Picks

The Best Food Dehydrator

The Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster dries food the most quickly and evenly.

Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster Dehydrator
Photo: Michael Hession

After prepping 126 pounds of apple rings, crying through 15 pounds of onions, and pureeing 6 pounds of berries, and then spending 150 hours watching them shrink and shrivel inside 13 food dehydrators, we’re confident that the Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster Dehydrator is the best dehydrator for home use. Batch after batch, the FD-1018A Gardenmaster consistently dried food the most quickly and evenly of all the competition.

Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster Dehydrator

Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster Dehydrator

This expandable dehydrator dries food quickly and evenly, without your needing to monitor progress or rearrange trays.

The Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster Dehydrator was the best of all the dehydrators we tested at drying apples, beef jerky, onions, garlic, and fruit puree evenly. It also was the only dehydrator that didn’t require us to obsessively supervise or shuffle trays throughout the process. The eight-tray FD-1018A Gardenmaster has 8 square feet of usable drying area, and it’s expandable up to 30 trays. It comes with eight fine-mesh inserts that help keep small bits from falling through the cracks, and it’s the only dehydrator we found that includes plastic fruit-roll drying sheets for every tray. The FD-1018A Gardenmaster doesn’t have a timer or automatic shutoff, but we found that this feature isn’t all that useful, since you’ll probably want to check your food for doneness before turning off the machine. But if you think you need these features, consider our other pick, the Samson Silent 6-Tray Dehydrator.

Samson Silent Dehydrator 6-Tray with Digital Controls Timer

Samson Silent Dehydrator 6-Tray with Digital Controls Timer

This dehydrator features automatic shutoff and can easily accommodate larger items. But you need to shuffle the trays midway through drying.

In every test, the Samson Silent 6-Tray Dehydrator consistently placed second, behind the FD-1018A Gardenmaster, in terms of even drying. But aside from our top pick, it performed far better than the rest of the dehydrators we tested and required the least amount of tray reshuffling. This Samson dehydrator also has features the Nesco model lacks, such as a digital control panel, a timer, and automatic shutoff. And unlike our top pick, it allows you to easily remove trays to make room for projects that involve bigger items—like proofing bread, drying flowers, or making yogurt. But this 400-watt Samson dehydrator is bulkier and takes 25 percent longer to dehydrate food than the 1,000-watt FD-1018A Gardenmaster.

Why you should trust us

I’ve spent my entire career working in restaurant, catering, and test kitchens, racking up more than 45,000 hours of hands-on practical cooking experience. I know a thing or two about how food cooks, preserves, and, well, rots. Up until now, my home dehydrating canon was limited to the occasional batch of beef jerky, and as a kid I made my own raisins by stashing grapes on the windowsill (my mom wasn’t happy about that).

For this guide, I looked for the best resources on home food dehydration. I was floored by the dearth of reliable and detailed information published in books and on the Internet (in addition to the National Center for Home Food Preservation). That was until I stumbled across a series of instructional videos by University of Guelph associate professor Don Mercer, through the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), for South Sudanese women’s cooperatives. This led me to a book Mercer co-authored with Jennifer MacKenzie and Jay Nutt called The Dehydrator Bible. Of the six titles I purchased for this guide, I recommend The Dehydrator Bible above all.

I was so impressed by the science and the detailed information in that book that I interviewed both MacKenzie, who is also a professional home economist, and Mercer for this guide. I also talked to Matt Hartings, associate professor of chemistry at American University, about the general science of food dehydration.

Who should get this

dried foods
From top: dried apple rings, beef jerky, and fruit leather all made in our test kitchen.
Photo: Michael Hession

Even though a food dehydrator has many uses, this appliance isn’t for everyone. Drying your own food is time-consuming and laborious—imagine peeling and evenly slicing 5 pounds of apples, for example. But the end result can be rewarding, and there are still plenty of folks who would benefit from a good home dehydrator:

Serious gardeners

A great growing season will yield an embarrassment of riches at harvest time. Instead of frantically unloading a glut of produce onto your family and friends, you can dehydrate that dirt candy for soups, stews, or snacks. Root vegetables—like carrots, parsnips and beets—dehydrate relatively quickly and offer more instant gratification than soft watery foods like tomatoes. Even though you have options other than drying to preserve your bounty—such as canning and freezing—dehydrated foods take up significantly less storage room.

