My family does lots of freeze-drying and dehydrating every year because we grow a huge garden. Both devices have definitely helped us store our food. But lately, I’ve been wondering if one device is better at storing food and maintaining its nutrients than the other. What exactly is the difference between a freeze-dryer and a dehydrator?
Freeze dryers and dehydrators both remove water from foods for storage. Dehydrators use low heat to remove about 80% of the water, while freeze dryers cycle between heat, cold, and a vacuum to remove about 95% of the water. Foods with a lower water content store better and longer.
While freeze-dried food can last quite a while and retain the food nutrition, does the food still taste and look the same? How does it compare to the taste of dehydrated food? How much food can you freeze-dry or dehydrate in a single batch? Here’s everything I’ve learned from a ton of research and lots of experience.
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Freeze Dryer Versus Dehydrator: Differences and Comparison
Freeze dryers and dehydrators may have the same overall purpose (storing food), but they are very different for several reasons. The process, costs, device limitations, storage potential, and food profiles are totally different.
I created the table below so you could have a good idea about the differences between the two devices. This table should help you see and know the similarities, differences, and averages of all things dehydrator and freeze dryer.
|Purpose||Freeze drying removes a food’s water content to prevent food breakdown during longer-term storage that can last up to 25 years.||Dehydrators remove food’s water content to prevent food breakdown during storage for months to several years.|
|Process||A repeating, 3-stage process: freezing, sublimation (primary drying), and adsorption (secondary drying).||A single step: add and use constant, low-grade heat to remove water via evaporation. Good airflow improves the process.|
|Water Removed||About 95% of a food’s water is removed with lyophilization.||Dehydration can lower a food’s water content to about 20%.|
|Nutrient Degradation||Retains 97% of its nutrition.||Retains 60% of its nutrition.|
|Storage Potential||As long as 15-25 years.||As long as 1-5 years.|
|Weight Reduction in Food||84.5% for a standard freeze-dried load of apples||83.5% for a well-done load of dehydrated apples|
|Limitations||Fatty and oily foods don’t freeze-dry as well.||Doesn’t work for frozen foods, dairy, raw eggs, or cheese.|
|Usual Size of Device||Medium-sized Freeze Dryer is 18″ W x 21.25″ D x 28.5″ H||Average: 16.54″ W x 12.25″ H x 17.08″ D|
Excalibur: 12-1/2″ H x 17″ W x 19″ D
Nesco: 15.25″ D x 10.25″ H x 15.63″ W
Tribest Sedona Classic from Bed, Bath, & Beyond: 17″ W x 17″ D x 14″ H
|Usual Weight of Device||112 lbs. for regular home freeze-dryers.|
133 lbs. for stainless steel exterior home freeze-dryers.
|Average: 13.3 lbs|
Excalibur: 22 lbs
Nesco: 9.90 lbs
Tribest Sedona Classic from Bed, Bath, & Beyond: 8 lbs.
|Average Cost of Device||About $2,700 for an average-sized home freeze-dryer.||Average: $253.33|
Tribest Sedona Classic from Bed, Bath, & Beyond: $380.00
|Run Time for a Single Food Batch||Usually between 20-40 hours, depending on the type of food and its quantity.||Anywhere between 1-36 hours, depending on the type of food, the amount of food, and the characteristics of the food (like the percentage of water in the food).|
|Food Batch Capacity||For an average-sized freeze dryer, you can freeze-dry 7-10 pounds of food per batch.||Again, this honestly depends on what type of food it is that you want to dehydrate and characteristics like size and shape.|
|Energy Usage||Uses 990-1210 watts (or 9-11 amps) of power per hour.||Average: 583.33 watts|
Excalibur: 600 watts
Nesco: 700 watts
Tribest Sedona Classic: 300-600 watts depending on needs
|Average Electricity Cost to Process a Batch||Electricity costs between $1.25-$2.80 per day, depending on the power costs in your city. Running a load costs us between $2.07-$2.33 per day. We use $2.20 as an average electricity cost expectation.||Costs between $0.42-$1.87 per day, depending on the device and power costs in your area. Running a load costs us between $1.38-$1.55 per day. We use $1.47 as our average and expected electricity cost per day.|
|Other Costs Associated with Usage||Food Costs|
Mylar bags: $30/50 1 gallon bags
Oxygen absorbers: $11.25/50
Storage bags or containers of your choice
The data for the table comes from several sources, most notably my own original research and experiments.
- For power and electricity costs, I used data from our last year’s worth of power bills to calculate both a usual range and an average for what the electrical costs of running each device would be. I combined this with actual power usage measurements by each of our freeze-drying and dehydrating devices to make sure the calculations were as precise as possible.
