Welcome to the wonderful world of jerky (and dried fruit, herbs, and more)! As you already know, it all starts with a dehydrator. However, choosing the best dehydrator for jerky is a complicated process that really comes down to your unique needs and preferences. This article will cover what to look for (and avoid), as well as covering our top 5 picks currently on the market.
First, How Food Dehydrators Work
Dehydrators are relatively simple convection ovens that are powered by electricity, meaning they just plug into standard outlets. A typical dehydrator has three main components: a heating element, a fan, and trays for meat (or whatever else you might be dehydrating). Everything works together to blow warm air across the food items, slowly reducing moisture content over several hours.
What’s the science behind this process? Why remove moisture in the first place? When there is no moisture present in a food, it is much more difficult for harmful bacteria to grow and spread. That means it can last longer, even without refrigeration.
10 Things to Look for in a Dehydrator
Here are 10 things to consider before choosing the best jerky dehydrator for your needs:
1. Temperature Settings
Temperature options vary greatly between dehydrator models. Some lower-end models just have ON/OFF switches with no ability to choose a specific temperature. Most dehydrators, however, allow for more control and typically have a range of ~100° to 165° Fahrenheit. For jerky, most recipes recommend at least 140°.
2. Airflow (Horizontal vs. Vertical)
It’s ideal to have air flow from the sides for even, uniform heat. Therefore, it’s best to avoid dehydrators with their fans positioned on the top or bottom. Additionally, horizontal airflow prevents flavors from mixing if you want to throw something else in with your jerky.
3. Size and Number of Trays
This is a fairly obvious and self-explanatory point. If you’re a hunter making dozens of pounds of venison jerky, it makes sense to go bigger. If you just dabble in jerky from time to time, size is less important. Whatever your needs may be, try to note the overall area, which is calculated by multiplying the number of racks by the area of each rack.
4. Dishwasher Safe Trays
Unfortunately, cleaning up is part of the jerky making process. Luckily, a lot of dehydrators have dishwasher-safe trays. It’s even better if they also come with removable drip pans that are also safe for the dishwasher.
5. Timers and Other Tech
Are you planning on running your dehydrator when you’re asleep or away from home? If so, a timer that turns off your dehydrator is key. While maximum timer lengths vary between models, all are sufficient for jerky, which dries at a relatively fast rate.
6. Noise Level
Making jerky and dehydrating other foods can take several hours, so if your kitchen is near the hangout area in your home or apartment, you’ll want to choose a quiet dehydrator. There isn’t a specific measure of noise that you can check with each model, so try to look through reviews for any complaints about noise.
7. Removable Drip Pan
This is a big one for jerky specifically. Even using the lean cuts of meat that are recommended for making jerky, fat will inevitably drip below the tray. Ideally your dehydrator will have a drip pan that is both removable and safe to throw in the dishwasher.
Higher quality dehydrators typically have glass windows that allow you to check on your food without losing all the heat. While a window is a nice feature to have, it is by no means a necessity.
While it doesn’t apply to jerky, some foods are small enough to fall through regular racks. Because of this, fine mesh and solid sheets are commonly included as extras. Others in this list come with recipe books and even jerky seasoning samples, so be on the look out for bonus items when making a decision!
Last but not least, you should always check the warranty before making a purchase. Learn under what circumstances components are covered and for how long. Also try to determine how the process works if part of the dehydrator breaks. For example, do you send the unit to the manufacturer for repairs, or do they send you the part?
Do You Need a Dehydrator to Make Jerky? Some Alternatives
While a dehydrator is ideal for making jerky, it’s not 100% required. If you’re just making jerky once or twice, you might want to check out one of these three alternatives.
Because this is a BBQ-focused blog, I have to mention that delicious jerky can most definitely be made on a smoker. In fact, because air is constantly circulating throughout a smoker, it’s quite effective for drying out meat. One potential problem is maintaining a temperature around 150° F, which is ideal. Luckily, you can still make great jerky as long as you stay under 225°. Just note that the process will go faster, and you risk making really tough jerky if you leave it on the smoker for too long. Of course, the main advantage of this method is the natural smoke flavor, which can’t be matched by liquid smoke.
Another option is using your oven as a dehydrator. However, it’s not ideal for a couple of reasons. First, the vast majority of ovens are too hot, even at their lowest temperature settings. Second, air does not continually circulate in an oven like it does in a dehydrator or smoker.
As Chef John of Food Wishes notes, it’s a good idea to open your oven every half hour. This will let some of the moisture escape. If you want to see the full process, check out his video here:
DIY Jerky Dehydrator
What if you’re only planning on making jerky one time? If you like tinkering with DIY projects, you can make your own dehydrator. You’ll need a box fan and cellulose air filters. The basic process is to lay the meat over the air filters and then stack them on the box fan. Over 12-20 hours, air from the fan slowly dehydrates the meat.
Is this safe? Yes, because cellulose fibers are not harmful. However, it takes a long time compared to other methods, and something about laying meat on air filters to dry just doesn’t seem right (even if it is safe). All in all, this DIY dehydrator can be fun to try once, but it’s not a great solution if you plan on making jerky fairly often.
Quick Summary of Our Top 5 Dehydrators
- Coming in at #1, COSORI’s premium dehydrator provides simple controls, six evenly heated trays, and quiet performance wrapped up in a stainless steel package.
