If you’ve just bought a new smoker or have had one for a while, you may be wondering if there’s a bit more you can get out of it? One thing many smoker owners would like to be able to do is to use their smoker as a dehydrator, but is this wise? Let’s find out.
Can you dehydrate food in a smoker? Yes, you can, is the simple answer. The more complicate answer is that it’s very challenging to dehydrate food in a smoker and in most cases if you have both devices – the dehydrator is simply a better pick. However, there is one thing we’d pick to dehydrate by choice in a smoker and that’s beef jerky because it simply tastes best like this.
What’s The Difference Between A Smoker And A Dehydrator?
Both dehydration and smoking can be methods of food preservation, but their mechanisms and benefits are quite different in practice. So, let’s take a look at each of them and see what they do.
What Is A Smoker And What’s It For?
As the name suggests, a smoker takes fire and uses it to create smoke that helps to both cook and flavor food. To run a smoker, you need wood of some kind, water and oxygen and the three are burned in a smoker to create the smoke.
You can buy electric or gas-powered smokers and they take several forms of varying complexity but all of them are designed to pass smoke over food (they usually use a type of meat, though it’s fine to smoke vegetables too).
Smokers are very easy to use, they can double as a grill for a BBQ, they enhance the natural flavor of the good, they can be very compact, if you use an electric model you can set them up to work automatically, they kill off bacteria, and a decent-sized smoker can cater to the food needs for a whole family.
Smokers can be quite complicated to set up and maintain, they’re very much not portable and once they’re in, you won’t want to move them, they cost more to maintain than other kitchen equipment, learning to cook with a smoker requires a little patience and trial and error, it’s possible that smoke particles might be carcinogenic and it’s hard to keep an eye on the exact temperature in a smoker.
What Is A Dehydrator And What’s It For?
Dehydrators, on the other hand, aren’t designed to smoke food but rather to remove all the moisture from that food. They are mainly employed with vegetables and fruits (though there are some uses for dehydrated meat).
They’re meant for preserving the life of food and they do so by removing the water source that bacteria need to breed on the surface of the foodstuff which is dehydrated. Most dehydrators are electrically powered.
Dehydrators help to preserve food by destroying bacteria and other microbes, they save money because they prevent waste, they extend the lifespan of foods, they keep the sweetness of fruits and vegetables (because without moisture the sugar content as a percentage of the total rises), they make healthy snacks, they’re very fast to learn to use and the finished products are easy to story.
The use of a dehydrator can be labor-intensive particularly because they work best when you grow your own food, they lead to the loss of vitamins in the good, they hurt the taste of most goods, they’re expensive to run, and they tend to be quite bulky devices.
What Are The Main Challenges Of Using A Smoker As A Dehydrator?
As you can see, the two devices are very different and by and large, their uses are very specialized and while it is, technically speaking, possible to use a smoker as a dehydrator – there are two big problems that make smokers fairly ineffective as dehydrators.
Your average smoker runs at a much higher temperature than a dehydrator. It’s not that they won’t dehydrate whatever you put inside, it’s that it will end up very dry, overcooked and unpleasant because it’s too hot.
We’d expect a temperature of around 150 degrees Fahrenheit in a dehydrator whereas the smoking chamber can run from anything from 250 degrees right up to almost 300 degrees!
Some people claim that you can solve this problem by cracking open the lid while you’re dehydrating your food in a smoker, but we think this is a bad move. While it’s true that the airflow inside your smoker is going to dictate the temperature of it – there’s no means of measuring the temperature that you’re creating when you do this.
That means that in most cases, you’re either going to burn your food or you’re going to have so little airflow that the temperature drops too low to dehydrate or smoke the food. You can, of course, give this a try (in case you’re the lucky one where this works perfectly) but be prepared to waste some time and food, if it doesn’t.
The One Possible Save
Sometimes, you’ll find that your smoker comes with a “warming box” which sits between the firebox and your normal smoking chamber. This, oddly enough, warming box tends to stay at a much lower temperature than the smoking chamber.
If your warming cabinet stays at 140-150 degrees, then you’re in luck and you might be able to use it to act as a dehydrator but you should make sure to clean it thoroughly once you’ve finished or you may end up with a peculiar taste to future smoke.
The One Thing We’d Dehydrate With A Smoker Out Of Choice
Some people will argue that you can smoke fruit, but we’d note that dehydrated fruit is sweeter and lasts longer and that the challenges of dehydrating fruit in a smoker are thus, not really worth the effort of pursuing.
On the other hand, there is one thing that absolutely does benefit from being smoked to dehydrate it and that’s beef jerky. The smoke really adds to the flavor of the jerky.
Before you get started – we’re going to be clear about this: if you get this wrong, it’s going to be one of the most expensive mistakes you make in the kitchen and you won’t be able to undo it.
So, before you embark on smoking beef jerky, you should have a decent amount of experience with your smoker and should be certain that you can get the temperature down to 150 degrees in some part of the smoker.
Making Smoked Beef Jerky
We use a simple 4-step process to prepare beef jerky in a smoker.
Prepare The Meat
The easiest meat to work with will be a lean cut, if you have too much fat, it’s more likely to stay moist and even start to fry the surface of the meat. So, we’d take the sirloin tip as your first cut (you can practice with others once you’ve got the process down to a T).
Cut all the fat off the meat. Then slice it into 1/4” slices that run across the grain of the meat.
Flavor The Meat
Some people prefer just to let the smoke do the work. We’d say that at a minimum you ought to use a salt and pepper rub to make your jerky interesting to taste. However, if you want to add more flavor go right ahead. Garlic, chili, paprika, and many other herbs and spices can give real added “oomph” to the taste of jerky.
Feel free to experiment, you can’t really go wrong here and unless you’re using a large amount of chili -the drying process should ensure that it all comes out with a mellow feel in the mouth.
Smoke The Meat
We said it before and we’ll say it again, now. You can’t dehydrate at high temperatures. If you’re going to make this work, you have to keep the temperature at 150 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Anything more and you’re going to end up with a really over-cooked strip of steak rather than beef jerky.
Now, this process takes a while and a lot depends on the meat, the thickness of the meat and the climate where you are. It can take as little as 12 hours from start to finish or it can take as long as 72 hours!
Storage For Your Jerky
Once you feel that your jerky is ready. Remove it from the smoker and allow it some time to dry off and cool. Yes, even after drying in your smoker there will still be a little moisture on the meat, and you don’t want that in storage or it will allow bacteria to grow.
Once it’s fully dried, you should seal it in a container or zip-top bag. It will last for about 2 weeks in the refrigerator and a week in a cool, dry cupboard. If you want it to last longer, you need to buy vacuum sealing equipment for your containers.
Can you dehydrate food in a smoker? Yes, but as you can see – it’s not ideal to do so. You must watch the temperature of the smoker carefully and while it’s worth doing beef jerky in a smoker because the smoke will enhance the flavor, other foodstuffs may be best off being dehydrated in the more traditional fashion.