- Weight reduction of foods was based on experiments I did, comparing quantities of foods being run through both the freeze-dryer and the dehydrator. More on this later in the article.
- For the freeze dryers’ specifications, my information comes from Harvest Right and my own experience using our medium-sized Harvest Right freeze dryer.
- My information comes from three brands (Excalibur, Nesco, and Tribest Sedona Classic) and my own experience with an Excalibur dehydrator for specifications on dehydrators.
So what does it all mean? Here’s the quick synopsis.
Freeze-dryers are more efficient at providing longer-term food storage without breakdown while retaining most of the food’s nutrition. On the other hand, dehydrators are much cheaper compared to freeze-dryers and can still dehydrate a variety of foods, although dehydrated food does not retain as much of its nutrition as freeze-dried food does.
To read more about the costs associated with freeze dryers, make sure you check out my article about freeze dryer costs. Click here to check it out now. I’ll work on an article about dehydrator costs, too.
Food Storage and Shelf Life: Freeze-Dried Foods vs Dehydrated Foods
The difference in shelf-life between freeze-dried foods and dehydrated foods boils down to the water. Because freeze-dryers can extract more water from the food, freeze-dried foods will generally store and last longer than dehydrated foods.
- Dehydrated food only lasts between several months or 1-5 years, depending on the food.
- Freeze-dried food can last as long as 25 years. Talk about a great shelf-life that makes for some great food storage!
Another consideration in shelf life is nutrition retention. Nutrients will naturally decay or diminish over time. That’s how it goes. Processing foods (like via dehydration or freeze-drying) can help preserve those nutrients for longer than they’d keep with fresh foods. However, even preserved foods will eventually lose most of their nutritive value.
- Dehydrated foods lose a small percentage of their nutritive value during dehydration due to the heat. However, the food will still be nutritious and edible for months or years. Dehydrated fruits and vegetables remain nutritious and delicious snacks for short-term food storage.
- Freeze-dried foods retain most of the nutrients, with a minimal loss during processing. With proper storage, freeze-dried foods should continue to experience minimal nutrition loss over years and even decades.
So is one better than the other? Not really – the two should be used to complement your food storage instead of competing. Use the dehydrator to build up shorter-term food storage while using the freeze-dried foods to build up your longer-term food storage.
Both store well in vacuum-sealed mason jars or Mylar bags. Then, you can easily store the Mylar bags of food in bins or boxes – and even stack the boxes away until you need them.
We’ve had our freeze dryer for a few years and have multiple bins of food safely stored. We’ve tested some of it and it’s just like new. When I’ve had it for 25 years, I’ll let you know if it lives up to the expectation. 🙂
But in case you don’t want to wait that long… Current projections and tests have me thinking that 25 years is a pretty solid guideline.
Does Storing Food Destroy Nutrients? Freeze-Dried Vs Dehydrated
Harvest Right promises its consumers that freeze-drying food can last up to 25 years and still retain its nutrients, shape, and color. In my experience, it holds true.
My family freeze-dried with a Harvest Right Freeze Dryer and the food looks and tastes almost like it did when it went into the freeze-dryer. Many families in our neighborhood also freeze-dry and have similar results. Storing freeze-dried food with oxygen absorbers in the Mylar bags keeps the food from oxidizing and therefore prevents breakdown. So, freeze-dried food stores well.
The same cannot be said for dehydrated food, unfortunately. Dehydrated food does lose more of its nutrition in storage, and that’s why it can last for only a few years, max. In fact, it doesn’t always last that long. Sometimes dehydrated foods go bad after only a few months.
To help prevent the breakdown of the food after a few months of only storing it, here are a few quick tips before dehydrating foods.
- We dip any fruit in lemon juice to preserve the color, taste, and nutrition.
- We blanch any vegetables before we throw them on our dehydrator.
We learned that even taking the steps to prevent the breakdown of food before dehydrating some foods, mainly vegetables, only lasted for 1-2 years.
For example, we once made zucchini chips with our dehydrator, which were so yummy to eat, but they only lasted a year and a few bags of these chips had to be thrown out.
If you want your fruits and vegetables to last longer and retain their nutrients, shape, and color, I recommend freeze-drying them instead of dehydrating them. On the other hand, if you’ll use them up within a few months, then I’d say go ahead and use the dehydrator.
