Backpackers and hikers love to eat – that’s one of the many reasons why we like being in the outdoors – food tastes so much better. Making up for a well-earned calorie deficit is part of the journey. Rather than subsisting on boring preservative laden freeze dried meals, lifeless sodium-saturated ramen noodles and bottomless jars of peanut butter and stale crackers, it is easy to make meals as memorable as the hiking itself. Besides fuel, food is also about taste and enjoyment – something to look forward to, to savour, to delight in. It can even have a role in your emotional well being. Dehydrators bring decadence to outdoor dining. With a little creativity and effort, you can have quality food choices on trips whether long expeditions or weekend excursions.
Food drying is a centuries-old method for safely preserving food and as long as the food is fully cooked to at least a minimum germ-killing temperature in advance, taken quickly down to a very low water content and kept dry and uncontaminated during handling or storage, the risk of pathogen growth and resulting illness is very low. The nutritive value of different stored food: freezing is best, canning second (better long term value), dehydrating loses most. Vitamin A and D are lost by heating. Dehydrating produces very calorically dense food. For example, dry apricots have 5x the calories of fresh. The fibre and energy content is the same as fresh by weight.
Dehydrating is a great way to cook virtually anything you like including your favourite “comfort food” meals and take them backpacking or kayaking. This is especially when weight is an issue or you want a food to last several days, late into a trip. Most fruits and vegetables are 80% water so weight savings are substantial. Weight is not so much an issue in kayaking but for long trips, the savings in space and weight are substantial. It’s fun to do and the possibilities are endless. It is much more straightforward and less time-consuming than you think.
You can take leftovers from many of your favourite recipes – meals that you’ve already made for your dinner (stews, chili or casseroles) – and adapt them so that you just pop them in the dehydrator overnight and by morning they’re ready to bag up in a Ziploc to store for next summer’s expeditions. Every time you make a favourite dish for dinner that you think might make a good trail meal, double the recipe and dry the leftovers. The same process works with many of your favourite frozen casseroles from the grocery store, or with favourite entrees from the deli counter – even leftovers from your last restaurant meal. Meals with the right concentrations of fat, carbohydrate and protein can be created easily. You know what is in the food, there are no preservatives or other additives, it is inexpensive, there is less packaging and it is food you know you will like.
Urban hunting and gathering skills hone in on food co-ops, Asian markets, wholesale grocery stores, farmers markets, and friends gardens and orchards as sources of food to dehydrate in season.
The available research on home dehydration is focused on fruits, vegetables and some types of meats, rather than whole meals. Home-dehydrated meals are a low-acid pre-cooked mixture, and as such, need to get dryer than fruit products. I have a section in the web site with both complete menu suggestions and recipes for my favourite foods.
There is certainly great appeal to commercial freeze dried meals. The variety of available options is growing, including vegetarian, organic and gluten-free choices. Some newer meals have lower salt content. Still, they’re expensive, have excess packaging and bulk – two enemies of lightweight backpacking – and flavour as well as control over undesirable ingredients is a bit of a crapshoot.
First you need a basic dehydrator. The basic principle is for hot, dry air to drive moisture out of the food without cooking it. The dry air inhibits the growth of bacteria while the low heat preserves enzymes proper drying extends the shelf life up to a year or more. You can use your oven, but most ovens run too hot and run the risk of over-drying. As most ovens go no lower than 160°F, it is difficult to prevent further cooking of the food. The few times I have used an oven with the door open, more often than not, I have turned the food into carbon. They are also not very energy efficient to leave on overnight and the food is not as flavourful.
A proper dehydrator has a heating element for drying, fans and vents for air circulation and trays to hold food. Some features are adjustable temperature settings (veggies and herbs should dry at lower temps than meats and meat or egg-containing casseroles), and a fan that circulates the air making the process more efficient. The stackable trays have a mesh or perforated base allowing the warm air to rise through them. Leather trays allow dehydration of liquid foods like fruit leather or meals with sauces and are indispensable. Parchment paper also works well but don’t use wax paper as it melts. Dehydrators have adjustable capacity with the ability to buy and stack on extra trays.
