When you start shopping for a food dehydrator you’ll discover that there are a lot of options to consider. In part, your decision will be influenced by what kinds of foods (or things!) you plan to dry. Certain features may be a “must have” to some people but not at all important to others.
For specific details you can check out the reviews and comparison charts on our site, but below are some general tips to keep in mind, especially if you’ve never owned a dehydrator before. To help you decide which one will work best for you, here are five important things to consider:
(Click any topic to read ahead.)
1. Fan or No Fan?
There are a few dehydrators on the market that do not have a fan. One popular model was made by Ronco, but it has been discontinued. Some people loved it, but overall it got fairly poor ratings.
The two main downsides of a fan-less dehydrator are:
- the time required to process foods
- the quality of the end product
Processing Time — Without a fan, foods can take (what seems like) forever to dry. The drying time for something like jerky may be up to twice as long, possibly even longer in high humidity climates. You may also experience extremely long drying times for some fruits or other foods that have a high moisture content.
Besides wearing on your patience, long drying times can have a negative impact on the food you’re processing. In some cases some of the flavor may be lost. If very wet foods take too long to dry, you may even risk spoilage.
End Product Quality — Another problem is that since there is no air circulation, foods closest to the heat source will dry much faster than those farther away. That increases the risk of some things ending up with a burnt appearance or taste, while others still aren’t fully dried.
The solution is to carefully tend the machine and continually rotate trays. For occasional users this might not be a big deal, but for others it can be a bothersome task. Think about the kinds of foods you plan to dry and how much time you’re willing and able to devote to the process. If the idea of constantly checking and rotating trays sounds like a chore to you, this type of dehydrator probably isn’t what you want.
On the positive side, these dehydrators are usually the least inexpensive, and they are virtually silent while running. If noise level is a big issue for you, be aware that any dehydrator with a fan will make noise. Plan ahead for where you will use your dehydrator and whether it will be distracting or even annoying.
Summing It Up – For the price, a dehydrator with no fan might seem like a good choice if you’re a beginner and just want to give dehydrating a try. That’s possible, and it might also work well for anyone who plans to use it only occasionally for a simple food or craft project.
On the other hand, starting out with a fan-less unit could backfire on you. Disappointing results might leave you thinking that dehydration is too much trouble, or it doesn’t work well, or that you simply don’t like dried foods. In fact, the whole problem could be the dehydrator itself.
2. Adjustable Temperature
Different brands and models of food dehydrators offer three levels of control:
- no control at all
- limited settings
- adjustable thermostat
No Temperature Control – Dehydrators that do not have any type of temperature control are usually in the lower price range. These machines are either on or off, that’s it. The temperature at which they operate will vary by model, and you may have to contact the manufacturer to find out what that temperature is.
The only way to be certain your dehydrator operates at the stated temperature is to use an appliance thermometer. You’ll need to monitor it throughout the drying process because as more and more moisture is removed from foods, the temperature may rise, sometimes considerably.
Even then, you have almost no control. If the unit gets too hot you might remove the lid or turn off the machine periodically to cool it down. On the other hand, if the unit isn’t as hot as you need it to be, there’s nothing you can do. In some cases that just means your food will take much longer to dry. In other cases, such as when making jerky, proper temperatures are necessary to ensure the food is safe for consumption.
Generally speaking, only very experienced users manage to obtain good results without any temperature control at all.
Excalibur Model 3926TB with Adjustable Thermostat
Read our review here.
Click here to check price on Amazon.
Limited Temperature Settings – Some models include a control with a choice of only 3 or 4 settings. One example is the Waring Pro Dehydrator, which lets you choose between Fan Only (no heat), Low, Medium, or High. The temperature ranges for each setting are stated by the manufacture, but again, you may want to check with an appliance thermometer.
Many people find these limited settings adequate, but that may depend on what you intend to process and how often you plan to use your dehydrator. Keep in mind that limited temperate control means you’ll have to spend more time monitoring the unit during processing to be sure you get the best results.
Adjustable Thermostat – The best dehydrators have a built in thermostat that allows you to select specific temperatures. Settings can range from about 95° F on the low end up to about 155° F. Obviously, this makes your job much easier because whether the unit becomes too hot or too cool, you have the option to adjust accordingly.
That said, even with the best thermostats, an appliance thermometer could still be helpful. It will let you determine whether the unit performs exactly as the manufacturer claims it will. You can always adjust for slight variations, but anything major might be a sign of a defective unit that could be returned if still under warranty.
Summing It Up – In a nutshell, temperature is a key factor in getting successful results. Without enough heat you run the risk of fermentation or bacteria growth and end up with spoiled food. Too much heat can harm living enzymes and lower the nutritional value of the food.
The more control you have, the better chance you’ll have of being pleased with the end product. When you’re trying to eat healthier, the last thing you want to do is destroy the nutrients in your food, or worse, have to wonder if it is even safe to eat. An adjustable thermostat with a good range of temperature choices will help you avoid those problems and enjoy a wide variety of dehydrated foods.
3. Automated Timer
A built-in timer is not necessary, just a matter of personal preference. Some brands such as Nesco charge considerably more for units that include a timer. With other brands such as Excalibur, the cost difference between models with or without a timer can be as little as $20.
The timer on many popular models has a maximum setting of 26 hours. Some users consider this a disadvantage because they prefer to set it and let it run uninterrupted until they shut it off.
Others deem a timer an absolute necessity so that the dehydrator will automatically shut itself off in the middle of the night or while they are away from home.
In either case, my concern would be the safety factor. Everyone is different, but personally, I wouldn’t leave any electrical appliance running unattended for hours on end. What if the machine malfunctions and gets overheated? It doesn’t seem unreasonable to wonder if that could be a fire hazard.
