What is the Best Dehydrator to Make Jerky and Biltong?
Making jerky and biltong at home is becoming more popular as people start paying attention to all the unhealthy additives in commercial biltong. In addition to people wanting to know how to make jerky in a dehydrator people also ask if they can make biltong in a dehydrator. Although jerky and biltong are actually made in very different ways, a dehydrator can be used for both. It should be noted that biltong does not need heat whereas jerky does and therefore a high heat dehydrator is not required for biltong but is required for jerky. A biltong box does not use heat whereas a dehydrator typically will use heat and therefore a slightly different approach is required for making biltong in each – see the article “Biltong Machine Vs. Dehydrator Results” for more information. A good high-quality food dehydrator will ensure the process of making jerky and biltong is more efficient and will result is a better product. However, there are so many brands, types and models of food dehydrators out there that choosing the right food dehydrator can be confusing. In addition, dehydrating meat can be a frustrating process if your food dehydrator doesn’t function as well as it should. In deciding on the best dehydrator for making jerky and biltong you will need to consider various factors including size, build quality, reliability, price etc.
We’ll help you find the best food dehydrator for making jerky and biltong. We are aware that some people will want the highest quality, largest dehydrator available and will pay top dollar, while others will be more interested in a lower priced, entry level machine that can still get the job done and let you experiment without a big investment. We also recommend a low heat smoker for making jerky as it gives it a wonderful smoky flavor without the need to add artificial smoke flavor – see this article for more information and tips on making jerky go to how to make smoked jerky.
In this guide, we’ll show the specs and information that is needed to make an informed decision to buy the right electric food dehydrator. After understanding the specs and what goes into a good food dehydrator, you need to decide which one suits your personal needs the best and which one would look great in your home – after all, it will likely sit on your kitchen counter for large stretches of time!
We have focused on those dehydrators that are sufficiently powerful enough and reach a temperature high enough to safely make jerky and biltong. While biltong is cured prior to being dried and therefore does not require heat to safely dry it, jerky is generally not cured prior to drying and therefore needs heat to reach an internal heat of 160 degrees Fahrenheit prior to consumption. If a dehydrator does not reach the required temperature you can start the jerky in a low heat oven (e.g. 170 degrees F) to get the meat to an internal temperature of 160 degrees then put the jerky back in the dehydrator to finish the drying process. Note that you can even make jerky and biltong in an oven by using a low heat and leaving the door cracked open to promote thermal airflow in the oven.
Below are good quality dehydrators that range from entry level (basic) to very high end options.
What Makes a Good Food Dehydrator?
Temperature and Airflow:
A good food dehydrator achieves great results by efficiently removing water from food through a continuous circulation of thermostatically-controlled warm air that maintains an accurate and consistent temperature. We only recommend dehydrators that use both heat and a airflow (a internal fan). Dehydrators that do not have a fan take significantly more time to dry, do not disperse heat as evenly as those with a fan and will not dry jerky and biltong as evenly and consistently.
Better quality food dehydrators will have an adjustable thermostat that can usually be set from approximately 90 degrees F to 160 degrees F. The one exception is a dehydrator that is made specifically for one purpose – e.g. to make jerky. These can have a single temperature setting as jerky should always be done on a high temperature (e.g. 155 degrees F).
The food dehydrator needs to be able to maintain a temperature high enough to bring the meat temperature of jerky to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. In humid environments (e.g. southern coastal towns) a high heat setting and good air circulation is critical. Note that even if a dehydrator only goes up to 155 degrees, since the temperature inside the machine goes up and down around the set point of 155 degrees, the jerky should still hit 160 degrees at this setting. Some dehydrators only reach 130 F so make sure to choose a dehydrator that is rated to reach at least 155 F.
An evenly distributed airflow inside the food dehydrator is critical to ensuring that drying is even throughout the food dehydrator. If it is not even, the jerky from certain areas of the food dehydrator will be well done or less done than in other areas. If you are aware of this limitation you can rotate the trays or move the jerky to other areas inside the machine. Rotation of the jerky or the trays is typically required in the less expensive vertical airflow stackable dehydrators.