Hunting and fishing enthusiasts

If you’ve ever had more than 100 pounds of venison on your hands, you know that freezer space fills up quickly. Turning some of that fresh meat into shelf-stable jerky saves space and makes for a tasty snack. This preservation technique is also great for salmon, tuna, and trout.

Do-it-yourselfers

A dehydrator is great for the DIYer who wants to take the time to create their own snacks, like fruit leather, or dog treats from scratch. Preparing homemade versions of mass-produced snacks lets you tailor your recipe anyway you like. This is a big advantage for folks who have food sensitivities or are concerned about the ingredients in commercially processed snacks. But understand that taking the DIY approach to drying your own food is labor intensive and won’t necessarily save you money if you’re paying retail prices for raw ingredients.

Locavores

You can stretch your food budget by stocking up on locally grown fruits and vegetables at the peak of the season and then preserving them to enjoy throughout the year. A bushel of fruit at a farm stand is often cheaper, fresher, and tastier than what you find at the supermarket. “One of the things I’m finding in Canada is that people want to buy local. They want to support their local farmers,” Jennifer MacKenzie noted. “And we have very short seasons!” The winter blues aren’t as bad if you have a cache of preserved stone fruit and berries at your fingertips.

Long-haul hikers and campers

Instead of shelling out money for prepackaged freeze-dried meals from REI, some hiking and ultra-light camping enthusiasts prefer to make their own trail meals. Dehydrating your own meals for epic hikes lets you tailor your recipes to your exact preferences. Just remember that dehydrated meals don’t have the long shelf life of freeze-dried foods, and it’s a good idea to read up on the best ways to handle food. The Complete Trail Food Cookbook by Jennifer MacKenzie, Jay Nutt, and Don Mercer is a good resource for recipes as well as food safety.

Types of dehydrators

Home food dehydrators come in two styles: vertical airflow and horizontal airflow.

Vertical flow (stacked trays)

Vertical-flow dehydrators are simple in design: Stacked trays create the chamber, while a fan at either the top or base of the unit circulates air throughout. Compared with horizontal-flow dehydrators, vertical-flow models generally cost less and have a smaller footprint. You can even expand drying capacity in some vertical-flow dehydrators by purchasing extra trays. Since vertical-flow dehydrators rely on the stacked trays fitting together to make a sealed drying chamber, you can’t dry anything thicker than the depth of the tray. This isn’t an issue for drying sliced produce, thin meat strips, and puree for fruit leather. However, some vertical-flow dehydrators can accommodate bulkier items, such as jars of yogurt, with special trays that are available at an additional cost.

Horizontal flow (slide-in trays)

A horizontal-flow dehydrator looks like a small convection oven, and it’s made from either plastic or stainless steel. The heating element and fan sit in the back of the unit and blow hot air over the slide-in trays. The most popular example of a horizontal-flow model is the Excalibur 3526TCDB 5-Tray Dehydrator. This style of dehydrator generally costs more and takes up more space than vertical-flow models. But horizontal-flow dehydrators offer a little more versatility because you can remove trays to make room for big items.

How we picked

dried apples on the Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster.
One of the many batches of apples we dried in the Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster.
Photo: Michael Hession

Dehydrators are deceptively simple machines, involving little more than a low-wattage heating element, a fan, and open racks that let air flow throughout. But some models perform much better than others (and price isn’t necessarily an indicator of performance). To find the best dehydrator, we considered these factors:

Even drying

The best dehydrators are ones that evenly dry food without requiring you to rotate or rearrange the trays much, if at all. The amount of work and attention you have to invest throughout the drying process depends on how well your dehydrator circulates air. We found that the best results came from round vertical-flow dehydrators with the motor at the base. This makes sense because heat rises, and a bottom-mounted motor pushes hot air where it naturally wants to go (up, it wants to go up). Top-mounted dehydrators struggle to push heated air down to the lower trays and require more attention and rotation.

