Beef jerky has long been a popular high-protein snack for its portability, shelf stability, and bold flavors. Traditionally made by marinating meat in a salt and spice blend, then slow-drying it to remove moisture, jerky’s popularity has led to many seeking easy methods to make it at home.
Two common appliances used are air fryers and food dehydrators. Air fryers use rapid air circulation and high heat to quickly cook and dehydrate foods. Models with temperature and time adjustments allow air frying thinly sliced meats into jerky. Dehydrators gently blow warm air over many hours, enabling longer moisture removal for a drier, denser jerky texture.
With varying features and results, air fryers and dehydrators each have pros and cons for making beef jerky. Looking at preparation, cook times, ease of use and other factors helps determine which is best for homemade jerky success.
Benefits of Air Fryers
One of the main benefits of using an air fryer to make beef jerky is the faster cooking time compared to a traditional dehydrator. Air fryers use convection heating and a fan to quickly circulate hot air and speed up cooking. This means you can have tasty homemade jerky ready in just a few hours rather than waiting overnight or longer for a dehydrator to fully dry out the meat.
Another advantage is that air fryers don’t require you to rotate trays during the cooking process. The fan and convection heating ensures even cooking throughout, so you can simply set it and forget it. With a dehydrator, you need to periodically check on the jerky and shuffle trays around to ensure uniform drying.
Finally, air fryers take up less counter space with their small footprint. A typical air fryer is about the size of a large toaster oven, while dehydrators are often bulkier. If you’re tight on kitchen space, an air fryer can be a more compact option for making beef jerky and other snacks.
Downsides of Air Fryers
Air fryers have some limitations compared to dehydrators that are worth considering:
- Smaller capacity – The basket size of most air fryers maxes out at around 5 quarts. This allows you to make jerky batches of 1-2 pounds. In comparison, dehydrators often have 5-10 stacked trays, allowing much larger batches of 5 pounds or more. You’ll have to do multiple batches in the air fryer to make the same amount of jerky.
- Less control over temperature – Air fryers typically only have basic temperature controls in 25-50 degree increments. Dehydrators let you set a precise temperature between 90-160 degrees, which is useful for adjusting to different stages of drying. The limited air fryer range makes it harder to find the ideal low temperatures for properly drying jerky without cooking it.
- Circular design – The bowl shape of an air fryer means jerky pieces are piled on top of each other. This can lead to uneven drying compared to dehydrator trays with an open layout. Pieces on the bottom get pressed down while pieces on top get more air exposure.
- No timer or auto shutoff – You have to manually monitor an air fryer and remember to turn it off once the jerky is done. Many dehydrators have timers that automatically stop heating after a set drying period.
The smaller size and lack of fine temperature control means air fryers can take more effort to use effectively for jerky. But they are still a viable option with some advantages.
Benefits of Dehydrators
Dehydrators offer some advantages over air fryers when it comes to making homemade beef jerky:
Dehydrators are specifically designed for drying foods, so they tend to have more space and larger trays than a typical air fryer. This allows you to dry larger batches of jerky at once. Many dehydrators have stacking trays, so you can increase the drying area and make big batches of jerky by adding more trays.
More precise temperature control
Dehydrators let you adjust the temperature in small increments, often down to just a few degrees. This level of precision is important for properly drying jerky without cooking it. You want to dry the jerky slowly at a lower temperature, around 145-155°F. Air fryers have less customizable temperature settings, which makes it harder to find the ideal low temp for drying.
Can add additional trays
With a dehydrator’s expandable system of stacking trays, it’s easy to increase your jerky batch size at any time. Just buy more tray inserts designed to fit your dehydrator model. Most air fryers have a fixed basket size, so you’re limited to that amount of jerky per batch. Expanding drying capacity with a dehydrator gives you flexibility.
Downsides of Dehydrators
Dehydrators take much longer to dry out jerky compared to air fryers. The drying process can take 6-8 hours or even longer depending on the cut of meat, thickness, and desired texture. This lengthy dehydration time requires periodically checking on the jerky and rotating trays to ensure even drying.
The multiple stacked trays in a dehydrator require periodically opening it up to rotate the trays. The trays closest to the heat source dry faster than ones on the bottom. Rotating the trays midway through drying helps the jerky dry evenly. However, this increases the chances of introducing contaminants each time the dehydrator is opened.
Proper rotation is key for evenly dried jerky in a dehydrator. Neglecting to rotate trays can lead to jerky that is dried out on top but still moist inside. The additional time and effort of monitoring and rotating trays makes dehydrators less convenient than the quicker air fryer method.
Jerky Recipe Considerations
When making beef jerky, the recipe and preparation method you use can impact the end result. Here are some tips for jerky recipes when using an air fryer versus a dehydrator:
For Air Fryers
- Cut meat into very thin, uniform strips, about 1/4 inch thick. Thinner strips will dry faster and more evenly in the air fryer. Thick pieces may end up under-dried on the inside.
- Avoid fatty cuts of meat, as excess fat can cause sputtering and smoke in the air fryer. Lean beef like flank steak or top round work best.
- Use marinades with strong flavors, as the quick drying time won’t allow the jerky to absorb as much flavor. Consider using salty marinades or dry rubs.
- Pat off excess marinade before air frying, so it doesn’t drip and cause smoking.
