Apple chips, dried mango and beef jerky are all foods you can make in a food dehydrator, which dries foods at a low temperature over a long period of time. The lack of moisture intensifies the food’s flavor, which makes fruit taste sweeter and herbs more pungent; it also allows it to store well for a long time.
In addition to being more flavorful and shelf-stable, homemade dehydrated snacks tend to be healthier than the ones you buy in a store; they typically feature one whole ingredient that has simply been dried with no additives, preservatives, or calorie-laden ingredients, like oil or sugar. They can also be customized exactly how you like (you can add extra salt or none at all, for example).
Dehydrating also retains the nutrients in food better than some cooking methods. When an ingredient like kale, which is full of water-soluble and heat-sensitive vitamin C, is boiled, it loses some of its immune-boosting potency. Dehydrating it at a low temperature preserves its nutrients and vitamins better.
How does a dehydrator work?
Dehydrators dry foods out by circulating air at a very low temperature. The foods must be arranged in a single layer without touching so they can dry fully and evenly. Different temperatures are recommended for different foods based on water content:
- Water-dense ingredients, like fruit, usually benefit from a higher temperature, like 135°F, so they can dry quickly without becoming too crisp.
- Vegetables can be dehydrated at a lower temperature, like 125°F.
- Delicate foods, like herbs, should be dehydrated at even lower temperature, like 95°F, to prevent over-drying and discoloration.
- For meat, the USDA recommends cooking it first to an internal temperature of 165°F and then dehydrating between 130°F to 140°F. This method is suggested to kill any potentially harmful bacteria and encourage the cooked meat to dehydrate quickly and safely.
Here’s what else you can do with your dehydrator:
- Dry homemade pasta
- Ferment yogurt
- Make fruit leather, granola bars, dog treats, and more
- Make potpourri
- Recrisp stale foods like cookies or crackers.
- DIY art projects, like dehydrated flour and water molds that can be painted
What kind of dehydrator is best?
There are two main types of dehydrators: Dehydrators with shelves that stack and dehydrators with pull-out shelves. The main difference between these two styles is the placement of the fan, but in our dehydrator tests, we saw minimal difference between the two styles when we dried apple slices, parsley, and beef for jerky. We also found that both styles offer models with wide temperature and timer ranges, an important feature to look for so you can control your results with precision.
- Dehydrators with stacked shelves have a small fan is on the base and circulate air upwards. Stacking dehydrators often take up less space and are less expensive. Some are round and others are more rectangular in shape; we prefer the rectangular ones that create more surface area and accommodate different-shape ingredients better. Stacking dehydrators are ideal for dehydrating newbies or infrequent users.
- Dehydrators with pull-out shelves have a large fan in the back that tends to circulate the air better and more evenly, which results in more consistent results. Dehydrators with pull-out shelves are typically made of more solid materials to better control the temperature. Some have metal shelves instead of plastic for those who avoid cooking on plastic.
Can you use the oven as a dehydrator?
Like ovens, food dehydrators work by circulating air at very low temperatures for an extended period of time. But instead of cooking with heat, dehydrators draw moisture out of foods so they dry out and can be enjoyed for a long time.
Most ovens do not offer the same low temperatures that a dehydrator does. Some new models offer dehydrating as an option, but it is still not ideal due to the limited amount of racks and accessories most ovens come with. We do, however, like dehydrating in a toaster oven, especially large capacity ones like the June Smart Oven and Breville Smart Oven Air, which allow you to buy additional air frying/dehydrating racks to dehydrate more ingredients at once.
Is buying a dehydrator worth it?
Dehydrators are a useful appliance for mindful eaters. They encourage eating real, whole ingredients and are a good aid in eliminating food waste. They’re particularly great for parents who try to feed their kids healthy snacks, those who suffer from allergies, and those have a hard time finding additive-free snacks in stores.
Dehydrators are also very cost-effective in the long-run. They allow you to buy produce in bulk, especially when it is in season or on sale, and store it to use later on. They’re also a great tool for gardeners who often have a surplus of ingredients on hand.
The downside of dehydrators is they take a long time to dry out food and their yield is often easy to devour in one setting. If you buy a large one with a timer, however, the process is quite hands off and rewarding.
Tips for dehydrating
- Cut foods into even pieces before dehydrating. The thinner the food, the quicker it will dehydrate.
- Arrange food in a single layer, with at least 1/8 inch of space in between.
- For a chewy texture, dehydrate foods for less time.
- Turn dehydrator off when foods are flexible but still dry. They will be come less flexible as they sit.
- Foods must be fully dehydrated before storing for long periods of time. Y0u can check for this by placing dehydrated food in a sealed plastic bag. If any moisture droplets accumulate over the coarse of a day or two, the food is not fully dry. Dehydrate again.