In general, horizontal-flow dehydrators dry unevenly and require you to rotate the trays throughout the process. Jeff Wilker, engineering and QA manager at The Metal Ware Corporation (Nesco’s parent company), told us that the hard right-angled corners on these box-shaped models don’t promote even airflow. The result: dead spots of stagnant air, usually in the corners.

How often you have to rotate the trays depends on a few factors, the most important being what you’re drying and the dehydrator itself. The best horizontal-flow dehydrators have bigger fans that move more air, which means less tray rotation—once or twice during the entire process versus every hour. But the best horizontal-flow dehydrator still doesn’t dry food as evenly as a round vertical-flow model with a base-mounted motor.

Size and capacity

It takes a lot of time to prep and then dry your own food, and the results shrink to just a fraction of the weight you started with. So you want to be able to dehydrate a lot at once. But that doesn’t mean you have to deal with a giant space hog. We prefer dehydrators that strike a good balance of bulk and drying volume. This boils down to smart design. For example, we tested two round, vertical-flow dehydrators that had 15-inch-diameter trays—but one offered 1 square foot of drying area per tray while the other had only three-fourths of a square foot per tray. That’s because the latter model had a wider gap around the perimeter of its trays that took up valuable usable space.

Accessories

Extra pieces like fine-mesh mats and fruit-roll trays are handy accessories for your dehydrator. Fine-mesh mats keep small items like herbs from falling through the trays as they dry. And fruit-roll trays aren’t just for making fruit leather; they’re also handy for hikers and campers who want to dehydrate lightweight packable meals. Some companies include these accessories with the dehydrator, while others charge extra. Think about how you’ll use your dehydrator so you’ll get the most for your money.

inserts on Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster
The fruit-roll sheet (left) and fine-mesh insert (right) included with the Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster.
Photo: Sarah Kobos

Cleanup

The most common dehydrator trays are made from plastic and can be a bear to wash because they have lots of nooks and crannies to clean. Generally, plastic trays also aren’t safe to run through the dishwasher, because the excess heat can warp them. If you have a spacious sink, a good soak in hot soapy water followed with a dish brush will do the trick. If you require dishwasher-safe trays, your choices are limited to horizontal-flow dehydrators with stainless steel racks either included or offered for extra cost. We haven’t come across a vertical-flow dehydrator with stainless steel trays.

Automatic shutoff

Some folks might prefer a dehydrator with an automatic shutoff feature. But we found that dehydrating times varied by batch, so this feature is useful only if you have a lot of experience dehydrating or will be away from the machine for a very long time. Otherwise, if the machine cuts off before the food is adequately dried, you run the risk of mold growth or spoilage. There’s really no such thing as overdrying from a food preservation standpoint. But snacks—such as jerky and fruit leather—are much more enjoyable when they’re still a bit pliable and chewy, and not yet dried to a crisp.

Temperature settings

Different types of foods have their own sweet spot when it comes to drying temperature. We found that most dehydrators have six to seven temperature settings, ranging from 90 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, which is enough flexibility to dry most foods. Although you need not worry about the exact temperature inside your dehydrator, you should stay within the correct range for the type of food you’re drying. For example, you can’t dehydrate fruits and vegetables above 140 degrees because you’ll run the risk of case hardening (when the surface dries too quickly and prevents moisture in the center from escaping).

Low temperatures—90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit—are best for delicate herbs and flowers. Nuts also dehydrate best in this zone because hotter temperatures can cause the oils to go rancid. Most vegetables and fruits dry between 125 and 140 degrees. Meat and fish require the highest temperature setting on your dehydrator, which is usually around 160 degrees.

Dehydrators with digital control panels and dual-stage capabilities (the option to start at a higher temperature for an hour to speed up the drying process) look modern and sound useful, but we found that neither of these things are worth the extra cost that comes with them. Some digital dehydrators let you set the temperature to the exact degree, but that kind of precision isn’t necessary for successful and even drying. And we found that dual-stage drying doesn’t shave more than an hour off the total time. When you’re drying something for 10 hours, that time savings is a drop in the bucket.

Noise

All dehydrators use a fan, so if you’re sensitive to the sound of a room fan on high speed droning on for hours on end, consider the noise factor. Running the dehydrator in your garage or laundry room with the door closed is an easy fix. But folks with limited square footage might not have that option. You can opt for a quieter dehydrator (one of our picks is pretty quiet), or you can put yours in the location farthest from your bedroom door and dehydrate at night.