Horizontal Airflow VS Vertical Airflow
Horizontal and vertical airflow machines work differently and can provide different results. Vertical airflow dehydrators work by moving air from the bottom to the top of the dehydrator through a fan located on the top or the bottom of the unit. Horizontal airflow usually moves air from the front to back of the machine. Horizontal airflow is preferable over vertical as vertical airflow results in an uneven distribution of heat and therefore is not as suitable for drying large or dense items such as meat for making jerky. The downside of horizontal airflow machines is that they tend to be more expensive due to the components, better build quality and materials. Vertical airflow dehydrators are also usually larger but are also usually better looking from an aesthetics viewpoint.
Horizontal Airflow Dehydrator
Vertical Airflow Dehydrator
Size, Weight and Capacity
A high capacity food dehydrator with more drying surface and quality components can process a larger volume of jerky, biltong or other foods such as fruit and vegetables more efficiently than competing devices. People who prefer larger high capacity dehydrators need to keep in mind that these can take up more space on the kitchen counter. Size and weight is important if you are planning on moving the dehydrator regularly – for example taking it out of a cupboard and placing on the kitchen counter every time you want to use it. The size is also important if you plan on leaving the food dehydrator unit sitting out on your kitchen counter. The size and weight is less important if you will locate the dehydrator machine in your basement, garage or other out of the way location. Certain dehydrators are nicer to look at and therefore can easily be left out on a kitchen counter.
Home dehydrators generally weight from approx. 6 lbs. to 22 lbs. Commercial and higher end machines cab weigh significantly more. The high-quality Excalibur 2900 and 3900 9-tray dehydrators weigh approx. 22 lbs and the stainless steel versions of the home Excalibur machines weigh approximately 40 lbs.
Home dehydrator sizes range from approx. 13 X 13 X 6 inches to approx. 19 X 17 X 12 inches. The Excalibur 2900 and 3900’s are 19 X 17 X 12 inches. Note that the size of the dehydrator also does not necessarily mean it will produce better jerky or biltong. Ultimately the quality of the jerky is more important than the quantity it produces.
In deciding on a dehydrator machine, you will need to consider if you want a round or square dehydrator. Our preference for making jerky is a square machine as it is easier to lay the jerky in longer strips and generally you can fit more pieces of jerky into a square area than a circular area. In addition, we find the square machine easier to fit into a kitchen area and they take less space as in relation to their capacity compared to a circular machine. For example, the square shaped Excalibur 3926 (Editor’s pick) has a drying surface of 15 feet! Lastly, the square or rectangular machines are generally higher build quality and look better in a kitchen.
Dehydrators generally have a tray design that has either stackable or shelf trays. We prefer the shelf tray design as they heat and dry meat very evenly and are also easy to extract, clean and rotate if necessary.
If you are planning on making thicker pieces of jerky or biltong (or fruit pieces), you will need a dehydrator that has a larger space between the trays so that the meat does not touch the tray above it. The larger the number of trays the more capacity the dehydrator has. Some dehydrators (like the Presto 06300) are expandable. Some dehydrators large enough to hang strips of meat. These are great options for making biltong as you can take out the trays and hang the strips of biltong inside the machine. Examples of these machines are:
While a larger unit with a better performing fan is great for drying larger quantities of jerky and results in a better product, they are often louder than smaller units that have smaller fans. If your unit is in your kitchen and is being used a lot then you should consider the decibel output from the food dehydrator in your buying decision. Most manufacturers do not advertise the decibel level of dehydrator machines so if this is a concern make sure to look at customer comments and reviews of the product. In general a food dehydrator should be no louder than a microwave or dishwasher machine.
Ease of Cleaning
A high quality drying surface such as a porous poly screen will allow airflow around 100% of the jerky or biltong, resulting is a better, safer product and will also allow for easier cleaning. Removable trays that are easy to place in a dishwasher make the cleaning process much more efficient and enjoyable! Look for trays that are approved for dishwasher use. This is important as jerky tends to stick to the drying racks, especially if marinaded – e.g. home made teriyaki jerky.
