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April 1, 2016 Comments (0) Kitchen Appliances

The Best Dehydrator For Jerky: Make Jerky Like A Pro

dehydrators header

There is nothing like being able to make your own raisins, prunes, beef jerky, or even dried fish. Modern food dehydrators make this so easy a child can do it. They are as close to fool-proof as possible. But, there are a lot of food dehydrators on the market. How is one to know which one is best for them? I am going to tell you how to do just that very thing.

Believe it or not, dehydrating food is a process that has been around for a very, very long time. In fact, it is one of the earliest forms of food preservation there is. Before you can figure out which dehydrator for jerky is best for you, you should know some things about food dehydrating. I’ll start from the beginning….

Dehydrators for JerkyBrandMy Opinion
Excalibur 3926TB
excalibur
ExcaliburVery large. Great for jerky. Durable.
Nesco Snackmaster Pro
nesco
NescoGreat option for the price, smaller than the excalibur.

What Is Dehydrating?

Home made jerky.

Home made jerky.

It’s not as complicated as it sounds. Dehydration, also known as Desiccation, is simply removing the water from an organic object. Removing the water causes the object to shrink, and become brittle. So why would you want to do that to your food? Well, food spoilage is cause by various species of bacteria, molds and fungus. Now, all bacteria do not have to have air to live, but without exception, everything has to have water. Removing the water from food keeps these little critters from being able to use it. So the food does not spoil. That’s why I love jerky.

How long your food lasts depends on how much water you can remove. All living things will be around 75% water. You need to remove from 80% to 95% of the water for the food to be properly dehydrated. This means the food will weigh about 90% less…great of you have to carry it. So, you can take 3 days of food in a back pack, or over 2 weeks worth of dried foods for the same, or less weight. And dried foods will take up 1/3rd of the same space as non-dried food.

There are several ways to remove water from food. The most basic is Air-Drying, where prepared food is laid-out on a mesh-covered tray (because bugs like the same foods you do…). Set this in a cool place where air will continuously blow over them, drying the food by evaporation. Next is Sun Drying. It’s the same thing, but you put the food in direct sunlight, where the heat speeds up evaporation. Air Drying and Sun Drying can be tricky because the weather does not always cooperate. The air needs be less than 60% humidity. This makes it not a good option where I live in the Deep South, because the humidity never drops to 60%. Texas…maybe. Georgia…forget it. It’s not gonna happen. Luckily, we humans are clever. You can easily make dehydration boxes where the temperature, and humidity can be somewhat controlled. Next up, you can use a normal, everyday kitchen oven. Just keep the temperature high enough to evaporate, but low enough not to cook….around 140∘F. It usually takes anywhere from 3 to 24 hours for things to dehydrate in the oven. You can also use a Toaster-Oven, the same way. For great instructions on how to dry foods at home, Virginia Tech has an outstanding website that explains everything about how to dry foods at home. The last method is to use a Food Dehydrator, which is the subject of this article.

The Electric Food Dehydrator Arrives…

Do you remember those TV commercials from the 1980s for things like the Vego-O-Matic, and the Popeil Pocket Fisherman? They were sold by a company called Ronco, owned by Ron Popeil, a very prolific inventor. Well…in the early 1980s he patented the first electric dehydrator, which is still a big seller for them. Of course, since then, many more elaborate models from lots of companies have been marketed, but Uncle Ron is the man who started the ball rolling.

An electric food dehydrator is a simple appliance. It has a heating element for heat, a thermostat to control the temperature, and a fan for even air-circulation. There are two main types, the stackable tray style, which sits on a countertop, and has several rows of plastic trays stacked in layers, one above the other. The trays are perforated to allow air to circulate. This is the appliance that Ron built. They are great for most people, but they are a bit limited in the amount of food you can dry at one time. The disadvantage of stacking dehydrators is that since the trays are stacked on top of one another, if you want to remove a particular tray, you have to unstack the ones above it.

dehydrator stacks

Stackable tray style dehydrator.

The other is the cabinet-type, which is larger and usually sets on the ground. It has more, larger trays, that slide into runners, like drawers in a cabinet, and can dry a lot of food at once. Hunters and Preparedness people really like these because of the amount of dried food they can crank out. Cabinet types are more expensive, but do a very good job. The disadvantage is that the design limits how many trays can be used in it, however, the units can be made as large as you could reasonably want, with some commercial units having 20 or more trays, each several square feet in diameter. Whichever type you prefer, most will come with timers, and thermostats,

cabinet dehydrator for jerky

Cabinet-type dehydrator.

If you can dry foods in the air or oven, why would anyone want one of these? Easy… first, local climates may not be very friendly to the drying process. Second, using your oven can be expensive, because it will use a lot of electricity. You’ll have to have your oven for 3-24 hours at a time, with the door cracked open a bit, which will also heat up your house, and make your air-conditioner work harder, using still more electricity. Electric Dehydrators use far less electricity, and do not have to be monitored. You can pretty much just load them, set them, and forget about them until the timer goes off.

So, now you know all about food dehydrators. With a little practice, you’ll be making jerky like a pro.

Reviews Of The Best Food Dehydrators For Jerky

I’ve reviewed a few of my favorite models to help you get started in your search for the ultimate food dehydrator for jerky..

1. Excalibur 3926

My favorite dehydrator for making jerky.

My favorite dehydrator for making jerky.