I use the Nesco Professional 600W 5-Tray Food Dehydrator ($59 – comes with some of the mesh and solid plastic trays) but they also offer the Snackmaster Express for $49. And there are fancier, higher capacity models if you think drying of larger quantities of fruits, vegetables or meats might be in your future. You can pay up to $300 for the deluxe square versions, with pull-out shelves instead of stackable trays. With these the air flows from the side across the trays rather than through them. This allows for faster drying times and more uniform drying results, and flavors aren’t as apt to mix. Checking on and removing food in a shelf dehydrator is easy as each tray pulls out individually. A dehydrator can pay for itself rapidly.
TYPES OF FOOD TO DEHYDRATE
Next you need to know which recipes work and how to adapt them for the trail.
• Casseroles, stews and curries with thick sauces & strong flavors
• Whole grain/bean mixtures (but test them to be sure they rehydrate in a timely way)
• Thick sauces that can be served over pasta, instant rice, instant mashed potatoes or instant polenta
• Reduce the amount of surface fat in the recipe – these will go rancid quickly. For example, if the recipe calls for bacon or ground sausage, cook it first, rinse it in hot water, then put it into the food. That doesn’t mean you have to eliminate all the fat in a recipe – just use a lighter hand. You can bring olive oil and add it at camp. Or alternately, simply leave the fat in – use those extra calories and flavor – and store in the freezer until use.
• You can dehydrate sauces, veggies and meats separately – this gives you the flexibility to mix them in different combinations at camp – or you can dehydrate them combined in a favourite casserole or sauce. Make the batch relatively dry (could simmer down chili etc.). Dehydrate on leather trays to keep the sauce. They take a little longer to dry as one starts off with a thicker layer of food. Measure the volume of a usual meal size and limit that to one tray.
If you want the food to rehydrate quickly at camp in hot water without having to boil it, prepare your dish for the dehydrator with a uniform consistency and small pieces – nearly a puree. This can take some getting used to, particularly for a dish that normally has larger pieces or layers like enchiladas or lasagna. This is an important advantage of freeze-dried meals – that process leaves the texture of larger pieces and quick rehydration times. But the flavours carry through well – richer than freeze dried.
Alternately, you can maintain texture by 1. using ground meat 2. If not pureeing the food, rehydrate the meal at lunch – using a lock box, add water, shake well, check later and add more water if necessary, heat in a plastic bag in boiling water or right in the pot. It is recommended to measure the volume of the meal before and after dehydrating and add that much water when rehydrating (mark amount on the ziplock). I don’t bother as I add water in stages as above.
Conversely, recipes that don’t work as well include
• Those that require big pieces of meat, veggies or fruit
• Those that require frying or baking
• Layered dishes (these have to be chopped up for speedy rehydration)
• Multi-pot preparations
• Recipes with high oil content, or oil-packed (fish)\
With a little experience and experimentation you will soon develop a good sense for what recipes will adapt well and which ones won’t.
1. Be sure that the entire batch of leftovers to be dehydrated has been cooked to at least 200 degrees and held it there for ten to fifteen minutes to destroy any harmful bacteria, especially if it contains eggs or meat. An extra blast in the microwave or oven might be called for. Don’t put food into the dehydrator that has sat out on the counter cooling for hours or in the refrigerator for days. If you have a leftover meal that you decide to dehydrate a few days after you originally made it, re-heat it thoroughly first.
2. Make sure all the cooking, pureeing and spreading out are done in sanitary conditions – thoroughly wash and disinfect the food processor, dehydrator trays, countertops and cutting boards, any utensils and your hands before handling the cooked food. Even after cooking, food could be re-contaminated with Staph or other harmful bacteria as it is pureed and laid out on the dryer trays (surface as well as hand contaminants).
3. Chop/puree all components to uniform small size if needed (use a food processor). The smaller the pieces in your mixture, the more quickly it will dry, and the more quickly it will rehydrate at camp!
4. Measure the food into servings (a usual serving size is about 1.5C per serving, measured before drying). Make a note of the volume per serving.
5. Spread each serving onto a separate dehydrator tray. Drippy dishes or sauces go on the solid plastic leather trays, while drier dishes can go on the mesh trays. If you have some time, transfer the food from the leather trays to mesh trays once it’s dried enough to do so. This improves air movement through the dehydrator.
