If jerky, dried fruit, and dried vegetables aren't dietary staples for you, they should be. Enduring edibles are equally handy on camping trips, in an office, or on your couch in your underwear. For 20 years, the Ronco Food Dehydrator has been my personal jerky go-to. It would take a killer dehydrator to dethrone it. The Excalibur did just that.
It's a high-end, high-capacity electric food dehydrator.
Home jerky enthusiasts. People who dream of a better fruit roll. People who think paying nine bucks for half pound of dried mango is highway robbery.
It's a big rectangular box (12.5 inches tall x 17 inches wide x 19 inches deep), made of stainless steel and plastic panels. The front door comes off completely, revealing slots for nine trays (or five trays in the lower-end unit). In the back of the unit is the heating element and powerful seven-inch fan to circulate the hot air.
The square trays are come standard as a hard plastic grid with a flexible plastic mesh laid on top, or you can level-up for stainless steel trays for $100 more. On top of the unit you have controls to adjust the temperature between 95 and 155 degrees F, and a timer that can go up to 26 hours and automatically shuts the unit down when time expires.
If you're making jerky, simply marinate your meat using whatever recipe you like (there are thousands), then lay the strips in a single layer onto one of the trays. Once your trays are loaded, pop the lid back on, set it to the appropriate temperature (155 degrees F for meat), and set the timer for approximately how long the recipe calls for. Check the meat every now and then to make sure it isn't over-drying (Tip: let it cool down first. Warm meat will be softer and more pliable, giving the impression that it needs more time, when it may not.)
Dried fruit is even easier. Slice it up, put it on the tray, set it to 135 degrees and walk away (the higher the water content, the longer it'll take). If you prefer fruit leather or fruit rolls to slices, puree fruit and spread it thinly onto some parchment paper. The dehydrator can also be used for making yogurt, drying herbs (use the lowest temp to keep flavors intact). When you're done, put your dried goods in ziplock bags or tupperware to save them.
Frankly, it's hard to pick just one, but we're going with the powerful fan. It does an excellent job of circulating the heated air throughout the interior of the dehydrator. As a result, all of the trays dry evenly, at the same speed. This means you don't have to shuffle them around throughout the drying process. It makes everything very easy.
That would have to be the price. Coming in at $400 for the stainless steel version with the plastic trays, the Excalibur is 10 times as expensive as the perfectly capable $40 Ronco Food Dehydrator. It's $500 if you want the stainless steel trays. It's also big and heavy. Yes, making your own jerky and dried fruit saves money, but you need to be realistic about how much you're really going to use it. How many batches will it take for it to pay for itself?
The Excalibur's promotional materials promises quiet operation. Whoops! It sounds like a badly aging air conditioner. Quiet, it is not, especially when you put it next to the Ronco Food Dehydrator, which is actually silent.
- We decided to test the highest-end model, which has the stainless steel body. Don't bother. Inside, it's the same polycarbonate as the lower-end plastic version. In other words, the stainless steel body is just for looks. It adds no functionality, but it does add a lot of weight. The stainless steel version with stainless steel trays comes in at 40 pounds. You can get the same capacity and functionality in plastic for $200 less, and it weighs just 22 pounds.
- For testing we made several varieties of beef and chicken jerky, dried apples, papaya, kiwi, and blueberries, and made five different types of fruit leather. All of it was delicious.
- We tested both the plastic and the stainless steel trays. The stainless steel trays are in fact, a little bit easier to clean. Not a lot, but a little. The fact that each plastic tray is basically in two pieces (a stiff plastic grid with a flexible plastic mesh on top) is slightly more unwieldy. However, the plastic trays have one major advantage: handling. The stainless steel trays get very hot in the dehydrator (up to 155 degrees), which means you probably want gloves if you're pulling a tray out to check it. In contrast, you can bare-hand the plastic trays, no problem, and they're a lot lighter. Advantage: Plastic.
- The capacity of this thing is fantastic. With nine 15-inch by 15-inch trays, it has a total of 15.3 square feet of space for drying stuff. You can do ten pounds of meat at a time, no problem.
- The time with automatic shut-off is awesome. You never have to worry about forgetting it (or being out of the house) and over-drying your food. Combined with the even heating, you can just set it and walk away. Super convenient.
- Since it costs literally a tenth of the Excalibur, it's not the best benchmark. But it's worth noting that the Ronco Dehydrator has lasted me more than 20 years and it still works fine. This is mostly because there are no moving parts, so there's not much that can break. You might worry about the fan on the Excalibur, but the unit comes with a 10-year warranty, which should be enough time to get your money's worth.
The $300, all-plastic, nine-tray version with the timer and variable heat is a solid buy, provided you'll actually use it. The stainless steel doesn't add enough value to justify the additional $200 and 18 pounds.
In 20+ years of jerky-making, the Excalibur makes the best dried foods of any device I've used, and it does it faster and more conveniently. The biggest downsides are the amount of space it takes up (it's a better garage gadget than a kitchen gadget) and somewhat annoying noise of the fan. Three hundred bucks is still steep when you compare it with a $40 alternative, but if you're really going to use it, the quality and ease of use make it worth it. [Amazon]