- If you want a top-of-the-line model with massive amounts of space (15 total square feet), go for the Excalibur dehydrator.
- If you’re looking for a relatively quiet and dependable mid-sized dehydrator with stainless steel racks and a window, check out this one by Elite Gourmet.
- NESCO’s Snackmaster Dehydrator is a plastic, cylindrical design that can expanded with extra trays. It has temperature controls but no timer.
- Don’t care for extra frills and features? This Presto dehydrator simply turns on when plugged in and runs at 165°, perfect for jerky.
Top 5 Jerky Dehydrators on the Market
1. COSORI Dehydrator Review
COSORI’s premium food dehydrator checks every box in design, performance, and capacity. Taking a look at this machine, the first thing you’ll notice is the striking stainless steel design. While many other dehydrators are made of plastic, this one’s exterior – combined with the glass door – make it one you can be proud to display on your counter all year long.
The control panel lets you control both temperature and time. You can choose a temperature between 95 and 165 degrees Fahrenheit. As for time, you can add 30-minute chunks for up to a maximum of 48 hours. While running, this machine provides heat from the back rather than top, so all racks warm evenly. It’s also extremely quiet, so it won’t drown out your television or keep you from falling asleep. And when your timer finishes, it will automatically turn off.
What about capacity? The COSORI dehydrator has six trays/racks, and each one is 12×13 inches. You’ll have no problem making several pounds of jerky at once. Additionally, these drying trays are safe for the dishwasher.
It also comes with some extra goodies, like a mesh screen and fruit roll sheet.
2. Excalibur Dehydrator Review
The Excalibur dehydrator is the Rolls-Royce of dehydrators, but it may offer more than you need. First off, it makes amazing use of space with its 9 trays and 15 total square feet of drying space. Weighing in at 22 pounds, it’s much heavier than most plastic models, but on par with the stainless steel COSORI above.
The Excalibur’s control panel is simple, but gives you precise control of both the temperature and time with two knobs. You can choose any temperature from 105° to 165° F, and the timer can be set for up to 26 hours. The ability to dehydrate at lower temperatures means that fewer nutrients and enzymes are lost. In addition to the knobs, the control panel also has recommended temperatures for various types of foods.
This model has a 7-inch fan and uses patented ‘Parallex Horizontal Airflow’ technology. Basically, this means that even, continuous circulation of warm air flows over all of your food.
While the Excalibur dehydrator provides tons of space and helpful features, reliability can be hit or miss. While reviews are overwhelmingly positive, a small portion of buyers have motor/fan issues. There’s also a decent chance that you simply don’t need this much area – are you really going to pack 15 square feet across 9 racks?
3. Elite Gourmet Dehydrator Review
Next up is Elite Gourmet’s digital dehydrator, which is a mid-sized model that comes with 6 trays. Each of the trays is 12×13 inches, and of course they are made of food-safe, BPA-free stainless steel.
The timer on this dehydrator can be set anywhere from 30 minutes to 19.5 hours. As for temperature, it has quite a wide range of 95 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. It also has an automatic shutdown to prevent over-dehydrating. To ensure even heating, heat comes from the back rather than the top or bottom. And you won’t have to worry too much about noise, as this is one of the quieter models on the list. This model also has a window so that you can check on your jerky (or other food) as it dehydrates.
What about extras? One solid sheet for fruit leather or “roll-ups” in addition to a drip pan are included. Both of those are dishwasher safe, along with the trays. Lastly, Elite Gourmet also provides a 1-year warranty.
4. NESCO Dehydrator Review
Unlike the dehydrators above, this one from NESCO is a cylindrical design with plastic trays, rather than stainless steel. One advantage of this setup is the ability to add extra layers to the stack. Five trays are included, and you can stack up to 12 total, with each tray having a diameter of 13.5 inches.
Like most other models, this NESCO dehydrator allows you to choose your temperature. Specifically, it has various increments between 95° and 160° F. While this dehydrator does have its fan positioned at the top, which is usually a negative, it uses patented ‘Converga-Flow’ technology to ensure that air is forced down the sides and across the trays, rather than straight down through the trays.
Unfortunately, this model does not have a timer; however, it does come with some bonus items, including a recipe book, two fruit roll sheets, two clean-a-screens, and a jerky seasoning sample.
5. Presto Dehydrator Review
This Presto dehydrator is by far the simplest on this list. Let’s first talk about how it works. There are no temperature controls, and not even an on/off switch. All you need to do is plug it in, and then it automatically starts working. Specifically, it heats up to approximately 165° F.
While there isn’t a window that lets you check out all the racks at once, the top lid is transparent so that you can see the top tray. Speaking of trays, there are four included with this model. If you want more space, you can expand with up to eight trays. And you’ll be happy to know that both the lid and trays are dishwasher safe.
While there aren’t any bells and whistles with this dehydrator, it’s reliable and gets the job done. If you want to experiment with jerky-making before fully diving in, this is a great starter model.
Summing Things Up
Let’s recap how to choose the best jerky dehydrator for your kitchen. First, start off by choosing one that’s large enough. Next, make sure it has the features you need. Specifically, decide if you want a timer and temperature control. Lastly, make sure the warranty is up to your standards. If you find that more than one dehydrator meets your needs, check out what extras come with each model as a sort of tiebreaker. Good luck!
And of course, please post any questions or comments about these dehydrators (or jerky-making in general) below!