Make apple chips, kale chips, beef jerky, and mango-apple fruit leather; dry sprigs of thyme and halved plum tomatoes
Record the time required to complete each task
Track the drying temperature over time at low, medium, and high settings
Hold a series of blind tastings of each food
Evaluate ease of use during setup, dehydrating, and cleanup
What do kale chips, dried thyme, and beef jerky have in common? They’re all dehydrated foods. Although you can dry some foods in an oven or microwave, food dehydrators are more convenient and produce better results. Why? They have fans that circulate air to facilitate dehydrating, and they provide multiple levels of flat rack space for drying large volumes at once. In addition, some models include timers that automatically shut off the machine at the end of the dehydrating cycle.
To find the best dehydrator, we purchased five models priced from $64.94 to $241.50. We set them to work creating some of our favorite dried snacks (apple chips, kale chips, beef jerky, and mango-apple fruit leather) and some pantry staples that we could use for cooking (dried tomatoes and dried thyme). Throughout, we timed how long each batch took and checked on how evenly the foods dried. Then our tasters rated the foods on flavor, texture, and overall appeal. Finally, we rated each machine on how easy it was to set up, use, and clean.
A Learning Curve
Food dehydrators come in two styles—large boxes with trays that slide in and out like oven racks, and those composed of round, stackable trays that seal together and are capped by a lid; our lineup included both. Both styles work on the same general principle: A heating element warms the air, and a fan (located in the back of sliding-shelf models and at the top or bottom of stacking-shelf ones) blows it across the trays, carrying moisture away from the food and sending it out through vents.
Without test kitchen–approved recipes to test, we had to do a bit of research before diving in. We consulted the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food safety guidelines, studied academic research, and read each manufacturer’s instructions. All sources agreed that food should be sliced thinly and uniformly before dehydrating. As for instructions for specific foods, most concurred that jerky should be dried between 135 and 155 degrees, herbs between 90 and 100 degrees, and most other produce between 135 and 140 degrees. Sources typically provide wide windows for drying times—one stated that apple chips are done somewhere between 4 and 10 hours. These wide ranges account for variance in the moisture levels in the food (some apples are juicier than others). Personal preference also comes into play; some like their apple chips chewy, and some like them crisp. We hedged our bets by setting our texture goals ahead of time and checking the food hourly, starting at the beginning of the suggested range.
When we averaged the results of our tastings for each of the dried foods, one model consistently earned top marks for drying foods uniformly while preserving their flavor. This machine produced apple chips with a “bright, sweet apple taste” that was deemed the best overall, tomatoes that were “dry but tender,” and kale chips that were both crisp and “full of kale flavor.” The other machines were spottier, missing the mark once or even repeatedly. There were notable differences in how long machines took to complete each task, especially with slower projects. It was most obvious when we dried plump, juicy halved plum tomatoes. The quickest machine took 16 hours and the slowest never quite finished—even after a whopping 30 hours. No surprise that our panel panned the “unacceptably wet” tomatoes dried in that machine.
Design in Action
When we considered the experience of using each machine, two factors made a difference: tray shape and access to the foods while drying. We calculated the total square footage of tray space in each machine, but as we filled them, we realized that the shape of the trays was just as important as total area. Stacking-shelf machines had doughnut-shaped trays with holes in the middle for air flow, so their usable surface was no greater than 5 inches from the center to the outer edge. Arranging round slices of produce and strips of jerky on these trays sometimes felt like a jigsaw puzzle, and fewer pieces of food fit. By contrast, sliding-shelf machines had large square or rectangular trays that were at least 11 inches across. They were easy to load and held more food.
Given the variability of drying foods, touching and tasting the food is the only surefire way to gauge doneness, so access should be easy. Doors on sliding-shelf machines opened easily, giving us access to all of the trays at once. Stacking-shelf machines were trickier. Their motors are located in the top or bottom of the machine: Machines with motors at the bottom could continue whirring away when we lifted off the lid and peeked at each level. But one dehydrator with the motor in its lid posed a challenge. We had to hold it while it ran, delicately place it on the counter, or unplug it and plug it back in (there was no power button) when checking for doneness.
All parts of a food dehydrator must be kept clean for food safety, so easy cleanup is essential. In addition to the regular racks and lids or doors, machines come with special trays for fruit leather and mesh inserts for small items. We gave top marks when all of these racks and accessories were dishwasher-safe, and we especially appreciated ones that were safe to run on either the top or bottom rack of the dishwasher (some were safe only on the top rack). After considering all of these factors, we were happy to find that the model whose food we’d liked the most in tastings was also the easiest to use. A sliding-shelf machine, the Excalibur Food Dehydrator ($241.50) was the clear winner. Its nine square trays were spacious and easy to load, and they’re dishwasher-safe. The door comes off easily, allowing us to check food as it dries, and its timer with automatic shut-off allows for hands-off operation. We also found a Best Buy: the Presto Dehydro Electric Food Dehydrator ($74.47), a stackable model that produced very good dehydrated food.