I love jerky and other dehydrated products. I take them on car trips, when backpacking, or on motorcycle rides, and all my kids and grandkids like them at least as much as I do. The problem is, they are expensive to buy! I bought a dehydrator and save a bundle on the dehydrated products, but it is a little bulky and hard to clean. Mine is all metal, but I have heard stories of the cheap plastic ones breaking, or the heating systems failing due to dropping or improper cleaning. The plastic ones are also pretty large in diameter and are hard to store. And ALL of them are too expensive!
I have used the oven, but the racks were difficult to use, it made a mess in the over, and I could never get the temperature to go low enough to dry the food without actually cooking it to a crisp. Even leaving the door open didn't work well, and using the big element in the oven was a colossal waste of energy, especially in the summer.
I decided to see if I could build a cheap dehydrator that is tough, easy to clean, cheap to run, easy to use, easy to store, and easy to build.
This instructable is my solution. It works great. You can build it in about an hour or two using simple tools and a drill. Once done, you can store it on a shelf in a pantry, throw it in the dishwasher for cleaning, and enjoy the adjustability and size of a very expensive dehydrator for well under $20!
Step 1: Gather the Needed Junk...er.... Raw Materials, and Tools.
I looked for an appropriate container to make the dehydrator out of. I looked at 5 gallon buckets, but they are getting hard to find and most held something you wouldn't want your food to be placed in. I thought about metal stovepipe or ducting, but they were out of 10" at my local building supply store, and besides, some of them were galvanized, which probably would not be a problem at these temps, but I decided to avoid them anyway. I really wanted something in stainless steel or aluminum.
Then I thought about the large stock pots I had seen at the big box stores. I found this large 16 quart pot for just over $10 and headed home.
A while ago, for another project that I hadn't gotten to yet, I had bought a roll of heavy screen wire. It was 19 ga, with 1/2" spacing. Perfect for drying racks! I think I had paid about $11 for the whole roll, but only used about two feet of it for this. Other things like decorative screening or other metal with appropriate patterns stamped in it would work also. Use your imagination as you dig around in your shop!
For holding the racks, I found the cutoff end of a piece of 5/16" threaded rod on my floor. It really needed to be a couple of inches longer, but I decided to use it instead of making another trip to town.
I knew I would need my drill, some bits,and I even used a hole saw to make larger holes, though it is not necessary. I grabbed a set of metal shears to make cutting the wire much easier, but you could use pliers, diagonal cutters, saw, or even a jigsaw to cut the wire, but the shears make the job quick, clean, and easy.
Step 2: Making the Racks
My first order of business was to drill a hole to match the threaded rod into center of the underside of the lid. Be careful not to damage the handle on the top of the lid as you drill.
Cut the rod to allow it to extend from near the bottom of the pot up through the hole and leave enough sticking out to thread a nut onto and sandwich the lid between two nuts at the very end of the threaded rod. Do this before you cut the wire mesh pieces so that you can use the lid for a pattern.
Slip the mesh down over the rod and use the shears to cut the mesh about 1/4" larger than the overall diameter of the lid. The actual dimension is not too critical, just try to keep it round.
Cut 3 or 4 mesh circles for racks, depending on how many racks you decide to use (use the number that will still allow enough room between racks to easily load food). The bottom rack will be at the very bottom of the threaded rod and then, depending on how tall your stock pot is, you may have 3-5 drying racks.
Place each circle of mesh back on the rod, being sure you have it in the center and use your pliers to bend the wire up at a 90 degree angle. Be SURE that you bend it so that it will clear the sides of the pot and slide inside. Once you are sure it fits (test each one as there may be rivets inside for the pot's handles), remove it from the rod and use a hammer or step on the wire to bend it back over. This moves the sharp ends of the wires to face to the inside and gives some more strength to the wire racks. Be careful to be sure the bend is where you started the 90 degree bend or the rack might not fit into the pot. Look at the edges of the finished racks to see clearly how it is done.
Step 3: Assemble the Rack
Thread a nut all the way up the threaded rod to where you want the topmost rack to be, add a washer, then the rack (be sure the rough, sharp, folded edge is on the bottom side and that the rod is in the correct center hole in the mesh). Follow with another washer and the locking nut. Snug it down and be sure everything fits in the pot. When all is aligned correctly, tighten the nuts with a wrench. Continue with the rest of the racks until the assembly is complete and fits well.
Step 4: Drill the Air Vent Holes
I used a hole saw to drill the top holes in the center of the lid, but you can use a regular bit. I put the holes in the center so that the air was forced to move to the middle as it circulated due to the heat. I started to drill the 4th hole and then realized that I could leave the small hole there and insert a cooking thermometer into it to be sure that the temperature was correct for each product I was drying.
At the bottom, I used a 3/8" bit to drill a series of holes around the bottom of the pot. I made them slightly off of the bottom so that any drippings would be trapped in the pot and not leaked onto your stove.
Step 5: Using the Dehydrator
I have an electric stove and this dehydrator was made for the electric stove, however, I have not tried it on a gas stove. It may work, but it may be difficult to get the gas low enough, and since a byproduct of burning natural gas is water vapor, it may take longer for things to dry, or it may not even work. Let me know if you are adventurous enough to try it!
I load the dehydrator racks with jerky or fruits that I want to dry and place the pot on the smallest burner on the stove. I usually use the lowest setting on the burner, but have used a slightly higher setting to get some items dry enough.
Once you are done with your drying, simply lay the rack assembly in the dishwasher and put the stock pot in too, if you have room. Everything comes out clean and ready to use again. Put it all back together and store it on a shelf until you need it again!
I am all about cheap and easy, so the pic is of a batch of chicken jerky! YES chicken jerky. I was a little hesitant the first time I tried it, but it cost 1/4 the price of beef and is FABULOUS! Most first time tasters never know it is not beef! There are a lot of jerky recipes on Instructables, but if there is enough interest, I will gladly add mine!
Have fun, and good eatin'!