This the Ultimate Guide to the Beef Jerky Dehydrator. In this article, you will learn everything you need to know about making jerky using a dehydrator.
Beef Jerky Dehydrator
A dehydrator is a common small appliance for the kitchen, and it can be found in most home goods stores and online. They range in size, though all consumer models fit on the counter and in general don’t take up much space.
The unit heats up and circulates warm air around your jerky and other foods to draw out the moisture. Over several hours, this process dries out the food, resulting in dehydrated meat, or jerky.
Most of these units have an enclosed heater on the bottom, and several stacking trays on the top. Each tray gives you some flat space to lay out your jerky strips, and as you fill a tray, a new one goes on top giving you more space.
Finally, the lid goes on to help hold in the heat, and in a few hours you have delicious homemade ground beef jerky to eat.
Thankfully, a jerky dehydrator is a really inexpensive item. You can find them as low as $35, with $40 to $60 being the average entry level range. Do’t be afraid of the inexpensive models though, because they work perfectly for making jerky.
Jerky Dehydrator Parts and Pieces
All food dehydrators are made of mostly the same parts. These are what make the appliance work, and help you make your jerky.
- Heating Element
- Blower Fan
- Temperature Adjustment
- Power Switch
The main part of your dehydrator that does the work is the heating element. It gets the air up to temperature for the blower fan to move it around the unit. That’s how dehydration works.
The machine moves hot air around the food quickly and consistently. The passing air removes moisture as it goes by, drying out your jerky in the process.
The blower fan and the heating element are located at the bottom of most dehydrators, and they are housed in an enclosure for safety. There will be vents in the enclosure that let out the warm air, and help circulate it around the trays.
The trays are flat pieces of plastic that have a grid on the bottom to help with air flow but also hold your jerky in place without falling through. There are typically four trays on most dehydrators, and that’s about enough for a two pound batch.
Some trays stack in any order, but some stack together in pairs. When you get your dehydrator, stack up the trays without any jerky on them so you can see how they work before your hands are covered in jerky meat.
There is usually a lid with most units unless the heating enclosure is the lid, but the reasoning is still the same. The lid helps keep the heat trapped inside the machine as it works on your jerky, speeding up the process.
Some units have a temperature adjustment, and some don’t. It’s a good idea to look at the description of any dehydrator that doesn’t have a temperature adjustment to see what the operating temperature is.
For jerky, you want 160-165 degrees, and any dehydrator without a temperature adjustment is usually set to that temperature internally.
Finally, in an effort to save manufacturing costs, most food dehydrators do not have power buttons anymore. At least the entry level machines do not. That’s ok though, because when you plug it in, it will turn on.
Getting Extra Trays
First, the four tray models are good for a couple pounds of meat, but you really do need to lay down the strips tightly, and with the right thickness to fit them all. While this is not super difficult, it’s easier not to have to worry about space at all.
Next, some recipes that I share have a lot of dry ingredients, and some fresh ingredients like Parmesan Cheese. These really increase the volume of the meat that you have to turn into strips, and four trays will not be enough.
Finally, most dehydrators are designed to work with several more trays than the number you get with the unit. Look at the description, and get a dehydrator that you can grow with, and get a couple more trays.
I have the Presto Dehydrator, and a couple more trays will give you the flexibility and convenience that you need to make any recipe you can think of.
What to Look for in a Good Dehydrator
When it comes to making great tasting beef jerky in a dehydrator, there are only a couple things to look for when you decide on a unit.
First, look at the size. Most four tray dehydrators will do two pound recipes, which all of mine are. If you want more capacity, buy a bigger unit, just know it will cost a little more.
You could also buy a second entry level unit, and for a much lower cost you can run them both at the same time if you need to quickly and inexpensively increase your production. Add a couple extra trays on each, and you really jump in capacity.
While the temperature adjustment is nice, if you only plan on making jerky, you really don’t need it. Also, fancy dials, readouts, and LCD displays are cool to look at, but if they always say 165 degrees, they are kind of pointless.
The main thing you want to look for is the ability to add more trays, and then pick up the machine and make sure it doesn’t feel like junk. Check the specs to make sure it gets hot enough for jerky, and everything else is just extra.
The Least Expensive Dehydrators
The absolute least expensive dehydrators are going to be a little louder, a little hotter, and a little less featured than the better units. They will also be smaller.
If you absolutely have to get an entry level model to start making your own ground beef jerky, then do so. There is nothing wrong with them, and they will make excellent jerky just the same.
The features you will likely lose are a temperature control, on/off switch, and a little bit of space. As long as you have four trays though, you can do most two pound recipes.
Look for one that you can get more trays for in the future, and you are fine going entry level.
The High End Dehydrators
The bigger and more featured dehydrators can do a multitude of tasks, one of which is making beef jerky. If you go high end, make sure you get an increase in capacity when you buy a higher priced model.
In general, the more expensive units heat more evenly, and do an overall better job at giving you consistently good results. If you have a couple hundred dollars for a nicer machine, by all means go ahead.
Of all of these machines, the Excalibur units are some of the best. I have seen these in action, and they are jerky making machines like no other. If you are interested in professional results, and consistent results, this is your machine.
Not only will you get a much larger capacity, you will also get better screens, easier to handle trays, a temperature control system, and much more features than the basic models.
While you don’t need any of that, it is really nice to have. So, if you want to spend the money, go for it. You won’t regret having a really nice dehydrator if you stay consistent and use it a lot.