Quality of Build and Warranty
With food dehydrators, the saying is true that you generally get what you pay for. While many of the food dehydrating machines may look alike and have similar descriptions, they can be significantly different when it comes to quality of build – specifically higher quality plastic parts, stainless steel parts and electrical components, including the heating element, temperature controls and fan motor. The higher end food dehydrators also generally will have a larger, better performing fan that facilitates better air circulation and thus more even and faster drying. Better units will also have heating elements and thermostats that are able to maintain a consistent temperature over long drying times.
A good indicator of quality is the warranty that the manufacturer provides. Warranties generally range from a 1-year limited warranty to a 10-year warranty. Excalibur machines generally have industry leading warranties but even different Excalibur machines have different build quality. For example, the Excalibur 2900ECB and Excalibur 3900B both have great warranties and look very similar, however, the 3900 has upgraded electrical components (e.g. a 600-watt motor vs the 2900’s 440-watt motor) and better plastic parts which translates into the 3900 having a 10-year warranty as opposed to the 2900’s 5-year warranty. Look for well-known highly regarded companies that have been existence for some time as these will generally offer a higher quality and user tested product and will also be able to fulfill their warranty obligations for years to come, if need be. When investing in a good food dehydrator we recommend buying the best machine that you can afford (unless you are really just going to experiment with making jerky or biltong and don’t plan on long term consistent use).
Trust and reliability in the manufacturer and the machine is key. Beware of cheap machines that have been sourced from China (e.g. through Alibaba) and then slapped with a white label “no-name” brand. Our research and summary of manufacturers and distributors as set out below, includes only reputable companies that have been in existence for some time.
Lastly, only buy a dehydrator that has BPA free construction and components!
Other Factors to Consider
Timer setting and auto shutoff: Although not necessary, a timer setting is great to have if you are going to start drying your jerky and be out of the house for a long time, just set the timer and come back to delicious homemade jerky!
Although the main point of buying your food dehydrator is to make jerky, biltong and other dried foods, the dehydrator can also be used for other pretty cool things including drying herbs and spices, drying nuts, raising bread, making pasta, re-crisping, (stale crackers, chips, cookies, cereals etc.), and making yogurt and cheese.
Popular dehydrator manufacturers include the makes and models of dehydrators set out below
We have included only dehydrator manufacturers and brands that have good overall quality, functionality and customer ratings. Choosing a dehydrator is very much a personal choice based on budget, aesthetics (how will it look in your home) and also the intended use (for example if you plan on making large quantities of jerky or biltong on a regular basis then we recommend a more robust machine with a better warranty).
Editors Pick – Best Overall:
1. Excalibur Dehydrators
This is our personal favorite brand and the one that we use to make jerky, biltong and to dry fruit. Excalibur has been making high quality long lasting dehydrators in Sacramento California since 1973. Excalibur has a great reputation in the industry and provides the best product warranty in the business, up to 10-years for their top end machines. As a result, they tend to be more expensive than some of the competition but may be worth the investment if you plan to use your dehydrator extensively.
The square or rectangular shapes of these dehydrators means more surface area relative to the amount of counter space they occupy. Excalibur dehydrators have a horizontal airflow. The parallel airflow technology ensures consistent heat distribution and thus dehydrating without needing to rotate trays. Some customers find the fan noise on the high side but we have found that is only the case only when compared to lower powered stackable design dehydrators. Their dehydrators also have adjustable thermostats which is a necessity if you want to properly dehydrate different types of products.
We like the visual look of these machines and they even offer different colors that suite different kitchen styles (red, white, black, stainless steel etc.). They have an extensive range of products from entry level to commercial grade dehydrators. Prices range from approx. $130 to over $12,000 for all USA made products. They do have a few cheaper stackable units made in China for $40 to $140 but this is not their primary product.
