Dehydrating food is a pretty simple process; all you really need is a constant temperature and steady air flow. No matter what style of dehydrator you buy, I recommend going with a high quality model. Why? You will save miles on effort, efficiency, food safety, and food quality. Don’t be tempted by claims that a dehydrator will dry food much faster than others; food takes a certain amount of time to dry at the proper temperature, and no dehydrator will be way faster than another.
There are two basic styles of food dehydrators: Shelf style and stacking style. Each kind of dehydrator has benefits and drawbacks, which are outlined below.
When choosing a dehydrator, there are some key factors to take into account, including:
- heat and air flow
- access to the food
- temperature and time control
- materials and quality
Heat and Air Flow
The most important factor when choosing a dehydrator is having even heat and air flow. Without it, your food will dry unevenly, leading to loads more work culling and rearranging pieces during the multi-hour drying process, or worse, some pieces may remain too moist and therefore more prone to spoilage during storage.
Shelf style dehydrators typically have even temperature and air flow because their fan is placed at the back of the unit, supplying air flow horizontally across all of the trays at the same time.
Stacking style dehydrators with a bottom-mounted fan have uneven air flow. The bottom trays receive more air flow and a higher temperature than those at the top. Periodic rotating of trays is necessary to help ensure even drying. These tend to be the inexpensive ones. I don’t recommend these, ever. I had one once.
High-quality stacking style dehydrators are engineered better, to provide more even heat and air flow to the food. These typically have a top-mounted fan and heat source that is enclosed away from the trays so that none of them get too much heat. No rotation of trays is necessary.
Either way you go, make sure your dehydrator has a rear- or top-mounted fan and heating unit.
Access to the Food
Having access to the food during setup and drying is important. With a stacking style model, to access or even see the food on a tray, all the trays above it must be lifted off first, increasing the likelihood of spilling them, and reducing temperature for all of them during the moving process. The dehydrator then has to build back up to the proper temperature once they are back in place. This adds to drying time on top of the hassle/spill factor.
With a shelf style model, each shelf pulls out independently of the others, making the process quicker (keeping temperatures steadier) and reducing the chances for spilling food. You still have to take the door off to remove a shelf, but it’s much quicker than with a stacking model.
Although food drying is fairly simple, having versatility in your dryer is important. The two types of models each have their benefits.
Shelf style benefits: A shelf style dehydrator allows you to leave out a tray to leave extra room for drying a thicker food, such as whole bananas or fruit that is cut into thick pieces. You can also make yogurt in small jars in a shelf style dehydrator. Leaving out a tray to create more room is not possible with a stacking dehydrator.
Stacking style benefit: You can add on more trays. Stackable dehydrators typically come with 4, 6, 8, or 10 trays; if you need to expand on that, you buy more and add them to the original dehydrator’s stack (to a limit; too many and the heat and air flow won’t suffice). Adding shelves is not possible with a shelf-style dehydrator, and if you outgrow its size, you need to buy a second one to increase your drying space.
Although not a versatility issue, it’s worth noting that the square trays found in shelf tray dehydrators offer the most real estate (ie: square footage) for the unit’s footprint, because they have no hole in the middle. Stackable style trays have a hole in the middle where the air circulates up or down through the unit. For projects that involve spreading a semi-liquid on the tray, such as making fruit leather and dried soups or sauces, not having to negotiate the hole in the middle is a bonus.
Materials and Quality
Quality: I recommend investing the extra money in a high-quality dehydrator. A good dehydrator will have mechanical elements that last longer, the unit holds up to wear and tear better, and it dries food more evenly and safely (regular, predictable temps during drying are important!). It’s also likely to run quieter and use less electricity.
Materials: A high quality dehydrator should have FDA-approved plastic for both the shelves and interior surface (check the labeling). Low-quality dehydrators are less likely to have FDA-approved plastics. If you are concerned with plastics leaching into your food, and the FDA standard isn’t enough for you, there are some nice models that are made entirely of stainless steel. Avoid galvanized steel, it’s not food-safe!
Whether plastic or stainless, the outside cabinet should be double-walled with enclosed insulating material to reduce heat loss during use.
Temperature and Time Control
Temperature control: I strongly recommend getting a dehydrator that has an adjustable thermostat. Different foods require different temperatures to dry. Herbs dry at 95°F, veggies at 125°F, fruits at 135°F and meats in the 145°F -155°F range (that one’s a safety issue!). A one-temp-fits-all model is a waste of your time and money, and possibly, your food.
Timer with automatic shut-off: You can set it and leave for work, go to bed, or play outside. If you dry two types of food that need different drying times, you can set the timer to go off when the first food is ready, then start the unit up again to finish the second food. It’s worth paying extra for this feature. I did and I’m really happy with it.
My favorite: Excalibur brand. Yes, I get a small spiff if you click my affiliate link and make a purchase through the link (at no extra cost to you), but I only recommend it because I have one and I think it’s fabulous. I have the 9-tray model with adjustable thermostat and 26-hour timer with automatic shutoff. I also have some large, reclosable mylar bags. I call them my “prepper” bags. I don’t list any of the stacking style dehydrators here because I am such a fan of the shelf-style models, for all the reasons outlined above. Some of the stacking-style models are high quality, but having not used a good one, I don’t recommend them here.
Some other recommendations:
- Excalibur 5-tray dehydrator
- Excalibur 9-tray stainless steel dehydrator
- Live in a hot, dry state and want an electricity-free, bug-and-critter-proof outdoor food drying option? Check out this hanging food dehydrator.
- Fine mesh sheets for drying sauces, soups, yogurt, etc. Excalibur makes a nifty washable, re-usable Paraflexx non-stick sheet option. You can use parchment paper, but the product peels off the Paraflexx sheets much more easily. Whichever brand of sheets you buy, make sure they are FDA-approved for food safety.
- Reclosable mylar bags for storage.
- Clear doors for better visuals during drying – keeps the doors shut and temps regulated.
- Fun fashion colors to make your kitchen look like a TV show set.
Now you know everything you need to go and get an awesome food dehydrator. I’d love to hear what you get, and how you like it!