6. Don’t fill the dehydrator too full. It’s critically important to spread out the food evenly in a very shallow layer on the dehydrator tray to aid rapid drying. Don’t overload the dehydrator with wet food – this will slow down the process. Leave a couple of empty trays between full ones to be sure that everything dries uniformly and quickly. You want speedy drying because this is what prevents bacteria growth. Rotate the trays to dehydrate the batch evenly.
7. Use the temperature settings on your dehydrator – in particular, use the 165 degree setting for any meat or egg dishes or dishes with a higher fat content. Use a food thermometer to check whether your dehydrator is actually getting to that temperature with food inside. Putting hot food into the dehydrator will help it maintain temperature. Stack the trays and go to bed. You can reduce the temperature to 145 degrees for vegetable dishes, and should go even lower for fragile foods like mushrooms or herbs.
8. Food dehydration works as a safe food preservation method by controlling water content, which in turn controls bacterial growth. So a key to safe storage of home-dehydrated meals is to bring the water content of the food down quickly to below 10%. There is no standard guideline for how quickly the water content of your dish will be reduced to the target moisture content – each mixture will vary.
After a couple of hours in the dehydrator, stir the food, flip the pieces over, crumble up clumps, rotate the trays, move food from the solid plastic trays to the mesh trays (remember, clean hands and utensils!). If it’s just not drying, your dehydrator may be overloaded and you may need to take one of the trays out or remove some of the food.
9. In 8-10 hours check the dryness of the food. The product is not fully dry and ready for storage until it is crispy-crumbly. Test it for brittleness. You may need to stir things around, rotate trays, and leave it for a while longer if necessary. At these temperatures I have not found things to get ‘too dry.
For fruit, some fruits will be fully dry but still pliable – they just shouldn’t be sticky after fully cooling the food.
10. When the food is crispy-dry, turn off the dehydrator, separate the trays and let the food cool completely. Then put each serving (or two servings if you’re feeding two people at a meal) into its own Ziploc bag. Label the bag or include a small slip of paper in the bag with the name of the food and the volume of the serving as well as the date that you packaged it. Push out all the air you can.
Loading multiple servings into a big bag and scooping out of it through the season requires opening the bag multiple times – this means exposing the food to germs and moisture. Not a good thing.
Meat. Dehydrate at 150-154. I most commonly have used hamburger for burritos, tacos, or pasta sauce. It would not be great for hamburgers! Some recommend cubing meat in small pieces other than ground but I always use ground meat as larger pieces tend to not rehydrate well and are chewy. When frying, break up the ground meat completely with a fork. Don’t over brown as the meat will brown some when dehydrating. After frying, some also recommend rinsing the meat in a strainer with hot water to purge all the fat, then blotting with paper towels. This removes much of the flavour that could be replaced somewhat with olive oil, taco seasoning, salt, pepper or spices. I, however, leave all the fat in and store in the freezer. My favourite dehydrated complete meal, Hot Pot, has half a pound of bacon with all the fat left in. Tend to dry rock hard which usually takes about 6 hours.
• Hamburger – use extra lean, lightly brown (don’t overbrown), dehydrate on leather trays. Rehydrate 4-6 hours.
• Chicken – use ground skinless breasts or brown meat, fry (may need to add a small amount of fat), dehydrate on leather trays. Rehydrate 4-6 hours.
Jerky. Turkey, ham, roast beef sliced 1/16 of an inch thick. Refer to the recipes for jerky.
It is recommended that one blanche first to stop enzymes that continue to ripen, stop the growth of microorganisms, retain vitamins, preserve the color and make the skin porous allowing the food to dry and rehydrate faster. Don’t blanche tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, or peppers as these more delicate vegetables cook quickly. Dry vegetables a little drier than fruit.
• Onions, peppers, mushrooms, celery – chop and place on dehydrator sheets directly using leather trays or cheesecloth.
• Carrots – slice thinly on a mandolin, parboil or dice small.