Budget to Mid-range Options:
2. Nesco Dehydrators
Nesco is a metalware company that makes a variety of kitchen products including dehydrators (they also make roasters, grills, slow cookers, vacuum sealers, food grinders, food slicers, steamers, blenders and toasters). Their “Open Country” line offers game processing and other jerky making accessories such as jerky guns, jerky spices, food grinders, vacuum sealers etc. Nesco is a well-known and popular brand in the food dehydrator industry with affordable options and generally good customer reviews. Their most popular products are the Snackmaster and Gardenmaster dehydrators. Their dehydrators are vertical airflow designs and some are able to expand with extra trays. They even make a fixed temperature jerky xpress machine plus kit for a very reasonable price. Note that their products vary greatly (e.g. from the small 350-watt jerky machine to a 1000 watt 20-tray option), so pay attention to the various features and specifications when choosing one of these dehydrators. This is a great choice for someone looking for an easy to use first dehydrator that won’t break the bank. Prices range from approx. $40 to $200.
3. Presto Dehydrators
Presto is another company manufacturing a large variety of small kitchen appliances. Their dehydrators are affordable machines that generally have good reviews from customers. Most of the machine are simple and easy to use but lack options such as temperature and timer controls although they do now have a couple of models that have a temperature and/or timer control. All have a vertical airflow design with a bottom-mounted fan and they are expandable by buying extra trays. Customer reviews are generally good for these machines and they are a good entry level option. Prices range from approx. $40 to $100.
4. Waring / Cuisinart Dehydrators
Waring is a leading manufacturer of professional-quality appliances for the home and foodservice and laboratory industries. They are known for Fred Waring introducing the first blender to America in 1937 and have manufacturing home products since then! They make both a square shaped horizontal airflow and a round shaped vertical airflow dehydrator. Both have 5-year motor warranties. We like the square shape model as it has a larger capacity (850 square inches), horizontal airflow, higher wattage (800 watts compared to 620 for the stackable round model) and an adjustable thermostat. It is quite similar in appearance to the entry level Excalibur machines. Cuisinart is owned by the same company that owns Waring and it produces a stackable vertical dehydrator that appears to be very similar to the Waring stackable dehydrator. Prices range from approx. $40 to $140.
5. NutriChef Dehydrators
NutriChef USA (Pyle) offers a range of dehydrators from the basic, no frills, very affordable, entry level (vertical) food dehydrator to higher end horizontal airflow dehydrators. The basic, entry level machines are the circular stackable design, are simple to operate, but need careful monitoring to rotate trays at the correct time and prevent over-drying. At the price, it is a very affordable way of getting started in food dehydration. The downside of the entry level units is: no thermostat or automatic shut off. no timer, food trays have to be vertically rotated during the dehydration process, no drip tray, smaller drying capacity owing to its lower power rating.
The “professional” model has horizontal airflow, timer, temperature control (85 degrees F to 160 degrees F) and an 800-watt motor to facilitate a higher drying capacity. This is a good looking, easy to use medium size and cost machine.
All Nutrichef dehydrators have a 1 year limited warranty (manufacturing defects).
They range in price from $40 to $110. Note that Nutrichef also has units for up to $440 – however, at that price we would recommend looking at some of the higher end home or commercial units made by Excalibur, XTS or TSM – see these options described below.
6. Magic Mill Dehydrators
Magic Mill makes two mid-range horizontal airflow dehydrators. The lower end unit has 6 trays and the higher end unit has 9 stainless steel trays. Both units have variable temperature and timer settings with an auto off function. The rear mounted fan results in horizontal airflow that ensures even drying without the need to rotate trays. Both have drips trays and have a transparent door that allows you to monitor the drying progress. The square shape also provides a large drying area and the units are also aesthetically pleasing and look good on a kitchen counter.
A few reviews complain of the machines taking a long time to dry than other higher end machines and not getting a temperature high enough for making jerky (i.e. not getting to 160 degrees F). The 9-tray unit is 660 Watt and the 6-tray unit is 400 Watts. Some reviews complain of a plastic smell although it appears that if “burnt in” and cleaned according to instructions this can be avoided. Unfortunately, these only have a limited one year warranty which is less than some of the other mid-range units and significantly less than the 10-year warranty on the Excalibur machines.
