Donated by: Everythingkitchens.com
Retail Price: $158.95
In the last few years there has been a resurgence of interest in home preservation. While this is not a necessity, due to modern packaging techniques, modern transportation and the advent of refrigeration, many people are drawn to these old techniques. For some it is a way to preserve the harvest of their own gardens, while for some others it's a way of capturing fruits and vegetables at their peak of ripeness. For others, they see it as a sense of duty so that they can rely on locally produced foods and remove themselves from the global market and all the perceived evils it has caused. And for others, it's because of the wonderful foods these preservation techniques create. While I agree with all these reasons, it is, probably, the final reason that weighs the most heavily for me. There is just something that I find very satisfying about opening a jar of homemade pickles, spreading homemade jam on my toast, or reaching for that jar of dried herbs that came from my own garden a few months ago.
The "rock stars" of today's modern preservation movement is home canning and home pickling. It has gotten a lot of press in the last few years especially as a number of big named chefs have turned to these techniques to add new layers of excitement to their menus, and to jump on the bandwagon of purchasing locally, and I have to admit that I have fallen into that allure and haven't given much thought to other forms of home food preservation. That is until just a few weeks ago.
Recently I was blessed with a new food dehydrator, the American Harvest Gardenmaster by Nesco, and I have been experimenting ever since. It has opened my eyes to a whole new world, at least to me, of preservation techniques. Of course, like with anything that is new, there is a learning curve. Luckily, the people at Nesco understand that many people have not tried their hand at drying foods so they included a wonderful full sized cookbook with the dehydrator to help the novice along. Reading through the book, I found all the information I needed to get started drying my own food. With their guidance I have yet to fail at anything I have attempted, from making raisins to drying my own fruit leather, to making a variety of beef jerkys.
The Gardenmaster is a cylindrical unit, as opposed to the more traditional square or rectangular unit, which has both advantages and disadvantages. The major drawback, I've found is in making fruit leather. Once done it is virtually impossible to cut into any regular shape, but that seems a rather insignificant point, on the other hand the cylindrical build helps to create a more even drying atmosphere.
One of the best features of the Gardenmaster is its modular construction. The bottom piece contains a 5" fan that runs at 2400 rpms and a 1000 watt heater. The dehydrator comes with 8 stackable racks, each providing approximately 1 sq. foot of drying space, but is supposedly expandable to 30 racks. Each plastic rack nests into the one below it, allowing you to use as many or as few as you need. Once you have filled all the racks you need you place the top on, turn the unit on, set the temperature and let it go.
Besides the 8 racks, the Gardenmaster Food Dehydrator and Jerky Maker comes with 8 trays for making fruit leather and 8 mesh screens, great for drying smaller items such as herbs or raisins. Nesco also includes a seasoning and curing packet for 1 patch of jerky, though I haven't tried it so I don't have an opinion on the jerky it makes.
For the most part, I found the machine to work rather well. It made quick work out of both the jerky and the fruit leather I made, but had a difficult time with the raisins I made, though that might have been due to an error on my part in prepping the grapes. The one thing that did not live up to the hype though was supposed evenness of the drying. The literature says that due to their unique design airflow remains consistent throughout and eliminates the need to rotate trays. Unfortunately, this seems more hype than reality as I consistently found that trays nearer the bottom (and thusly the heat source) dried more quickly than trays towards the top, but again, I found this to be only a minor nuisance.
$150 may seem like a lot to spend on a food dehydrator, but the Gardenmaster really lies somewhere in the middle. I have seen some pretty high tech dehydrators out there for those that really get serious about drying foods, but they run well into the hundreds of dollars. Of course, there are always those inexpensive dehydrators that you can find at most Big Box stores, but they tend to be woefully underpowered and more likely to give inconsistent results, resulting in spoiled foods or foods that crumble to dust. Most importantly, though, I feel that the Gardenmaster is well worth its price. While I have never before considered my kitchen to be lacking due to the absence of a food dehydrator, the Gardenmaster has turned me into a convert and I expect that it will see regular use in my household.