How we tested

piles of dried food
These piles of beef jerky and dried apples are but a fraction of the food we dehydrated for this guide.
Photo: Michael Hession

For the first round of testing, we peeled, cored, and thinly sliced apples because they’re super easy to dehydrate. Apples have the ideal moisture level and cellular structure for quick(ish) and successful drying, and they don’t require any pretreatment. Starting out with something simple allowed us to keep variables low so we could gauge each model’s performance. From looking at the drying patterns and the browning of the apple slices, we got strong visual evidence of how thoroughly each model circulated air around the trays. Poor-performing dehydrators yielded dreadfully inconsistent results, with pale, half-dried fruit and brittle, dark-brown slices sitting side by side on the same tray.

After we eliminated the models that failed the apple test, we made beef jerky in the remaining contenders. We sliced 20 pounds of eye of round into thin strips by hand and then marinated it in a simple spiced salt mixture, using Michael Ruhlman’s recipe as a guide. (Soy-based marinades are popular for beef jerky, but we hope you can empathize with our aversion to scrubbing dried brown sauce from 30 trays.) Here, we compared how well round drying trays fared versus square ones at fitting long strips of beef. But tray shape didn’t matter much since our strips were varying lengths, and there’s always a runty little piece that’ll fit in an odd space. Kind of like a mosaic.

Since most dehydrators are made from plastic—a porous material—we dried onions and garlic to see if the trays or walls of the unit retained smells. After a six-hour drying cycle (give or take an hour), we washed the trays with hot soapy water and wiped down the dehydrators with a mild vinegar solution. We’re happy to report that none of the models retained any off odors after cleaning.

We made fruit leather as our final test for one last look at how consistently the models dried across each tray. Fruit leather is best made in a dehydrator that dries evenly because the entire sheet of puree must be fully dry before you can peel it away from the plastic (whereas with something like apples, you can remove pieces as they dry if the machine is uneven). As with the apple test, we found that the best dehydrators produced a homogenous dried, pliable fruit leather with little to no tray rotation.

Our pick: Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster Dehydrator

Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster Dehydrator
Photo: Michael Hession
Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster Dehydrator

Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster Dehydrator

This expandable dehydrator dries food quickly and evenly, without your needing to monitor progress or rearrange trays.

The Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster Dehydrator is the fastest, most consistent food dehydrator we tested, and it’s the only model that never required tray rotation. This round vertical-flow model has a 1,000-watt motor in the base that pushes hot air evenly through each tray for consistent drying. The eight-tray FD-1018A Gardenmaster is also the best deal we found, offering ample drying capacity and useful accessories—fine-mesh mats and fruit-roll sheets—at an affordable price. And it’s expandable to up to 30 trays, so beginners can rest easy knowing that their dehydrator can grow with their needs.

No one is as surprised as we are that the Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster outperformed dehydrators from popular high-end brands like Excalibur and Tribest. Food-dehydrating enthusiasts from every corner of the Internet boast about the merits of their Excalibur models, but those and other horizontal-flow dehydrators required us to rotate trays frequently throughout the drying process. The Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster consistently dried apples, beef jerky, and fruit leather faster and without the need to rotate trays.

The time it takes a dehydrator to adequately dry a batch of food depends on a few variables: the moisture content and thickness of your raw ingredients, and the batch size. But we tested all the dehydrators, fully loaded, with the same uniformly sliced produce and meat, and the Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster consistently dried every batch two to four hours faster than the competition.

In our tests, the Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster dried foods the best and fastest because of three important factors working in tandem: its airflow, its round shape, and its bottom-mounted fan. Nesco’s airflow design—branded as Converga-Flow—guides warm air up from the base through channels in the outer rims of the trays, then inward over the food. Each tray’s drying surface slopes up toward the middle so that items at the outer edge don’t block airflow to the middle.

