The biggest question I had, when diving into dehydrating foods was how to choose a dehydrator? Here’s the answer to that daunting question.
I only recently got into dehydrating so I won’t pretend to be the queen of dehydrating. Thankfully, I’ve got a lovely friend who is. Shelle literally wrote the book on dehydrating (affiliate link).
Going through Shelle’s dehydrating course (affiliate link) equipped me to dive into the world of dehydrating food, from dried fruit and fruit leathers to beef jerky. The course helped me choose a dehydrator as well. Here’s what I learned.
What’s Your Budget?
Before we get into what kinds of dehydrators are on the market, let’s chat about your budget. My available funds are always my starting place when deciding on a bigger purchase. It’s part of living a frugal life to figure out how much money you can afford or are willing to spend on a certain item. There’s nothing worse than ending up with buyer’s remorse as your $193 Excalibur (affiliate link) sits unused in the closet.
Dehydrators range from anywhere around $30 (affiliate link) to close to $300 for a commercial grade dehydrator (affiliate link). You probably want to aim somewhere between the two when deciding on your budget. My budget was around $75-100.
Any Dehydrator is Better Than No Dehydrator
While you can create dried foods without an electric dehydrator using your oven or a solar dehydrator (affiliate link). I would argue that unless you are off-grid, any dehydrator is better than no dehydrator for preserving fruits, vegetable and meats. I know a bunch of people who’ve been able to find fully functional dehydrators in thrift stores or yard sales for next to nothing in the States.
Buying a $7 used dehydrator and getting started, learning a new skill is much better than spending 7 years saving up for that dreamy Excalibur (affiliate link) and missing out on all that knowledge. Can you tell I really want one?
How to Choose a Dehydrator
Now that you have decided on a budget, let’s dig into all the features and fun.
Two Kinds of Dehydrators
When it comes to dehydrators you can pretty much narrow it down to two types: dehydrators with trays and dehydrators with shelves.
Tray dehydrators, which is the kind I have, seem to be the most affordable. They have a number of stackable plastic trays with holes in them and a centre hole, which improves the air flow and heat distribution to all the trays. You stack the trays on top of each other.
I’ve learned from Shelle’s invaluable course (affiliate link), that you want at least five trays in in your stackable unit. My dehydrator has six and the ability to purchase additional trays, which would be a blessing if you have a big harvest of something.
The heating element in this type of dehydrator is either placed with a fan at the bottom or on the top. This kind of fan placement means your trays don’t dehydrate evenly. You can fix it by either rotating the trays or place items, which take longer to dehydrate closest to the fan and the quicker items further from the fan.
You have to unstack the trays to check how far along the items are. Some find this annoying, I think of it more as opening up a present to see if my goodies are ready yet. In other words, I don’t find it cumbersome but thrilling.
A tray dehydrator is also often a smaller dehydrator, so really good for apartment dwellers and city folks with limited space who still want to preserve different types of foods.
This type of dehydrator is generally a step up from tray dehydrators. Think of a mini oven with shelves or racks to place your items on. This makes it easier to check if the things you are dehydrating are done yet.
Another clear plus for this type of dehydrator is the fan placement. It sits at the back and thus dehydrates all the racks evenly. No more rotating needed!
Because you have the ‘oven’/dehydrating compartment without the shelves, you have a couple of new opportunities for preserving foods with this type of dehydrator. You can dehydrate a whole banana if you fancy that and maybe more importantly, you can make yoghurt in it.
I’ve read it’s easier to dehydrate sauces in a shelf dehydrator, but I have no experience to verify that and it is possible in a stackable tray dehydrator as well.
With the added possibilities follow some restrictions as well.
Since the compartment is fully enclosed, you can’t add more shelves to it. It’s also a good deal more expensive, and probably not worth the added cost for a beginner. They also tend to take up more room and don’t store as easily as the tray type. Finally, and this one can be a deal breaker for some, they are more difficult to clean.
One thing I found frustrating when doing the research to buy a dehydrator was the difficulty involved in figuring out their capacity.
There is no such thing as measuring capacity by trays or shelves. Since the brands and even models differ in shape and size, a 5 tray dehydrator can mean very different capacity from model to model.
I decided on a medium sized, expandable model, which fits my current needs and can grow with me. If you only plan on doing a little dehydrating every now and then, a smaller version is fine. If you have a large garden every year and want to preserve a year’s worth of several things, then go for a big model.
If you’ve been air drying or oven drying prior to getting a dehydrator, then you might not realise the importance of the temperature. It wasn’t until I took the course from Shelle (affiliate link), I fully understood why temperature and heat distribution is important.
If you are eyeing a dehydrator without temperature control, then wait one more month, sock away a bit more money and opt for one with temperature control. It’s well worth it.
The range of temperature settings varies and you will have to look into the temperature required for the kind of things you want to make. Beef jerky requires 160F according to the USDA.
We weren’t that concerned with noise when we chose our dehydrator because we thought it would be ‘white noise’ and not a big deal. It’s very noisy, but we usually operate it overnight and it’s not a big deal. I find I can easily tune out the noise and that’s coming from a very noise sensitive person.
If noise is a concern for you, there will be a decibel indication on every model (and if there isn’t it’s often a sign of lesser quality). It doesn’t mean a lot to me, but you might be able to make more sense out of it and know where your personal limit is.
1 – Timer/auto shutoff
It’s been a real blessing to have this feature. I wasn’t sure it was worth spending money for, after all, you can just set a time separately but after having it, I wouldn’t be without this feature again. It means you can leave the house and not worry about the things you are dehydrating.
2 – Dishwasher safe
While we have just washed our trays by hand, this might be something you’d like. The trays/shelves can get really icky.
3 – Liners
We started out with just parchment paper and it worked. However, proper liners are a joy to work with and you can clean and reuse them, making the process and your kitchen less wasteful.
4 – Clear trays
It’s by no means a need but it does make it easier to tell if items in your stacking dehydrator are done.
5 – Multiple temperature settings
I have to mention that dreamy Excalibur (affiliate link) one more time. Some of these machines have the ability to be set for one temperature and then later switch on its own to a different temperature. Now we’re getting into advanced dehydrating!
A Final Warning
By now, you may know just the right model for you. Based on the things above you can choose what features you are willing to pay for and which you are not.
The point, I want to leave you with, is the one we started out with: Any dehydrator is better than no dehydrator. So go out and buy one you can afford or set aside a limited number of months to save up for the model you want and then start dehydrating.
If you need any help or inspiration, sign up for Shelle’s course (affiliate link) and get all the info and hands-on help you could ever need. Finally, a brief warning. Dehydrating is addictive, you’ll love it!