Taste Comparison: Freeze-Dried Foods vs Dehydrated Foods
In general, freeze-dried food tastes better than dehydrated food because it maintains most of the nutrients. It also looks more appetizing to eat because the freeze-dried food keeps its shape and color. However, we all have our preferences. Let’s go through some of those (and mine) now.
Freeze-Dried Compared to Dehydrated
Freeze-dried food has a ton of flavor! Some freeze-dried food flavors are actually far more intense than fresh food, like pineapple and green bell peppers. This is due to the water having been extracted during the freeze-drying process. All that water is gone – leaving the delicious natural sugars to zing your tastebuds.
Many dehydrated foods lose some of their flavors because the dehydration process dulled the flavors. That isn’t always the case though, especially with fruits.
We love dehydrating bananas, pears, and apples! To us, they taste like candy. The dehydration process brings the fruits’ sugars to the surface and makes them chewy and a delight to eat! I’m not saying that freeze-dried bananas, apples, and pears taste bad, but they just appeal to us like dehydrated bananas, pears, and apples.
Like I said earlier, not every food dehydrates well. Vegetables deteriorate quickly. Plums, peaches, and apricots are just better freeze-dried or made into fruit leather on a dehydrator. We learned that dehydrated plum, peach, or apricot halves become hard and bitter over time.
So while this gives you a decent comparison of the two, you will need to do some of your own experimenting to see how your taste buds like freeze-dried and dehydrated foods.
Reconstituted Freeze-Dried Food Compared to Dehydrated Food
Reconstituted freeze-dried food tastes almost like it was before it was freeze-dried. Most freeze-dried foods reconstitute well, except fatty and oily foods, which is one reason you don’t freeze-dry them. Some foods are a little harder to reconstitute, like bread and pasta. They are still possible to reconstitute, but you have to be really patient.
Reconstituting food is an easy process with only a little math involved. You just need to make sure you add the right amount of water to the freeze-dried. This is where the math comes in.
A good rule of thumb for adding the right amount of water to reconstitute freeze-dried food is one cup of water for each tray of freeze-dried food you want to reconstitute when the time comes.
For example, let’s say you want to have freeze-dried chicken Parmesan for dinner one night. You know you have 4 trays of chicken Parmesan in one bag. So, you need to add at least 4 cups of water to reconstitute the chicken. If you want a warm dinner, reconstitute the food with hot water.
Another tip is to close the bag and allow the steam from the water to help reconstitute the food. From personal experience, the food reconstitutes faster from the steam.
We like reconstituted freeze-dried food better than dehydrated food because reconstituted freeze-dried food has a lot more flavor and is easy to chew. Dehydrated food can often be tough and less flavorful.
So here’s our rule of thumb for when to use freeze-dried versus dehydrated foods.
Reconstituted freeze-dried food makes better meals, but dehydrated food makes great snacks.
Want to know more about which foods freeze dry and which don’t? I’ve written an article about 77 foods that freeze-dry well and 17 foods that don’t, so make sure you check out that article next.
Reconstituted Freeze-Dried Food Compared to Re-hydrated Food
Reconstituted freeze-dried food definitely tastes better than re-hydrated food. In fact, we haven’t had any pleasant experiences with re-hydrated foods (from dehydrated foods). Once dehydrated, we tend to just eat the food as is without adding any water.
One reason we haven’t had much experience rehydrating many foods is that we freeze-dry a lot more than we dehydrate. Here’s the quick version of our results from one such experiment.
Cabbage doesn’t rehydrate well and is tough to chew. And even before we rehydrated it, it had already turned black and brown. It had hardly any taste as most of the flavor was gone. It was not a good experience – and the dinner was awful.
So if you want to have a delicious dinner from your food storage, I’d recommend that you reconstitute some of your freeze-dried food for the main course. Use your dehydrated food for snacks, or if you’re feeling brave, as an ingredient in a soup.
Oh, and when in doubt? Make soup for dinner. Everything that’s iffy on its own always works better in soup.
What’s the Weight Difference between Freeze-Dried and Dehydrated Food?
While each dehydrator and freeze dryer gives some general specifications to water reduction percentage and general nutrient retention, I wanted to figure out if there was a noticeable difference in the finished product’s weight and look.
So, I did a little experiment. You can watch the video via the link below on YouTube (or click the image). Seriously – it’s pretty awesome, so give it a watch, even if I did flub a few of the numbers. Don’t worry – they’re correct here in the article. I’ll also give you a brief explanation below it if you’re not in a spot where you can watch videos at the moment.
I took 400 grams of apples and put 200 grams into each one the dehydrator and the freeze dryer. I ran each of them as I’d normally process apples. Why apples? Well, apples are one food that I enjoy both as dehydrated and freeze-dried, and I didn’t want to waste food. So apples it was.