Nesco tray for dehydrator
The Nesco trays have notches in the rims that allow hot air to evenly flow over food for consistent evaporation across the drying area.
Photo: Michael Hession

We found that Nesco’s round trays, which allow air to flow over food the same distance from all directions, produced the most consistently dried results, without any pockets of raw apple slices or beef. By contrast, a competing vertical-flow dehydrator with rectangular trays dried irregularly in our tests because air had to travel different distances depending on whether it was coming from a long or short side. Even with frequent tray rotation, this variability yielded a random mishmash of food in various stages of doneness. Horizontal-flow dehydrators also dried unevenly in our tests, but for different reasons: The boxy shape didn’t promote even airflow throughout the unit, and the wonky drying pattern plainly illustrated where the pockets of dead air were.

Another reason the FD-1018A Gardenmaster dries food more evenly is that the fan in the base sends hot air up, where it naturally flows. In our tests, the round Nesco dehydrators with a top-mounted fan—like the FD-77DT Digital and FD-75A Snackmaster—didn’t evenly dry food from the top to the bottom. In those models, because the fans are working against physics to force hot air down to the lowest tray (remember, heat rises), the airflow is significantly cooler and weaker in the bottom half of the unit. This is in spite of the fact that all Nesco dehydrators have the Converga-Flow design.

One interesting engineering detail about the Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster is that it recycles some of the hot air through the center cone in the base. Jeff Wilker of The Metal Ware Corporation informed us of this little-known design detail that makes the FD-1018A Gardenmaster more efficient. Sucking a percentage of hot air back into the base cuts down on any recovery time it would take to bring drawn-in ambient air up to temperature.

Each tray has about 1 square foot of usable surface area, for a total of 8 square feet of drying capacity. Practically speaking that equals up to 5 pounds of thin beef strips or 6 pounds of apples in one go. That’s a lot of capacity, especially for beginners. But if you start to outgrow those eight trays, the FD-1018A Gardenmaster can handle up to 30 at a time. Extra trays are available on Amazon and the Nesco website, but I also frequently see them at thrift stores and yard sales. Just understand that more trays will add to the overall dehydrating time.

The Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster is easy to use right out of the box (but please always read the directions for any new appliance). Its seven temperature settings—95, 105, 115, 125, 135, 145, and 160 degrees Fahrenheit—offer you the flexibility to dehydrate just about anything you want. And the trays are easy to stack and fit neatly together to make a closed drying chamber. The FD-1018A Gardenmaster also includes eight fine-mesh mats and eight fruit-roll sheets, and a one-year limited warranty.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

If you want a dehydrator with a timer and automatic shutoff, this one doesn’t have such features. But we found that timers and shutoff functions weren’t that helpful, because we didn’t feel comfortable running dehydrators unattended—doing so might result in the dehydrator shutting off before everything is finished drying. Instead, we recommend setting an alarm on your phone as a reminder to check the progress. If a dehydrator without a timer is a dealbreaker for you, take a look at our other pick, the Samson Silent 6-Tray Dehydrator.

While many Nesco dehydrators have their controls conveniently placed at the top of the unit, the FD-1018A Gardenmaster’s switch and temperature dial are in the base. Although this may be a bit inconvenient, especially if the unit is on the floor, this is a small compromise worth making because the base-mounted motor promotes faster and more-even drying.

Although Nesco claims that its trays are safe to go in the dishwasher, the fine print states that you should remove them before the dishwasher’s heat cycle starts. If you’re worried about forgetting to cancel the heat-dry setting on your dishwasher, or about the trays warping in general, just wash your trays by hand. We found that soaking the trays in hot soapy water and then scrubbing them with a dish brush does the trick.

The FD-1018A Gardenmaster limits the size of what you dehydrate to the height of the trays, unless you want to pay extra for the Nesco Convert-A-Trays. They’re normal Gardenmaster trays, but they’ve been modified to let you remove the drying rack and use the outer ring as a riser. Although we haven’t tested these, they look like a convenient way to make room for jars and bulky items.

It’s a little tricky to efficiently fit long-cut foods in the circular trays. When making beef jerky, we found ourselves playing a weird game of meat Tetris. But we managed to fit 5 pounds of beef on eight trays, and the FD-1018A Gardenmaster turned out perfect jerky in the least amount of time compared with all the other dehydrators we tested.

