Cabela's Commercial Dehydrator - a field-test review

By: Frank Ross

Jerky and dried fruit are very popular at our house, but the costs add up quickly with a fairly large family, and two teenage boys that can consume a lot of everything. When I decided to make a batch of jerky, saving money wasn't the only motivator, but it was second on the list. My first consideration was making a quality product that I could feel good about the kids eating, spiced to our flavor preferences, and a lot of it.

Author Frank Ross preparing the jerky.

Making jerky isn't difficult, but it can be time consuming if you don't have equipment that can handle the capacity you're after. Since you can't reduce the drying time or increase a dehydrator's tray capacity, producing a large volume of dried foods requires a bigger unit or a lot of reloading. I opted for a bigger unit, Cabela's Commercial Dehydrator.

Cabela's commercial grade dehydrators are all about volume, with two choices, big and humongous. For most family applications, the 80-liter unit should be adequate, but for serious production you can't go wrong with 160 liters, or 56 sq. ft. of tray space.

After using the 80-liter unit for several batches of jerky, I'm impressed with all aspects of this product. It's extremely well built, easy to use and very efficient. This model comes with 12 non-stick drying racks that measure 21-1/2" X 16", for a total of 28 sq. ft. All this space, filled with moisture-laden food, requires a lot of heat and 1,200 watts of drying power got the job done. The larger 160-liter model has an output of 1,600 watts. Both models feature a fully insulated housing that maintains a maximum drying temperature of 160 degrees for a maximum of 12 hours.

The temperature and time you'll need for your particular project will vary with the types of foods you are drying, so consult the handy reference guide that is included in the manual provided. Naturally, the time required would depend on the amount of moisture in the items you're using. All this moisture has to go somewhere, and the convenient moisture-trapping reservoir makes it easy to collect, remove and clean when you're through.

I'd recommend starting with the minimum drying times listed in the manual and then increasing the time if necessary after you examine your results. For meat products such as jerky strips or sticks, you need to maintain a 160 degree internal temperature for one hour, to kill bacteria, so that's a key issue that you should measure with a thermometer for thick items.

Author Frank Ross loading the dehydrator.

Set up of the drying cycle couldn't be easier. Once you've loaded the racks all you have to do is push the timer button and use the up/down arrow buttons to set the required processing time. Next comes the temperature setting, accomplished in a similar manner. The unit will start up automatically and you'll be eating some delicious dried food before you know it. During the drying cycle, the thermostat maintains the exact temperature while the digital readout produces a cyclical display of the total run time, current temperature and elapse run time.

You can watch the progress of your project through the glass door, so you don't have to keep opening it up and letting the heat out to see how things are going. The only downside to the glass door is that your saliva glands will start pumping if you watch too long. One thing that this dehydrator doesn't come with is a place to put it. If you're short on counter space, you'll want to consider the optional cart. This handy cart is equipped with casters for easily moving it into position for loading and then to a more convenient location for use or for storage. Three shelves provide enough space for all of the accessories necessary for preparation.

The amount of jerky you can create per run will depend on a few variables like the size of the strips you are making and how well you use the space. For this project, I had twenty pounds of meat to prepare. As it worked out, 10 pounds filled 11 of the 12 trays for the first run. I could have gotten a little more on each tray, and in turn more meat in each drying cycle if I had been a little more judicious about spacing the strips a little closer together, but that would have left me with a very full first run and partially empty second batch.

Now I'm on to drying fruit and making up 30 or 40 pounds of trail mix. I've got to be ready for the fall hunting seasons, and then there'll be more jerky to make with venison. If you've never tried creating your own dried food, you're missing out on a lot of fun as well as the satisfaction of making some really good eats. Once you've tried it you'll want to do more, and for those that are serious about making jerky there's only one choice when it comes to production - Cabela's Commercial grade dehydrator.