Preserving Produce Like a Frugal Vegan Mofo: A Review of the Nesco Gardenmaster FD-1020 Food Dehydrator

November 15th, 2010 11:40 am by Kelly Garbato

The first summer after moving into our new home, the husband and I found ourselves buried under a deluge of fresh produce. Some of it, such as the watermelons, cantaloupes, green and yellow zucchini, jalapenos, green and yellow peppers, and tomatoes (oh, the tomatoes!: Roma, Beefsteak, cherry and grape) came as no surprise, since they were planned, planted and grown in our very own garden. Most of the fruit, on the other hand, was wholly unexpected; when we purchased the house the previous spring, we had no idea that many of the trees in our front yard were of the fruit-bearing variety. The apricots, pears and apples (120 grocery bags full, for reals!), then, came as a shock. A happy shock, but a shock nonetheless.

With the threat of an overabundance of fruit and veggies looming, I hurriedly began researching methods of preserving the extras for winter. Canning struck me as intriguing, if a bit risky for a newbie like myself. Freezing, while quick and easy, brings with it the obvious space and energy limitations. Eventually, I decided that dehydrating the excess food was my best option: safe, uncomplicated and requiring the minimal upfront investment.

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My (then-) newly-purchased Nesco American Harvest Gardenmaster FD-1020 Digital Pro Food Dehydrator, still in the box.
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Enter: the Nesco American Harvest Gardenmaster FD-1020 Digital Pro Food Dehydrator. After quite a bit of online window-shopping, I finally opted for this make and model. A mid-range dehydrator, the Gardenmaster FD-1020 is one of the pricier models offered by Nesco, and yet it’s still less expensive than those made by Excalibur (which, if the Amazon listings are any indication, is the Lexus of food dehydrators). Currently, the Gardenmaster FD-1020 retails for $154.99 on Amazon, but is on sale for $116.95.

All things considered – e.g., price, customer reviews, expandability, accessories – the Gardenmaster FD-1020 struck me as the wisest choice: suitable for my needs, without going over the top. Plus, it only cost me $30 after I applied my existing gift certificate balance. Score!

This is my third autumnal season with the Gardenmaster; in this time, I’ve used it to dry a variety of fruits and veggies, including tomatoes:

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sweet potatoes (for the dogs, natch!):

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all manner of jalapenos and peppers:

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apples:

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and even watermelon (looks like HuFu, yo!):

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I have to admit that, out of habit and not a little concern, I store most of these dried items in a fridge or freezer until use. Even so, by sucking all the moisture from them, the Gardenmaster allows me to fit more produce in a finite space than I could otherwise; additionally, the food keeps almost indefinitely. (Seriously, I still have a few lingering, two-year-old slices of vegan HuFu in my produce drawer!)

As much as I love me some dried tomatoes on a gooey, cheesy pizza, my absolute favorite use for the Gardenmaster FD-1020 is this:

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FRUIT LEATHER!

It’s simple, really: just make a huge pot of applesauce or fruit puree, and when it’s cooked down, spread it out (nice and thick!) on a Fruit Roll-Up Sheet and let dehydrate for 12 hours+. (There’s always a risk of overdrying it into a chewy crisp, so start small – 10 hours at 150 degrees F – and then keep going, a few hours at a time, until it’s mostly dry; not sticky, but still a little moist.)

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I’m a big fan of the individually-wrapped slices of fruit leather sold in certain natural foods stores, but they don’t hold a soy-based candle to the homemade stuff! Not only is the DIY version less expensive (especially if you have access to cheap or free ingredients), but making your own allows for endless customization: strawberry apple. blueberry peach. pumpkin spice. apple almond butter. Though I haven’t yet tried it, vegetable leather is a yummy possibility, too; basil-tomato-broccoli, anyone?

On the downside, money saved equals time spent. Prepping foods for drying can be a time-intensive task, and the apple-based fruit leather of which I’m so fond is no exception: peeling, cutting and then cooking all those apples can take hours, and two grocery bags of apples only yields four trays’ worth of applesauce.

(Of course, you can also use dehydrators to make raw food meals, such as this Dehydrated Black Bean Burger recently republished for veganmofo by JL Goes Vegan. I’ve never used the Gardenmaster for this purpose, but never say never!)