In fact, there is a Nesco model (Nesco American Harvest FD-1020 Gardenmaster) with an automated timer that has a 4.3 star rating. That’s not bad, but in online reviews I found 2 reports of this dehydrator experiencing serious problems. In both cases, users claim that it actually caught fire. This model was recalled by the manufacturer in 2011 but is still for sale, so one would assume that the problem has been corrected.
On the other hand, on the Excalibur website you’ll find this question in the FAQs: “Can the Excalibur stay on unattended?” The manufacturer’s answer, quoted verbatim, is: “Yes. The Excalibur has three separate circuits to protect them from electrical malfunctions.” That gives me more confidence in this model, yet I would take that with a grain of salt because to my mind, there is no such thing in life as a 100% guarantee.
Summing It Up – The bottom line is, when it comes to any king of safety concern, it’s important to read the fine print, always follow instructions and use the machine as intended. If you want a unit with a timer because you plan to leave the machine running unattended, it might be best to consider a manufacturer such as Excalibur that actually says that is an acceptable practice for their product.
If you’ve never owned a dehydrator before, it’s important to think about what kinds of food or other items you plan to process. You don’t want to sink money into a unit that won’t do what you want!
Basically, you can choose between two designs: dehydrators with stacking trays (usually round); and dehydrators with fixed shelves (usually square or rectangular).
With many of the stacked tray dehydrators, you are limited to a maximum of 3/4″ to 1″ in height. That will be adequate for quite a wide variety of foods, including jerky, sliced or chopped fruits and vegetables, nuts, grains, and herbs. An advantage of this design is that most are expandable. That is, if you discover you need more drying capacity, you can buy additional trays and just stack them on top of the original trays.
What these dehydrators can’t do is accommodate items that are very thick, or something like tall jars. That’s because the trays create the height of the machine, so removing a tray doesn’t open up any interior space. It just makes the machine shorter.
There are exceptions to this with some Nesco models. Nesco makes special trays with removable spokes called Convert-A-Trays™. By adding trays with the spokes removed, you can increase the height of the machine to give you a taller interior space for drying. These special trays can be ordered directly from the manufacturer, but just keep in mind that they must be bought separately, so that adds to the overall cost of your dehydrator. (Nesco Convert-A-Trays™ are for use with models FD-20, FD-30, FD-40, FD-50 and FD-60 only.)
Box type dehydrator with fixed shelves
Photo used under Creative Commons from graibeard.
Unlike stacking tray models, dehydrators with fixed shelves are not expandable. What you buy is what you get, and there is no way to add additional trays to increase capacity. In these models, the trays are also designed for items that are around ¾” to 1” thick. However, the advantage with this design is that if you have thicker items to process, you can simply remove one or more trays to create a taller drying space. That makes these machines very versatile. You can make room for bulky foods or craft items, tall jars for culturing yeast, or even make enough space for proofing dough.
Summing It Up – In this case you’ll have to weigh the benefits and trade-offs. Which is more important to you: the ability to expand your unit with additional trays; or the ability to dry thick or tall foods? The Nesco models that will accept Convert-A-Trays™ mentioned above will give you both options, as long as you don’t mind round trays with holes in the center.
5. “Hidden” Costs
The tricky thing about price shopping food dehydrators is that you have to be sure you’re comparing apples to apples. When looking at two or more models, of course you want to compare the basics such as:
- Features Included: Fan, Thermostat, Timer
Equally important is capacity, which may be somewhat harder to compare. You have to look beyond the outer dimensions. Most round dehydrators have trays with a hole in the middle. The same is true of the Nesco square dehydrator. Other brands of rectangular shaped dehydrators tend to be larger altogether. In addition, each tray will have more available drying space because there is no hole in the middle and the corners aren’t cut off.
Another thing that can trip you up is packaging. Many brands will offer the same dehydrator with different model numbers at different prices. It’s the same dehydrator, but the price will depend on what extras are included.
One example is a popular Nesco model that includes a jerky gun. That might be a good deal, but be sure to check the price of each item if purchased separately. Also check the quality of that extra thing they’re throwing in. You might pay twenty bucks extra for a dehydrator that includes a certain recipe book, only to later discover that you could have bought the same book elsewhere for half that amount.
Another big consideration concerns your intended uses. What type of foods do you plan to process? To make fruit leathers, you’ll need a solid sheet for each tray. Check the models that interest you to see how many fruit roll-up sheets they include. How many extras will you need to buy? What will they cost? Do the math, and include that extra amount to get the total cost of each model.
The same is true with mesh type tray liners. The openings in trays are usually fairly large, which works well for things like jerky and sliced fruits or vegetables because it allows for better air flow. Processing small items like peas, corn, nuts or herbs requires using liners with much smaller openings. If you strictly want to make jerky this shouldn’t be an issue. Otherwise, you’ll want to find out if a model includes any tray liners, if so how many, and how much the liners cost. Again, to determine the total cost of each model, you need include the amount of buying extra liners.
Summing It Up – As the cliché goes, the devil is in the details. Think about exactly what you’re going to need, find out what is and isn’t included with each model you’re considering, and add in the cost of any extras you will need to purchase separately.
Which is the Best Food Dehydrator?
Clearly, the answer is “It depends!”. We all want to try to eat healthier, and a dehydrator is a great way to prepare delicious meals and snack foods that aren’t contaminated with chemicals or overloaded with salt or sugar. However, individual needs and preferences vary, so only you can decide. Hopefully these tips will help you comparison shop and find the best food dehydrator for you!