Smoker vs. Dehydrator: What’s Better For Jerky?

Both smokers and dehydrators are helpful when it comes to preparing different types of food. For example, smokers are excellent for making delicious prime rib and barbeque, and nothing dries fruits and veggies as quickly or as efficiently as a dehydrator. But which one of them works better for jerky?

If you want to make jerky that’ll last for a longer time, you should use a dehydrator. However, if you’re hoping to add a richer, more intense flavor to jerky, smokers are better. Smokers and dehydrators perform separate functions, making it difficult to compare them in terms of “best” and “worst.”

In this article, we’ll take a more detailed look at how dehydrators and smokers work, as well as some of their respective pros and cons, especially as they relate to jerky. Hopefully, you should have enough information by the end of this piece to decide for yourself which machine best suits your specific needs. 

Smoker vs. Dehydrator: The Ultimate Showdown

Some people, who are rather opinionated, will give you a definitive answer if you ask them whether a smoker or dehydrator is better for jerky. 

In fact, there are entire threads on Reddit dedicated to the argument. About half of the comments insist dehydrators are better, and half unequivocally know that smokers reign supreme. However, the truth is that comparing smokers to dehydrators is like comparing water to fire or apples to oranges. 

They are two separate pieces of equipment whose functions are entirely different from one another, which means that there is no definitive answer to which is the better machine for making jerky. 

The only question you can answer is which one best suits your specific needs.

How Does A Smoker Work?

When most people think of smokers, they picture large, outdoor contraptions somewhat similar to barbeque grills. The Dyna-Glo Vertical Offset Charcoal Smoker & Grill is a perfect example of what most people think of as a smoker. Smokers like these are excellent for cooking larger quantities of meat, but you can also buy indoor smokers.

Whether you have an indoor or outdoor smoker, it works the same basic way. Smokers use the smoke from a contained heat source to cook meat. Because it’s the smoke, not the fire, that’s cooking the meat, it usually takes much longer, but it gives the food a unique, smoky flavor that people love. 

When cooking with a smoker, you start with low heat and gradually increase it until the meat is 100% cooked. Doing so leaves you with smoky-tasting meat that’s still juicy and tender. Direct-heat grills can sometimes give you a somewhat similar flavor, but they usually dry the meat out quickly.

Nordic Ware Stovetop Kettle Smoker

Some indoor smokers are extremely small, such as the Nordic Ware Stovetop Kettle Smoker, and can only make one or two things simultaneously. Others, like the Smokehouse Products Little Chief Electric Smoker, are a bit larger, but they’re usually still smaller than their outdoor counterparts. 

Smoker Pros and Cons

When it comes to cooking jerky, the smoker should leave the meat somewhat tender and juicy, unlike the dehydrator, which dries it out completely. More importantly to most people, though, it gives the meat an incredible flavor that a dehydrator just can’t match. So, if you’re looking for still-tender jerky with a phenomenal taste, you may want to use a smoker. 

Now let’s look at a few pros and cons of using a smoker to make jerky.

Pros

  • The jerky should taste amazing.
  • Smokers are easy to use and don’t require any tray rotation or extra work.
  • It leaves the jerky somewhat tender and not completely dry.
  • Smokers don’t use a lot of energy or electricity.
  • You can cook a large quantity of jerky at once (unless you have a small stovetop smoker).

Cons

  • Smokers won’t preserve the jerky for nearly as long as dehydrators.
  • It’s more challenging to control the precise temperature in a smoker.
  • Smokers take significantly longer to cook the jerky.
  • Long-term costs associated with smokers are much higher than those associated with dehydrators. 
  • You’ll need to keep a close eye on the fire, so you aren’t able to do much else when your meat is smoking.

How Does a Dehydrator Work?

Dehydrators are completely different from smokers. Of course, they do cook food, but that’s a byproduct of their ultimate goal: to remove all the moisture from the meat, dry it out, and preserve it for a much longer period. 

Dehydrators work by using direct heat and fans to circulate the hot air uniformly around the inside of the machine. The air circulates, removing all the moisture from the food inside the dehydrator. The food dries up and enters a stage that’ll allow it to last for long periods if sealed correctly.

There are two types of dehydrators: vertical airflow and horizontal airflow dehydrators

Vertical airflow dehydrators are usually round, and their heating element and fan are at the bottom of the machine. Because of this setup, the bottom tray is always the hottest, and you’ll have to rotate the trays often to dry the food out uniformly and not burn whatever’s at the bottom. 

The Elite Gourmet Food Dehydrator is a good example of a vertical air flow dehydrator. 

Horizontal airflow dehydrators are usually rectangular, and their heating element and fan are at the back of the machine. This design is better because the machine distributes heat evenly, and you don’t have to rotate your trays when using the device. 

The Colzer Food Dehydrator uses horizontal airflow technology. 

Dehydrator Pros and Cons

A dehydrator’s primary goal is the dehydration of food, which is less about taste and more about preserving the food to eat at a much later date. You can, of course, add spices, seasonings, herbs, and other things to help improve the taste of any jerky you dehydrate, but longevity is the ultimate goal. 

So, if you’re hoping to store jerky for an extended period, a dehydrator is better suited to your needs than a smoker. First, let’s check out a few pros and cons of this machine. 

Pros

  • A dehydrator allows you to preserve and keep jerky for much longer periods.
  • It kills any microbes in the jerky and prevents it from spoiling.
  • It’s relatively simple to use, and you can use it inside.
  • It prepares jerky much faster than a smoker. 
  • The long-term costs associated with dehydrators are generally cheaper than those associated with smokers.
  • You don’t need to keep as close an eye on your dehydrator while it is going, so you can do something else, like read a book while you’re waiting.

Cons

  • The flavor of the jerky isn’t usually as good as jerky made in a smoker.
  • Dehydrating food can leech some of the nutrients from it. 
  • Most dehydrators are small, so you can only cook small batches of jerky at one time.
  • Dehydrators use more electricity than smokers.
  • If you have a vertical airflow dehydrator, you’ll have to rotate your trays often.

So Which One Really Is Better?

No matter what anyone tries to tell you, neither of these machines is necessarily better than the other. However, one may be much better suited to your specific needs than the other. Everyone has his or her reasons for making jerky. 

If you want to make delicious jerky that’s somewhat tender and full of flavor, you should probably purchase a smoker. However, if your goal is to preserve a large quantity of meat for emergency use or just to eat at a much later date, a dehydrator would probably be the better option. 

In my house, we use both. 

If I’m craving the sweet and smoky flavor of freshly cooked deer or beef jerky, I pull out the wood, matches, and meat, and add everything to my sizable outdoor smoker. It takes a little bit of time to get a batch ready to eat, but I usually sit down and eat it immediately once it’s done.

However, if my family is gearing up for an extended camping trip, hike, or other lengthy outdoor activity, I’ll dig out the dehydrator and make jerky that way. I always add plenty of spices and a little dash of garlic for flavor, which is ready in a few hours. 

Then, I seal it in a few airtight bags and put it in our packs. It’s the easiest way to enjoy a tasty, protein-heavy snack without having to worry about keeping it cool or fresh.

Final Thoughts

It’s okay to do your research, talk to others, and figure out the pros and cons of each of these machines. However, if someone claims to know “for a fact” that one of these devices is better for cooking jerky than the other, take their opinion with a grain of salt. 

What’s better for them may not be best for you. Decide what exactly you want out of your homemade jerky, then decide which machine you can use to meet that goal. In the end, you may be like me and want one of each.