Finally, the Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster is not a quiet machine. The noise output is similar to that of a medium-size room fan on high speed. We can describe it best as noticeable white noise.

Also great: Samson Silent 6-Tray Dehydrator

Samson Silent Dehydrator 6-Tray with Digital Controls Timer

Samson Silent Dehydrator 6-Tray with Digital Controls Timer

This dehydrator features automatic shutoff and can easily accommodate larger items. But you need to shuffle the trays midway through drying.

Of all the horizontal-flow dehydrators we tested, the Samson Silent 6-Tray Dehydrator dried foods the most evenly with the least amount of tray rotation. We can’t say that about any other horizontal-flow dehydrator we used, not even the wildly popular Excalibur model we tried. Unlike our top pick, the Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster, the Samson has slide-in trays (not stacked), and the heated air flows from the back of the unit rather than the base. The Samson Silent also has features the FD-1018A Gardenmaster lacks, like a digital readout, a timer, and automatic shutoff. It’s covered by a five-year warranty and is also available in a nine-tray capacity.

Although we were impressed with the Samson model’s dehydrating performance, it is not our top pick because it takes more time to finish a batch and requires some tray rotation. The Samson Silent also has less drying area—despite being bulkier overall—than the Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster. The six-tray Silent has a 17¾-by-13½-inch footprint with 6½ square feet of drying space, while the FD-1018A Gardenmaster has a 15½-inch-diameter footprint with 8 square feet of usable area. But the Silent offers a touch more versatility than the FD-1018A Gardenmaster: You can simply remove trays from the Silent to make room for proofing bread or fermenting jars of yogurt. If you want more wiggle room in the FD-1018A Gardenmaster, you have to buy special convertible trays.

the Excalibur and Samson dehydrators
You can see the size difference between the fans in the Excalibur (top) and the Samson (bottom). Samson’s 7-inch blade span moves more air than Excalibur’s 5-inch fan.
Photo: Michael Hession

The Samson dehydrator surpassed the other horizontal-flow dehydrators simply because it has a bigger fan, which moves more air around the trays. Samson’s fan measures 7 inches across, while the fans in both of Excalibur’s five-tray models are only 5 inches. The difference was very noticeable when we dried apple slices and beef strips. We rotated the trays in the Samson model only once for a consistently dehydrated batch. But the Excalibur was so spotty that we had to swap its trays around every couple of hours.

The conveniently placed digital control panel at the front of the unit lets you set the temperature and drying time in 30-minute increments up to 19 hours. So if you’re looking for a dehydrator with an automatic shutoff on a timer, the Samson Silent is for you. Even though you can’t set the temperature to the exact degree, the Silent’s eight settings—95, 104, 113, 122, 131, 140, 149, and 158 degrees Fahrenheit—will accommodate anything you want to dehydrate.

For more drying capacity, the Samson Silent is also available in a nine-tray size. It has the same footprint and tray dimensions as the six-tray model, but the extra three trays give you 50 percent more drying capacity. In our tests, the Samson nine-tray dehydrator performed on a par with its little sibling. But the taller Samson requires more vertical room for storage, which is something to keep in mind if you’re deciding between the two.

Samson Silent 9-Tray
The Samson Silent 9-Tray (left) has 50 percent more capacity than the 6-Tray model (right).
Photo: Michael Hession

The Samson Silent dehydrator is true to its name. It’s one of the quietest dehydrators we tested. If the Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster sounds like a room fan on high speed, the Samson Silent is akin to that same fan on low speed. Samson’s warranty is also longer than Nesco’s, five years compared with one year.

If you think you’ve seen this dehydrator before, that might be because ChefmanBioChef, and Aroma put their names on similar models from the same factory. But we chose to test the Samson Silent 6-Tray because Samson is the only company to offer this digital dehydrator with fine-mesh inserts for every tray and a five-year warranty. We can also confirm that Samson’s customer service is excellent. Every time we called the company with questions, a courteous and knowledgeable human picked up the phone.

