Given the ever-increasing popularity of home food dehydrating as a safe, healthy method of food preservation, we were quite surprised to find that there just aren’t many decent, comprehensive dehydrator buying guides out there. So, we decided to create our own to help guide you through the buying process so that if you do want to start dehydrating or if you want to upgrade your existing model, you have all the information you need to choose the right dehydrator model for your family.
A dehydrator is invaluable if you grow your own produce or want to make the most of the produce reductions at the local store. Choosing the right food dehydrator lets you drastically reduce your food waste and your carbon footprint. It helps you save money, too. Plus, you can make a whole bunch of tasty, healthy snacks along with seasonings, soup mixes, and jerky. Whether you’re a prepper or you just want to be in control of what you’re feeding your family, a food dehydrator puts you in the driver’s seat and lets you preserve an array of food items that will, if stored correctly, last for up to a year. You can read more about the benefits of having a food dehydrator here. Our home food dehydrator buying guide lets you know what to look for and what your options are, so you’re able to make an informed purchasing decision.
Type of Dehydrator
There are two primary types of dehydrator: Stackable dehydrators and box or rigid frame models. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks.
Stackable dehydrators generally have a heating element and fan in the base of the unit, and dehydration trays stacked above, with no box or frame. These models usually have a fairly small footprint and many let you expand your drying capacity by purchasing extra trays. Stackable dehydrators are a great choice if counter space is at a premium, and they work well for drying herbs, fruits, and vegetables. However, because of their open structure and the fan placement on most models, the temperature isn’t necessarily consistent – it’s warmer at the bottom. The external temperature influences the efficiency of stacked dehydrators, too, as does how much space you leave around the unit on your countertop. To get even drying times, you’ll likely need to rotate the trays at regular intervals throughout the drying cycle, which can be something of an inconvenience. Because of the difficulty in controlling the temperature with most of these models, we wouldn’t recommend using stackable home food dehydrators for drying meat and fish.
With around an inch between trays, you can dry thin to moderate slices of fruit and veg, as well as whole and half berries, grapes, and tomatoes. With the right model, you can make tasty sweet treats like fruit leather or fruity lollipops, too. However, because you can’t increase the gap between trays, or the configuration, you can’t use stackable dehydrators to prove bread or make yogurt.
While stackable dehydrators do have some limitations, they are a smart choice for beginners. These entry-level machines are budget-friendly, don’t take up too much counter or storage space, and are well-suited to basic additive-free food preservation.
One of our favorite stackables is the Nesco American Harvest Snackmaster model. It uses Nesco’s patented airflow technology for faster, more accurate drying than many stackable models. It’s very compact and has a limited number of trays, but it’s really inexpensive and makes a great entry level, budget-friendly purchase.
Rigid Box Dehydrators
Rigid box frame dehydrators tend to have heating elements and fans at the back of the units. The shelves slide inside a rigid frame and heated air passes over them from back to front. Most models are enclosed on all sides apart from the front, and some high-end models have a door that covers the front section for even more precise temperature control. The enclosed or partially enclosed frame and rear-mounted fan and heating elements provide accurate, consistent temperature control for even drying times. Although they are more expensive than their stackable counterparts, rigid frame dehydrators are more effective and, because they dry food faster, they are more energy efficient and cost less per tray or load.
Because they afford you greater control and more reliable results, box dehydrators are well-suited to pretty much any dehydration task, including preserving thick, fleshy fruits as well as meat and fish. You can get even more use from these home food dehydrators by removing some or all of the shelves to create more internal space. This gives you plenty of room to prove bread, make yogurt, or dry craft projects. So, if you want to do more than basic fruit and veg preservation, and you have the budget and the space, we’d recommend choosing a rigid frame home food dehydrator.
Unsurprisingly, we like the Excalibur 3926TB. It’s not too big, but it’s still big enough to prove dough and make a fairly large batch of yogurt and with nine trays, it gives you plenty of space to dehydrate large batches of produce. Yes, it does cost more than the stackable Nesco, but it’s more versatile and offers better temperature control than many comparable models. Check out our full Excalibur 3926TB review here.
Yes, all dehydrators do work the same way – they heat air and pass it through the trays to dry the food. But not all dehydrators are made equal – otherwise, there’d be absolutely no point in me writing this article! Lower-end models usually have heaters and fans in the bottom, and as the air heats, the fan forces it upwards. This means that the bottom trays will always dry faster, and the top trays will dry much slower.
There are a few exceptions to this – like the budget-friendly Nesco dehydrators, which have top-seated fans and heating elements, as well as their own proprietary airflow system to encourage even drying. Top-mounted units force heated air downward, so food on the top tends to dry faster than that on the bottom, so again, you’ll need to rotate the shelves every few hours for even results. On the plus side, liquid can’t cause a nasty, sticky mess in the heating element.
Rear-mounted fans and heaters offer the most consistent drying results. Air passes evenly across the trays, from back to front, so no single tray gets more heat or more airflow than any other. So, if your budget allows, look for a home food dehydrator with a back-mounted fan.
Capacity and Footprint
Think about firstly, how much available counter space you have, how much vacant storage space is available, and figure out how large your dehydrator can be. Obviously, if space is at a premium, you’ll need a compact dehydrator. Consider how much produce you think you’ll dry at one time. There’s no point buying a huge dehydrator and only using a quarter of the available space – it’s a waste of energy and money. On the other hand, having to run five separate loads because your dehydrator is too small is also costly – so make sure you choose wisely. Or, if you really aren’t sure and you’re working on a tight budget, consider a small to medium-sized stackable dehydrator that you can add more trays to if you find you need more drying space.
Power and Temperature
Power varies hugely between model, from around 125 watts to 1,000 watts or more. The larger the unit, the higher the wattage you need to ensure consistent temperature regulation. Also, remember to look at maximum temperature. If you want maximum versatility and the ability to make meat jerky, make sure you choose a model that can reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit (70 degrees Celsius).
The best home food dehydrators will have an easily adjustable thermostat and a timer. Some also boast variable temperature cycles. This is particularly useful, as it encourages thorough drying, without you having to adjust the temperature manually throughout the cycle. With variable temperature cycles, the machine starts off at a reasonably high temperature, then, after a specific period drops to a lower temperature, then the cycle repeats. During the high-temp phase, the outside of the food hardens as it rapidly dries, but there’s still moisture trapped inside. During the low-temp phase of the cycle, the moisture on the inside of the food migrates to the outside, where it dries off as it undergoes the next round of increased temperatures.
If you want to process small items or you want to make fruit leather from puree, make sure your chosen model comes with nonstick mats, or at least that there are compatible mats available for purchase. Most good dehydrators come with recipe booklets to get you started, but you can also find an extensive range of dehydrator recipes free online, like these 80 foolproof dehydrator recipes from Delicious Obsessions.
We hope this buying guide gives you everything you need to make an informed purchasing decision. We want you to get the most from your dehydrator, so you can switch out a few of those unhealthy snacks for real, nutritious homemade ones, save yourself a significant amount of money, and reduce your waste. After all, the average American household wastes a terrifying 30 to 40% of all the food they buy every single week. Think of how much money that is! Using a dehydrator is one of the ways you can avoid being part of that shocking statistic! If you’ve got any questions, just reach out and leave us a comment!