The Best Food Dehydrators for Beginners

Whether you want to preserve your garden harvest or make healthy snacks for school lunches, discover how handy a food dehydrator can be and find out which model is right for you.

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August 04, 2020

When you grow food yourself, you'll do anything to keep it from going to waste — that's one of the many things I've learned in my years of vegetable gardening. Knowing how hard it is to coax food from the ground gives you a greater appreciation for farmers and gardeners everywhere. Which is why preserving extra food is so important. I enjoy canning when I have extra time, and freezing is definitely my go-to quick preserving method, but I also love dehydrating for making healthy snacks (from dried fruit to granola to beef jerky), drying herbs for storage and more. A food dehydrator is a must-have for any gardener's kitchen — and, really, for any home cook who hates to waste produce, which should be everyone.

Photo by: Excalibur

Excalibur

In some very dry climates, dehydrating can be done outdoors, and some indoor ovens will get to low enough temperatures (below 150 or 200 degrees) to use for dehydration. For most people and applications, though, a standalone dehydrator is necessary. Dehydrators come in a few shapes and sizes at different price points with some optional bells and whistles. But the basic technology for them is the same — they use low heat and a fan to slowly draw moisture out of food, preserving it in a dried state. The two most popular brands for home dehydrators are Nesco and Excalibur, and each offers advantages and disadvantages depending on your needs.

I started dehydrating food a decade or more ago and opted for an entry-level Nesco like the Snackmaster Express or Snackmaster Encore which includes accessories. While storage space is a consideration for any dehydrator, I liked the smaller size and the circular shape of the Nesco models. I used mine over and over again for many years to dry peppers, make jerky and dehydrate fruit, and it worked great. The only downside to this setup, in my experience, is that the rigid trays are hard to clean and, over time, became brittle and starting breaking. But that took several years and lots of wear and tear. When I decided to upgrade to a larger dehydrator a couple of years ago, my original Nesco was still in good enough shape to pass along to a friend in good faith. Nesco also makes several other models with enhancements like digital thermometers and timers, but overall, they’re a great option for beginners.

When it came time to upgrade, I found the Excalibur dehydrator models. They’re a little more expensive — or a lot more if you go all in — and do require more storage space. I have a 9-tray Excalibur with an adjustable thermostat and I love the square mesh trays, which I find easier to clean than the Nesco trays. In hindsight, I wish I’d splurged for the 9-tray model with the clear door and timer with automatic shut-off. The clear door means you don’t have to disrupt the drying process by opening the door to check on progress, and the timer means you can set it to shut off, say, in the middle of the night. Some dehydrating projects take 24 hours or more, so that timer would really come in handy. Excalibur also offers four-and five-tray options if you don’t plan on drying a lot of food at once (which, honestly, probably would’ve been fine for me), all the way to commercial-grade dehydrators with special features like zones for different temperatures.

Whichever model you pick, I recommend adding on silicone sheets like these for the Excalibur or these for the Nesco — they’re necessary for making dried fruit leather, which is a fun project and a good way to use up fruit that would otherwise go bad.

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