Tips for successful dehydrating

dehydrator and mandoline tool
You can use a mandoline to get thin, even slices. But nothing we found can peel, core, and slice apples as fast as this rotary tool (right).
Photo: Michael Hession

Safety first

People have been drying food for preservation since 12,000 BC. That said, dehydrating food at home isn’t as simple as throwing food on a rack and flipping a switch. We urge you to educate yourself on food safety and best practices to keep your homemade jerky and dried snacks from causing foodborne illnesses. The National Center for Home Food Preservation website is the best and most accessible resource for home food preservation.

Start easy

Dehydrating your own food takes practice, and above all, patience. If you’re a beginner, keep in mind that it will take a couple of batches before you get your own method down. Jennifer MacKenzie gave us some tips to avoid getting discouraged: “Drying is not a quick process! Start with something easy, like apples. They’re also [relatively fast], so you get more instant gratification.” MacKenzie doesn’t recommend long-drying projects, like grapes, because “they take 36 hours and the novelty wears off!”

Quality is important

Always start with fresh ingredients at the peak of their season. Don’t dehydrate anything that’s overripe, rotting, or past its prime. If your fresh ingredients are subpar, the dehydrated outcome won’t be good either. Cut away any bruised or brown spots from produce before loading it into the dehydrator. And make sure meats and fish are fresh and firm.

Uniform cuts

The key to even drying is consistent cuts, so practice your knife skills. Jennifer MacKenzie explained to us, “If you have thick pieces and thin pieces, they’re obviously going to dry at different rates.” If you’re not yet confident with a knife, get a mandoline (just be careful with it). And this handy apple tool made quick work of peeling, coring, and slicing the three cases of apples we dehydrated for our tests; if you have a lot of apples or pears on your hands, it’s a worthy investment.

jerky gun is a fast, foolproof way to make perfectly uniform sticks of ground-meat jerky. If you’re making jerky from thinly sliced whole muscle, you need a sharp knife and decent skills. But if you have a good relationship with your butcher, ask them if they’ll do that job for you.

Keep it sealed

Your dehydrated bounty will stay fresher longer in an airtight container. We recommend plastic zip-top bags or dry storage containers with tight-fitting lids. Also, you might consider springing for a vacuum sealer if you have limited storage space or you’re packing dehydrated food for long camping trips.

Keep a record

Have a notebook handy so you can keep a journal that details your attempts. Drying times vary from batch to batch. Moisture in the food, ambient temperature and humidity, and batch size all affect your drying times. Keeping a reference of your successes and failures will prevent you from making the same mistake twice.

Resources

Read up on home dehydrating, using info from trusted resources. First, brush up on home-preserving food safety. The National Center for Home Food Preservation is the best resource for food safety guidelines. We also like The Dehydrator Bible by Jennifer MacKenzie, Jay Nutt, and Don Mercer. The book is well-organized and offers practical advice combined with relevant food science. It was by far the most thorough and helpful resource we found.

The competition

Vertical flow

We tested a total of four Nesco dehydrators, and three of them—the FD-77DT Digital Top Mounted Dehydrator, the FD-75A Snackmaster Pro Food Dehydrator, and the FD-1040 Gardenmaster Food Dehydrator—didn’t make the cut. These top-mounted dehydrators force hot air down (when it naturally wants to go up), and as a result, food pieces on the lower trays dry more slowly than pieces closer to the fan, even though all of these models have the same Converga-Flow airflow design as our top pick. On each of these models, we had to rotate the trays a few times to get evenly dehydrated batches. So why would Nesco mess with a good thing? A representative told us that Nesco customers wanted easier-access controls on the top of the machine instead of the bottom, and we respect the company for responding to the feedback. But in this case, we think overall performance trumps button placement.

Additional flaws also kept us from picking any of the other Nesco dehydrators. The two smaller models—the FD-75A Snackmaster and FD-77DT Digital—have less power (600 and 500 watts, respectively) and drying area per tray (0.9 square foot) than our top pick, the 1,000-watt Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster. Also, the FD-75A and FD-77DT models expand only up to 12 trays, whereas the FD-1018A Gardenmaster can accommodate up to 30. Even though the FD-1040 Gardenmaster matches our top pick in wattage and drying area per tray (1 square foot), the digital FD-1040 comes with only four trays (but expands to 20) and underperforms for the price. The FD-1018A Gardenmaster—with its even, hands-off drying and eight trays—is more than worth the extra $30.