- Spices like black pepper, red pepper flakes, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika and cayenne add flavor.
- Meat can be cut into thicker strips, up to 1/2 inch, since the slower drying time allows moisture to dissipate from the middle.
- Fatty cuts like brisket work well since the fat renders slowly. Avoid overly fatty pieces that can spoil.
- Marinades with less intense flavors work well as the meat has more time to absorb tastes. Fruit purees or lower sodium marinades are options.
- Meat can be air dried after marinating to allow more marinade absorption before dehydrating.
- Same spices as air fryer recipes work well. Can also use lemon, Worcestershire, soy sauce, liquid smoke, etc.
When comparing air fryer versus dehydrator for making beef jerky, there are a few key factors to consider:
The texture of the finished jerky can differ between the two appliances. Air fryers circulate hot air around food at high speeds, helping to create a crispy outer texture. Dehydrators blow air at lower temperatures over longer times, resulting in a chewier, more leathery texture. For the tender, melt-in-your-mouth texture associated with high-quality jerky, dehydrators may have an edge. Though air fryers can make jerky crispy, the heat can toughen the meat if not carefully monitored.
In general, both appliances will allow the marinade flavors to penetrate the meat. However, air fryers sometimes impart a more roasted flavor from the hotter air temperatures. The slower dehydration process in a dehydrator retains more of the raw meat’s inherent flavor. For seasoned jerky with complex marinades, dehydrators bring out subtle flavors that air fryers may overwhelm. On the other hand, air fryers can add a toasted overtone that some find desirable.
Air fryers cook jerky much faster, usually in 1-3 hours compared to 6-8 hours for a dehydrator. The high heat expedites moisture removal so the meat dries quicker. With a dehydrator’s low, steady airflow the process takes more time. The quicker air fryer time can be a pro for those wanting jerky in a hurry. But the longer dehydrator time allows enzymes to break down the meat’s tough connective tissues, contributing to a tender texture.
Overall for making jerky, dehydrators produce more professional results with superior chew, concentrated flavor, and meat tenderness. But air fryers offer faster prep and a crispier, roasted end product. Consider your priorities like texture, cook time, and flavor when deciding between the two appliances for homemade jerky.
Cleaning and Maintenance
When it comes to cleaning and maintenance, air fryers and dehydrators have some key differences.
Air fryers tend to be easier to clean since all the cooking happens in a small, contained basket. Once cooking is done, you simply remove the basket and wash it by hand or pop it in the dishwasher. The fryer base can be wiped down easily with a damp cloth. Air fryer baskets have a nonstick coating, which prevents food from sticking and makes cleaning a breeze.
Dehydrators require a bit more effort to clean. The trays must be scrubbed by hand to remove stuck-on food debris. Stubborn messes may need to be soaked before scrubbing. Additionally, dehydrators have an exposed heating element and fan which can get dusty. These areas will need occasional deep cleaning. The vents on a dehydrator should also be cleaned of food debris.
Overall, air fryers provide quicker and easier cleanup with their removable, dishwasher-safe baskets. Dehydrators involve more scrubbing of trays and occasionally cleaning the interior workings. For those who want the quickest appliance cleanup, an air fryer is likely the better choice.
When deciding between an air fryer and a dehydrator for making beef jerky, cost is an important factor to consider. Here’s how the prices compare:
- Air fryers are generally more expensive than dehydrators. A basic air fryer suitable for making jerky will cost $75-$150, while a basic dehydrator can be found for $40-$100.
- High-end air fryers with extra features and large capacities can cost over $200, while high-end dehydrators with lots of trays rarely exceed $150.
- Extra accessories needed for air frying jerky like nonstick or mesh sheets will add $10-$30 to the cost. Dehydrators usually come with all the trays and meshes needed.
- Over time, dehydrators may save money because their lower temperature drying uses less electricity. Air fryers run at a very high temperature which demands more energy.
- Replacement parts and accessories are widely available for dehydrators if needed. Air fryer accessories are harder to find and may require ordering directly from the manufacturer.
So in summary, dehydrators provide an economical option for jerky making, while air fryers come at a premium price. But air fryers offer versatility to make other foods, so may justify the cost for multi-purpose cooking needs. Consider your budget and how often you’ll use each appliance when deciding.
Conclusion and Recommendation
When comparing air fryers and dehydrators for making beef jerky, there are pros and cons to each option.
- Faster cooking time
- Don’t need to rotate trays
- Smaller footprint
- Less control over temperature
- Lower capacity
- Potentially less evenly dried jerky
- Precise temperature control
- Higher capacity
- Even drying
- Slower drying time
- Need to rotate trays
Overall, dehydrators are the best choice for making beef jerky for a few key reasons:
- Dehydrators are designed specifically for drying and dehydrating foods like jerky. The temperature and airflow control allows for optimal, even drying.
- The capacity is much higher in dehydrators, allowing you to make larger batches of jerky at once. This is important for prepping jerky to store and enjoy over time.
- The slower drying process in a dehydrator results in superior texture and moisture levels for the jerky. While air fryers are faster, dehydrators produce better quality results.
For these reasons, a dehydrator is recommended over an air fryer for anyone who plans to make homemade beef jerky on a regular basis and wants the highest quality results. Air fryers can work in a pinch, but dehydrators are the superior appliance for jerky making.