The MSRP on these units range from $150 for the 6-tray unit to $180 for the 9-tray unit, although we have seen them at significant discounts with prices of $80 and $150 respectively.
Note – there are many dehydrators on the market that appear to be very similar and either made by the same manufacturer or are replicas of each other, including Magic Mill, Aroma, Samson, Biochef and Ivation.
7. Gourmia Dehydrators
The Gourmia line includes several products ranging from an entry level circular design (stackable unit with vertical airflow) to a number of higher end dehydrators that are horizontal airflow machines. MSRP’s range from $70 for the entry level unit to $200 for the higher end units. We found that prices for these units vary significantly on Amazon with some being less than MSRP (as could be expected for items on sale) while some were significantly higher (as much as $100 or 50% above MSRP) which we found unusually high.
Overall these machines offer good options and functionality and are good looking products. Customers ratings for these machines are generally very good.
8. L’Equip Dehydrators
L’Equip is owned by L’Chef, distributor of Bosch mixers in the USA. L’Chef is very aware and focused on the direct correlation between processed foods and chronic disease. Their products help customers to eliminate processed foods that contain many disease-causing food additives including fat, sugar, sodium and chemicals and preservatives including food coloring, sodium benzoate and sodium nitrate. Per their website, “Creating homemade foods at home gives you the power to eliminate the harmful additives commonly found in processed foods. Making homemade generates an environment for health and life to flourish.” For more information read more at http://www.lchef.com/discover/health-matters.
L’Equip in turn focuses on 2 primary products that help people to eat more fruit and vegetables: dehydrators and juicers. Read more of this story at lchef.com.
L’Equip sells high quality technologically advanced food dehydrators with solid state heating, temperature control, large drying area, BPA free, and a “clean air filtration system”. They have a 10-year warranty on their products, a good indication of high quality.
The prices (MSRP) for their 2 product are $140 and $170 although as you will see in the linked products below you can generally find them for 20%-30% off. These are good products at a reasonable price and a good option for those wanting something higher quality than the start-type stackable but lower price than the Excalibur.
High-end and Commercial Dehydrators:
9. STX Dehydrators
STX makes 2 models of high quality dehydrators, one for home use and one for more commercial use (or heavier home use). Both have a horizontal air flow system with a rear mounted motor and fan that ensures uniform drying. These are well constructed dehydrators with all the bells and whistles including digital temperature control and a 40-hour timer. The stainless-steel racks and drip trays making it super easy to clean.
The home use model is the “STX Dehydra 600W” which is 12 X 14 X 19 inches, weighs 23 lbs and has a 600-watt motor. It has 1,055 cubic inches of drying area. It has an MSRP of $260, not bad considering all you get.
The commercial grade unit is the “STX Dehydra 1200W” which is 20 X 17 X 15 inches, weighs 38 lbs and has a 1200-watt motor. It has 16 square feet of drying area. The back heating and fan area of the unit can be removed for easy cleaning. The MSRP for this unit is $330.
The STX distribution and service center is based in Lincoln Nebraska and they offer a 3-year warranty on their products. These products are somewhat comparable to the Excalibur line but without the 10-year warranty..
10. TSM Dehydrators
TSM is part of The Sausage Maker, Inc, that has been has been making equipment for over 40 years. The founder, Rytek Kutas pioneered home use equipment to make sausage, jerky, cheeses etc. Most of their products are manufactured in Buffalo, New York. All equipment is performance tested by food service professionals.
Most of their dehydrators are commercial grade but there are a few options that, although still on the expensive side, are still in the price range for high end home use. They all feature temperature control, timers, rear mounted fans and stainless-steel components with a 5-year warranty.
These dehydrators can be compared to the STX line and the higher end of the Excalibur line. Prices range from $400 to over $5,000.