To find the best dehydrator, we purchased five models and 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).
Published Sept. 1, 2016.
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 about $65.00 to $240.00. 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.
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 consistent...
The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing. We stand behind our winners so much that we even put our seal of approval on them.
Kate is a deputy editor for ATK Reviews. She's a culinary school graduate and former line cook and cheesemonger.