney-convection model developed by an international research team and refined at the Aprovecho Research Center in Cottage Grove, Oregon. This 4-foot-by-10 foot dehydrator can dry up to 250 pounds of fruit at a time, and costs only a few hundred dollars to construct from sheet metal, insulation and a few other materials. For details, contact Aprovecho Research Center at www.aprovecho.org.


Highly recommended by the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors: The Solar Food Dryer book, by Eben Fodor. If you are thinking of building a solar food dryer, or you just want to learn the basics of how to preserve food by dehydrating, this is the best book available. Includes full details on how to build a very effective solar-powered dehydrator. Order now.


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Post a comment below.

 

Danielle Patterson
2/6/2014 8:52:41 AM
Great review, but these reviews on Amazon really helped my decision: http://amzn.to/N8jCjK - Got free 2 day shipping as well.

12/26/2013 7:18:03 AM
Nice article. I would also like to point out that the features are also an important aspect for looking at a dehydrator. There are important stuff to look at like timer, auto shut off, temperature control which are essential to use them conveniently. There are more such tips at www.dehydratormagic.com. Thanks

Deaglan
1/24/2011 10:22:19 PM
Peggy, I've been looking for quite awhile for a food dehydrator that has a built in temperature display and I found a new one that is manufactured by Tribest and it's called the Sedona food dehydrator. I ordered mine last week and just received it today, so I don't have much experience with it yet. It's about the same size as the 9 tray Excalibur and has digital displays on the front that show the time, temperature, etc... and you can set the timer up to 99 hours or it says you can select continuous operation. So far I'm happy with my purchase (even though I've only had it just a few hours! :) I got mine through discountjuicers.com (they seemed to have the lowest price that I could find) but it is available on a few other sites, too. Even at the sale price I got mine for, it still runs about $100 more than the Excalibur, but the time and temperature features and the fact that it has two fans instead of one (so you can just run one if you're only dehydrating a few trays worth of stuff) make it worth the extra $$ to me. Deaglan

Peggy M
9/29/2010 12:01:38 PM
My concern with all of the dehydrators on the market is the accuracy of their temperature settings. I have an Excalibur Parallexx ED-700(four-trays)whose dial settings do not produce the temp indicated. I use a digital probe thermometer twist-tied to the top rack to keep an eye on the ACTUAL temp. At a dial setting of 105 degrees, for example, the actual temp read closer to 120. Has anyone else encountered this problem? I would love to find a dehydrator with a built-in temperature display so that I can see the actual temperature without having to rig up my own method. Is there such a dehydrator on the market??

Kara Iribarren
9/2/2010 2:07:58 PM
I am wondering about plastic leeching in the dehydrators. I found excalibur's testimonials of its safety but was considering buying a cheaper NESCO. Anyone know about this issue?

Steve Thyng
11/6/2009 9:57:44 AM
I'm using the large garden 15 sq ft drying area 9 tray Excalibur model for the first time this year to dry lots of hybrid Argonaut winter squash. I peel and slice lots of it and fill up the trays, and when a batch is done I pull out bins from the refrigerator of squash slices and fill the trays up again and again. I take the dried slices and break them up in my Vita-mix blender to granule size, then pour them into clean dry plastic fruit juice bottles. Next year I hope to make watermelon/lemon juice/sugar fruit leather.

shanna
8/24/2009 3:05:48 PM
I have a magic chef stackable dehydrator that I've used for years. My mom bought it about 10 years ago when she decided that we were going to go on the raw foods diet. well, needless to say that didnt even last a month and I don't believe that she ever usd it again. I however, have used it to dry numerous fruits and jerkys and beans. It came with a cook book, I don't know where it is now. I just rotate the trays every few hours and pull off the ones that are done. I absolutly love my dehydrater.

Becka_1
8/20/2009 10:01:29 PM
To dehydrate potatoes I boil them until they are still firm, but cooked. Drain the hot water and plunge in cold water until cool, then drain. Then put the potatoes in the refrigerator overnight, slicing them in the morning then putting them on the dehydrator. I have done slices and small chunks and gotten along very well. If you are storing with a vacuum packer, the slices tend to break apart when vacuum-packed and need to be double bagged. Hope this helps. :)

Alex_17
8/14/2009 11:40:56 AM
The best place to do your price comparison is on Amazon. They have a wide selection, from Excaliburs to Nescos to more obscure ones. I found http://www.dehydratorbook.com to have some useful reviews to read in addition to the Amazon ones. For potatoes, how thin were they sliced? Potatoes have always been troublesome for me, so I don't usually dry them and just bake them instead. You definitely do need to blanch them, otherwise they'll turn dark brown. The electricity consumption is something like five cents an hour. Even running it for a day is cheaper than buying pre-packaged dry stuff. The fan doesn't need to be blasting the air; it just needs to move it around.

janet s
8/13/2009 8:31:07 PM
karen m; Have your potates dried yet? I have not started dehydrating yet, but how did you prep your potatoes? Dried ptatoes could be a real help to me, instead of buying store bought boxes of mixes. Thanks for any advise you can share.

Karen M_2
7/1/2009 10:16:09 AM
Mike, Your article at the end of your website was helpful. Perhaps I am overloading my new dehydrator. Do you think I should just put food on one half of the ten trays and see what happens?

Karen M_2
7/1/2009 10:08:57 AM
I purchased a VegeKiln and am trying it out for the first time. I placed blanched potatoes in the kiln, and turned it to the recommended temperature. It has been on for almost 24 hours and only about 1/3 of the potatoes are dried. I don't hear a very loud fan, although I do hear a slight wurring; I do see the heater element burning though. I am very worried about the electricity consumption and am concerned that it may not be working correctly. Does it take a long time to dry the items out, or should the fan be much faster? How much "wind" should be going through the dehydrator? HELP!

karen_2
8/21/2008 3:12:38 PM
I was wondering how these dehydrators compare in cost. I notice you didn't discuss this part of the decision-making process. Do you have any recommendations on where to buy the dehydrators for the best price? Thanks

mike_59
1/10/2008 12:10:56 PM
This is interesting stuff. I actually have my own food dehydrator shop at http://www.coffeewineandgifts.com/food-dehydrator.html NAd find this information very useful as some of it I have not yet even written about myself. Thanks for a good resource. AŁ 뗀5吠摩⁹潦⁲楗摮睯⁳瘨牥⁳猱⁴敆牢慵祲㈠〰⤳‬敳⁥睷⹷㍷漮杲








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