The Presto Dehydro digital dehydrator performed on a par with the Nesco models mentioned above, with the exception that the bottom-mounted fan dried the lower trays much more quickly than the top ones. Even though bottom-to-top airflow is a factor in even dehydration, this Presto model’s spotty drying pattern highlighted the effectiveness of Nesco’s Converga-Flow design. Also, the Presto model’s footprint (14-inch diameter) isn’t much smaller than that of the FD-1018A Gardenmaster (15-inch diameter), but there is a huge difference in the drying space per tray: The Presto unit’s trays have only 75 percent of the capacity of the Nesco model’s trays.

The rectangular vertical-flow Excalibur Stackable 6-Tray Dehydrator was one of the poorest-performing models in our test. Since it doesn’t have any specially designed channels to evenly distribute heat and air, the bottom trays block the trays that sit above them. Even with frequent rotation, this Excalibur model took 10 hours to dry our apple slices—a job the Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster finished in six hours.

Horizontal flow

There’s no denying that the Tribest Sedona Express is a versatile and well-built dehydrator. This high-end dual-stage dehydrator is equipped with dishwasher-safe stainless steel drying racks and a hinged glass door with a magnetic latch. The Sedona Express offers the widest temperature range of all the dehydrators we tested (77 to 167 degrees), and folks who adhere to a raw-food diet might prefer this model for its low temperature setting. However, in our tests it was slow to finish a batch of food, taking eight to nine hours to do what the Nesco FD-1018A Gardenmaster could in six. We also think it’s too expensive, and most people don’t need that much of a temperature range.

Even though we like Samson’s six- and nine-tray Silent dehydrators, we’re hesitant to recommend the 10-tray Samson Silent All Stainless Steel Dehydrator. For one, it’s huge, heavy, and most likely too imposing for the average home. And despite its 1,000-watt motor, this stainless steel Samson model took an average of 25 percent longer than the 400-watt six-tray and 600-watt nine-tray models to completely dehydrate our apples.

dried apples
You can see the difference in drying pattern with apples dried in the Samson Silent 6-Tray (left) and the Excalibur 3548CDB (right). After eight hours and one tray rotation, the Samson dehydrated food much more evenly than the Excalibur.
Photo: Michael Hession

Excalibur dehydrators, particularly the horizontal-flow models, have a fervent fan base, so we know that some people may be champing at the bit for our feedback. Ultimately, we didn’t love any of them. The five-tray Excalibur 3548CDB dehydrator is a dual-stage model with digital temperature and time control, and a 48-hour timer with an automatic shutoff. It lets you set an exact temperature between 95 and 165 degrees, and we like the easy-to-use control panel and spacious trays. But it yielded some of the most inconsistently dried foods in our tests, even when we rotated the trays multiple times throughout the drying process. We think Excalibur’s poor performance is simply unacceptable for the price.

The Excalibur 3526TCDB has the same bones as the digital Excalibur above—same body and fan with five trays—except with dial controls, a smaller temperature range, and a 26-hour timer. And this analog Excalibur gave us the same poor results as its digital sibling.

The Weston 6 Tray Food Dehydrator combines the lackluster air circulation of classic horizontal-flow models with the limitations of stacked trays. Even though the trays slide in, the unit can’t effectively dehydrate without all of them in place because the trays’ raised fronts make up what would be a door on other horizontal-flow models. As a result, you’re limited to foods that don’t exceed tray clearance. And that’s all on top of uneven dehydrating performance.

Sources

1. Jennifer MacKenzie, cookbook author and professional home economist, phone interview, July 19, 2018

2. Don Mercer, associate professor at the University of Guelph, phone interview, April 9, 2018

3. Matt Hartings, associate professor of chemistry at American University, phone interview, January 8, 2018

4. Jeff Wilker, engineering and QA manager at The Metal Ware Corporation (Nesco’s parent company), phone interview, October 3, 2018

5. How Do I Dry?, National Center for Home Food Preservation

6. Jennifer MacKenzie, Jay Nutt, Don Mercer, The Dehydrator Bible, March 27, 2009

Read the original article on The Best Food Dehydrator.