Anyhow, back to my trusty Gardenmaster. Seeing as I’ve only owned it for a few years and have nothing to compare it to, take the following with a grain of sea salt…

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My Gardenmaster FD-1020, with the standard four trays. Later I’d expand my collection to twelve, which was a little optimistic on my part, considering how time-intensive the food prep can be. Twelve trays’ worth in one day? LOL, grasshopper, LOL.
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Construction: Solid. The top of the machine (its “lid,” you might say), which houses the heating unit and fan, is substantial but not heavy. The plastic trays are lightweight but durable; supposedly they’re dishwasher-safe (ditto: the plastic base), though I haven’t yet tested this. The Fruit Roll-Up Trays and Mesh Screen are (obviously) flimsier – since they’re designed for use in concert with the trays – but have held up well.

Durability: Good – I haven’t had any issues in the two years I’ve owned it.

Ease of use and care: With its LCD display and simple design, the Gardenmaster is quite easy to use: push one button to change the LCD display from time to temperature and back again, one of two arrows to set each up/down, and a start/stop to start and stop the drying. (As long as the machine remains plugged in, the digital screen stays on.) Recommended temperatures for fruits, veggies and jerky (here defined as “dried TOFU”) are posted on the top of the machine, which can run between 90 and 160 degrees F. Does it get any easier than this?

Clean-up is a bit trickier. Because the machine is so large – circular in shape, it measures 15″ across – I have to clean the trays, accessories and base in a bathtub. (For serious, they don’t fit in my kitchen sink! *sad Kelly*) The Fruit Roll-Up sheets and machine base are rather easy to clean – just wash with a bit of detergent and a soft sponge – but the trays, what with their closely positioned spokes, require some elbow grease and extra diligence. Air drying is the only way to dry them completely, and can take quite a bit of time and even more space.

Finally, because the machine is so large, it probably isn’t the best choice for those with limited storage space. The Excalibur models seem more compact, at least judging from the photos available on Amazon.

Extras: When I purchased the Gardenmaster FD-1020, it came with two Fruit Roll-Up Sheets, as well as one Plastic Mesh Screen for drying herbs and other items too small to rest on the trays. If you’re a fruit leather person and/or grow your own herbs, neither will be sufficient. Luckily, add-ons are available: extra trays, Fruit Roll-Up Sheets and Mesh Screens are all sold separately, and for a reasonable price.

I also received a recipe book and jerky spice packet, both of which have sat, untouched, at the bottom of a miscellaneous kitchen drawer since their arrival. Beef jerky, yuck.

Value: Not bad. Even at retail price, I think I’ve more than made my money back in the amount of food I’ve managed to save through dehydration (the value of my time excluded). Possibly I might have done just as well with a lower-end model, though the lackluster reviews scared me away from those in the < $100 range. Overall: I’d recommend it!

…Though newbies on a budget might get just as much use of out a slightly less expensive model. Just sayin’.

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Updated to add: I posted an abridged version of this review on Amazon; if you enjoyed it, please click through and give me a helpful vote, mkay?

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4 Responses to “Preserving Produce Like a Frugal Vegan Mofo: A Review of the Nesco Gardenmaster FD-1020 Food Dehydrator”

  1. Suzanne with Laughing Wallet Says:

    Having too much fruit on hand is certainly a good problem to have! And I think the fruit leather sounds delicious! My first question would have been how long do the dried fruits and veggies last, but I saw that you freeze the dried items to make sure they don’t go bad until you can eat them. I wouldn’t have thought to do that – in my mind I was thinking you either froze or dried, but why not both?? Great idea!

  2. Maximum Consumption! Songs to Shake Your Spatula To » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] I spend most of my free time picking, peeling, coring and boiling apples to make applesauce and fruit leather. (Mmmm, strawberry-apple fruit […]

  3. Cinnamon Sugar Apple Chips (Dehydrated OR Baked!) » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] 25 apples shrunk down to about 4 quarts of chips. They took up 9 trays of real estate in my Nesco Gardenmaster, so plan […]

  4. knitbunnie Says:

    You mentioned air-drying all the trays and accessories and how it takes up space and also a good while for everything to dry after washing them. If you stack everything up on your dehydrator after washing and run the dehydrator for about 15 minutes, everything is dry, and you haven’t taken up one extra inch of space on your counter. I just finished 8 trays of fruit (apples, watermelon, bananas, and strawberries) and am giving your zucchini chips a try. I love my Nesco so much! I have the Gardenmaster Pro – it came with 8 trays, 8 sheets, and 8 screens, and it was well worth $145.00!

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