- After 24 hours in the dehydrator, the dehydrated apples went from 200 grams to 33 – an 83.5% reduction in weight. They still had a good amount of water in them, though.
- The freeze dryer took 36 hours. The freeze-dried apples went from 200 grams to 31, an 84.5% reduction in weight. In the video, I went ahead and rounded it to 85%, though, because it’s not a huge difference.
In other words, there wasn’t an appreciable difference between the dehydrated and freeze-dried apples. Which was not what I was expecting to find! I fully expected the dehydrated apples to weigh a lot more than 2 grams than the freeze-dried apples.
The biggest limitation of this experiment is that I like pretty dry dehydrated apples, which probably had a big influence on the final results. I’ll do more experiments, so make sure you subscribe to my YouTube channel if you want to see them as I publish them.
The Freeze-Dryer and Dehydrators I Recommend
After doing crazy amounts of research on both freeze dryers and dehydrators, I’ve gotten a little bit picky about which ones I recommend.
For freeze dryers, my research and experience indicate that a Harvest Right freeze dryer is the way to go. Most people will be fine with a small or medium-sized freeze dryer.
Seriously. Harvest Right is the best brand – and it’s got the best prices. We’ve always had positive experiences with them, and I see that trend extends to other customers in various freeze-drying forums online.
For dehydrators, I highly recommend that you spring for an Excalibur brand, like this Excalibur model on Amazon. It’s the one we have and we love it. If you want the fancier dials or digital display, that’s an option, too.
Now, if you don’t have a large family or do a lot of dehydrating food, then you might be fine with a smaller model or another brand. I’ve made some secondary recommendations in the section of this article titled “Product Information and Links.” Scroll down a bit to get there.
Both freeze-dryers and dehydrators are awesome, amazing devices for expanding your food storage. They both add new dimensions to what – and how long – you can store your favorite foods.
- Freeze-dryers are the way to go if you want long-term food storage and a greater variety of foods and meals in your storage. Plus, if you love traveling or camping as much as my family does, you don’t even have to cook a lot before you go! You can just choose the meals you want when you’re packing.
- Dehydrators are great devices for making snacks like jerky and fruit leather and provide short-term food storage. Plus, dehydrators are less expensive.
If you can get both, I highly recommend it. If your budget is limited and/or you’re first starting out with food storage, start with the dehydrator. Then, add the freeze-dryer when you can.
As always, get to doing your food storage. And have some fun with it – it doesn’t have to be boring. 🙂
Can You Make Jerky in a Freeze Dryer? Traditional jerky needs to be made in a dehydrator or a dry environment. Freeze-drying meats can create a versatile type of jerky, but it won’t have the same texture as traditional jerky. Read all the ins and outs of freeze-drying jerky in my article here.
Why Are Freeze Dryers So Expensive – and Are They Worth It? Freeze dryers have a lot of fine-tuned parts, so they aren’t as cheap as smaller food storage units like canners or a dehydrator. However, they aren’t prohibitively expensive, and they can be worth it. Find out how you can get the best price on a freeze-dryer and why they’re worth it by reading this article next.
Are There Some Foods that Can’t Be Freeze-Dried? Some foods don’t freeze-dry well, and others won’t freeze-dry at all. Here is my article on 77 foods that can be freeze-dried and 17 that won’t ever work.
Product Information and Links
Dehydrators – we use and recommend the Excalibur dehydrator brand. Nesco and Tribest are also good brands, though. Nesco is a great second choice if the Excalibur isn’t in your price range.
- Excalibur Dehydrator (click here to see availability on Amazon)
- Nesco Food and Jerky Dehydrator (click here to see pricing on Amazon)
- Tribest Sedona Classic (click here to see it on Amazon)
Freeze Dryers – we use and recommend Harvest Right freeze dryers. We have a medium-sized, home-use freeze-dryer.
- Harvest Right freeze dryers (link opens in a new window)
Learning from your own experience is important, but learning from others is also smart. These are the sources used in this article and our research to be more informed as homesteaders.
- “Freeze-Drying.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 25 July 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeze-drying.
- “Food Dehydrator.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 5 June 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_dehydrator.
- Freeze dryer FAQs: Harvest Right™: Home Freeze Dryers: Freeze Dried Food Storage. (2019, July 29). Retrieved August 28, 2020, from https://harvestright.com/faqs/
- Home Freeze Dryer. (n.d.). Retrieved August 31, 2020, from https://harvestright.com/product/home-freeze-dryer/
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