The Best Jerky Dehydrator
The best all around jerky dehydrator for the money is the Presto Electric Food Dehydrator. It’s the one I have, and I have made hundreds of recipes with it.
This is a good sized unit, and you can expand it by adding more trays. The machine comes with four, which is good for a couple pounds of meat.
Add a couple more, and you have a six tray beauty for less than $50 total.
This one setup will last you a very long time making your own beef jerky, and you can go for years without needing anything else at all.
This is a total investment of less than $100, and you will have enough cooking power to dehydrate four pounds of seasoned jerky meat at the same time.
That’s huge, and a very small investment.
You could spend nearly twice that on a larger machine and in the end just have the same capacity. Unless there are a lot of other features you absolutely need, this is a better way to get the extra space.
How to Use the Beef Jerky Dehydrator
Nearly all dehydrators work the same way. That’s great for you, because you can get going quickly without having to learn a lot. Here is what you need to know to make jerky well in your dehydrator.
Wash your screens first, especially if the machine is new. The trays/screens will need washing every time, even if you use the unit regularly. It’s just good practice and it keeps dust off your jerky strips.
First, lay out your jerky in strips or sticks with a small gap of about 1 /8 inch in between each piece. This will widen a little as the pieces shrink, and give you enough of a gap for air flow.
Stack the filled trays up and put the lid on the machine. Then, turn it on, and if there is a temperature setting turn it to 165, or the jerky setting.
After that, you just let the machine work for 3-6 hours depending on the recipe and your desired dryness level in your jerky. For most people, 3 hours is typically the magic spot, and your jerky will be firm but moist.
Rotate your trays once an hour, bringing the bottom trays to the top and the top to the bottom. In most machines, this is helpful. The trays closer to the heating element will get hotter than the ones farther away. Rotating fixes that.
Once your strips are done, take them out, blot them with paper towels to remove the excess liquid drippings, and then bag your jerky and place it in the fridge.
The dehydrator does basically all the work of turning your meat mixture into jerky, and that’s great news. If you can lay out your strips nicely, the machine will turn them into excellent tasting jerky while you wait.
Washing and Storing the Screens
Even when you use a lean hamburger heat, there will still be some fat that is rendered into a liquid and left on the screens. It’s typically orange in color, and when it cools it will become like a paste.
The easiest way to make sure you have clean trays without cross contamination between recipes is to wash them while they are hot. It also requires you to move with a purpose, and not waste time.
As soon as you get your meat bagged and into the fridge, switch your attention to the dehydrator trays. Washing them by hand, the still liquid fat deposits will come right off in warm water and with some dish soap.
When you are done, make sure to thoroughly wash the trays and get every last bit of soap residue off them. Then, pat them dry and stack them back on your dehydrator unit for storage.
If you have a dishwasher, check your trays to make sure they are dishwasher safe, which most are, and you can just load them inside. They will take up the entire dish washer more than likely, so don’t plan on washing much else in the same load.
Once they come out, stack them on the dehydrator and store the whole thing away where it will not get dirty or dusty.
Tips and Tricks for the Food Dehydrator
Like any piece of equipment, as you spend time learning about the machine and using it, you will discover the little nuances to your particular dehydrator. These will be your personal tips and tricks that you learn from first hand experience.
However, here are some basic tips and tricks that can help you with just about any dehydrator you choose:
- Rotate your trays each hour. It makes a big difference in some machines and no difference in others. However, you won’t find out util you have done jerky on the bottom and raw on the top. Don’t waste the time, just rotate your trays.
- Leave a small gap between your strips for air flow, which will help your machine cook all the jerky evenly.
- Arrange your trays so that the strips are perpendicular to each other from tray to tray. If your first tray has strips going left and right, make the next tray up and down. This will also make air flow easier.
- Make sure that the trays are seated on each other well, and that the lid is fitted tightly. Gaps, and places where air can escape reduce the effectiveness of the air flow in your jerky dehydrator, and that means a less effective cooking session.
- Smell the air coming out of the dehydrator often. This is one of the ways to learn more about the jerky making process, and adding smell into your list of senses is a great way to understand more about your recipes, and cooking in general.
Jerky Dehydrator Recipes
Most dehydrator recipes for beef jerky are easy to follow, use common ingredients, and result in some of the best tasting jerky in the world. All you need is a few good recipes to start your journey, and you will always have something tasty to make.
My recipes can all be found in the Ground Beef Jerky Recipes section of the site. If you get started there, you can find a lot of great tasting recipes that will give you a nice start into the hobby.
From there, you can take your hobby even farther by getting one or both of my jerky making books, which cover the process plus even more excellent recipes.
The website has plenty to get you started, and if you want to take the learning home, you can try my books too.
Storing Your Dehydrator
Most dehydrators compact down if you arrange the trays the right way. This means you can reduce the working size of the unit to something smaller for storage. If yours does not, that’s ok, it will just take up a little more space.
The best place for your dehydrator is inside a cabinet, or in the pantry. Keep it in a place that is free from dust and debris, and keep the lid on the machine to help keep the inside really clean.
Even if you use your jerky machine a lot, you still want to keep all dust out of the heating element and trays, because it will just get blown around and stick to your meat, which is gross.
Instead, store your machine well, and keep it clean. When you need it, a quick rinse is all you will need to do before you start laying out your jerky strips.