One of the neatest things that I love about the Excalibur is that you can take the trays out and use it as a proofing-box for bread and pastries. It is perfect for jerky. I even use it to make kefir, cheese, and yogurt. It makes a great food warmer, too. It is one of the most versatile dehydrators I have ever had. It’s as traysclose to fool-proof as it gets. If I could only have one dehydrator, and I could have whatever I wanted, at any price, this would be it.I also have this unit (if you haven’t guessed it by now, I am an appliance freak…). A client sent one to me quite some time ago to write a review on it for their website. I have been using it ever since. This is not a cheap unit, but when you get one, you’ll see that it is well worth the money. At 600 watts, and 24 lbs, this thing is a beast. It has 15 full square feet of drying space, which means this unit produces huge amounts of dried tidbits. I really like the fact that all of the working parts (thermostat, fan, heater) are in the rear of the unit, so no food juices ever drip on them. It sucks cool air in, heats it, and circulates it over each tray evenly. I have dehydrated more than 100 lbs of food in mine, and so far, I have never had a problem with tastes mixing. I have never had to rotate the trays for even drying. It has an on/off switch and a 26-hour timer. The mesh trays are well-made. The thermostat on mine is within 5 degrees accuracy. At 2’ square, it will fit on a table or counter-top.

2. Nesco Snackmaster

A cheaper option, great for jerky.

A cheaper option, great for jerky.

I have this unit myself, and it is a great stack dehydrator. At 600 watts, this thing gets the job done, even here in Ga., where the average humidity stays between 71% and 85%, depending on the time of year. It does not have a timer, or automatic shut-off, but most people have a kitchen timer, or some kind of alarm clock, so this isn’t really an issue. One of the things I really like about this unit is that the fan is in the top, so you don’t have to worry about juices dripping into it and being slung everywhere inside. Another great thing is that it has a unique circulating system that moves air through the center, and up through the trays, so that the flavors never mix if you are drying several different things at once. It also eliminates the need to have to rotate the trays every few hours, like on some other units I have had in the past. It comes with 5 trays, but you can expand it to 12, which is a substantial amount of dried jerky in one session. The 13” diameter is about right for a counter-top appliance. At just 6 lbs, it won’t give you a hernia trying to put it on a storage shelf. I only have 2 gripes about the Snackmaster, and neither one is is really a big deal. First, the Snackmaster has no on/off switch. When you plug it in, it’s on. To turn it off, you just unplug it. Next, and this is my biggest one, the thermostat is off by about 20∘. I checked it with an oven thermometer when I first got it, and when set at 135∘, It stays at around 120∘. At 160∘, it never gets over 135∘, which is OK, because you don’t need to ever go over 140∘  anyway. Still, I think the thermostat settings could be a little more accurate. It was not a big enough issue to return it, and it may just be my particular unit. I can live with it… If you get one, be sure to check the settings with an oven thermometer before you use it, so you can make allowances. The Nesco comes with a 1-year Warranty. Considering the price, this is a great unit, and in my opinion, one of the best of this type.

Live And Let Dry…

dried beef jerky

We have solid archeological evidence that people were drying foods as far back as 12,000 BC. That’s even before the advent of agriculture, when we were still hunter-gatherers. I guess at some time, a group of hunters sliced up a kill, set it out in the sun, got busy fending off saber-toothed tigers, or whatever, and forgot about the meat. When they remembered it, it was bone dry, but it was all the food they had, so they ate it, and surprisingly, found it delicious. And they also discovered that it did not rot, like regular meat, and could be stored for long periods for future use. It weighed nothing, so it was easy to carry with them when they were on the move. Now, they had food for the lean times when game was not so plentiful. It was the first step to evolving past the nomadic hunter-gatherer stage. If they had never discovered dehydration, it is unlikely we would’ve ever been able to stay in one place long enough to learn how to grow things, raise livestock, and manipulate everything through selective breeding. Agriculture and livestock production is what allowed us to create the first cities, division of labor, and all the other things that make us what we are today. So we owe a lot to chef Ugh, and his (or her) discovery.

Dried food was very important all the way up to the invention of canning in the early 1800s. Before that, armies and explorers would’ve had to forage along the way (which they did to some degree) for food, and that would’ve taken time away from their missions. Also, foraging can be a very iffy proposition at times, especially in the winter. And of course, sailors on ships would’ve been out of luck, because they would’ve had to carry live animals (which they did as well) onboard, which had to be fed, watered and cleaned up after, and also took up a lot of space, and used provisions and space the crew needed. Dried foods allowed armies to range all over the planet, and explorers to reach the most remote and exotic locations. Dried foods allowed sailors to roam the oceans of the world without having to make a port every week or so to hunt or round-up animals.

Even in the modern world, it’s hard to imagine life without raisins, beef-jerky, and dried spices. Hikers certainly appreciate the ability to have dried banana chips, berries, apricots, raisins, dates, nuts, and other goodies, mixed with deliciously sweet dried oats, and affectionally known as, “Trail Mix”. Add some M & Ms to the mix and you have what we called in college, “GORP”. It is unlikely we would have survived the grueling study regime (I majored in Biology and minored in Physics….), inflicted on us by sadistic professors who were convinced we collectively had the intelligence of a mentally challenged vegetable, without Gorp to keep our strength up when there was no time to actually eat. Dried foods still have an important place in our culinary world.

Conclusion: Make Jerky Like A Pro

I hope this article has helped you in finding the right dehydrator for jerky. Check back often for more in-depth articles and product reviews.

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