• Broccoli, cauliflower – break into small florets, parboil
• Tomatoes – roma tomatoes work well as they have very few seeds but have less flavor than other tomatoes. Buy ripe, but still firm and slice about a quarter inch thick. Lightly spritz the trays with oil, sprinkle with Herbes de Provence and a dash of sea salt. Add directly to soups or stews, or steep in water for 10 minutes and then add to stir fries, pasta or rice dishes. A good appetizer is made by putting some olive oil and fresh sliced garlic in a ziplok, add the tomatoes and let soak for several hours, place on bread and you have bruschetta. “Just Vegetables” is a good cost effective source for bell peppers (impossible to buy this much fresh peppers for so little), cranberry, cherries. Expensive for mushrooms, onion and carrot. Allow 3 weeks for delivery.
120-140 is the usual temperature for fruit and vegetables. The higher the temperature, the more nutrition lost. Slice evenly and mandolins work best for this (watch your fingertips).
Rehydration. Allow 4-6 hours
Choose high quality, ripe, but not overripe fruit. Dehydrating fruit concentrates their sugars so they taste sweeter. Slice thin, about 1/8 inch for a crisper treat or up to ½ inch for something chewier. To avoid discolouration, dip bananas and apples in lemon juice. Dry to tough but still pliable, chewy, pliable and leatherlike. Test frequently – sample after letting it cool. Add them to your trail mix, oatmeal, muesli or eat directly from the bag.
• Fruit leather – Strawberries, raspberries – puree in blender. Rhubarb – Stew and add sugar. Use cookie sheet lined with saran, fill sheet as full as possible, use 150 with spoon in door holding door open, and when finished, roll up in saran. Or use leather trays supplied with dehydrators. Can add coconut, nuts, grated ginger, lemon or lime zest.
• Grapes and fruit with tough skins, blanche 60 seconds then put in cold water for 30 seconds. Better to not peel as lose nutrients.
• Bananas, pineapple, cherries, cranberry, mango, kiwi, mandarin oranges.
• Apples. Toss in small amount lemon juice with cinnamon. I dry these thoroughly as I like them on the crisp side.
Drop teaspoonfuls of flavoured yogurt onto leather trays sprayed lightly with cooking oil, and dry for 8-10 hours. Space at least an inch apart. Try Yoplait’s Chocolate Mousse Style for a chocolate punch. If you make your own yogurt, add vanilla, a sprinkle of cinnamon and honey. Greek yogurt has most of the liquid whey drained out so makes for a heftier yogurt drop and requires more drying time. Add strawberries or finely chopped cashews.
Add thinly sliced strawberry on top of the yogurt dollops.
Pasta Sauce, Soups – same as fruit leather. Carry in ziplocks. Rehydrates quickly. Or make your own pasta sauce on the trail using tomatoes, carrot, mushroom, onion, garlic, hamburger, and dried spices (or even bring some fresh basil as very light)
For a hot liquid meal, dehydrate anything very thoroughly, place in a blender or food processor and “powderize” it. Rehydrate with hot water and place in a good thermos. Makes a good, hot, quick meal when doing activities in the winter or if you anticipate not having the time to heat your food.
Make a dark-chocolate fudge brownie mix or use your favourite home recipe. Bake as usual, cool and cut into half-inch cubes. Dry for 10-12 hours, cool, and put into Ziploc bags for chocolate croutons, great right out of the bag. Add warmed coffee liqueur or brandy and mix in walnuts and/or dried cherries for a decadent treat.
Add the following to your meals for variety, flavor and additional calories: whole mild powder, powdered soy, almond or rice milk, powdered eggs, powdered butter, powdered peanut butter, powdered nutella, textured vegetable protein, quinoa flakes, soup mixes, dried hummus mix, instant mashed potatoes, maple sugar, red or green curry paste, lemongrass powder, coconut cream powder.
Coconut cream powder: one packet equals a 14 oz can of coconut milk and can be used as a milk substitute in recipes, poured over cereal or drunk by the glass. Added to curries, it makes a thick, rich coconut curry gravy.
If the product is crispy dry when taken out of the dehydrator, and kept from re-absorbing moisture in the packaging, it can be safely stored for months in a cool place (big closed bin in the garage) or in your freezer. Keep a stash of dessicant packets handy (can buy in bulk on Amazon!) to toss into each bag and absorb any stray molecule of moisture that might have wandered in.
References vary in their statements regarding the length of time that dehydrated food can be stored safely. I have successfully kept food, even foods containing meat and eggs, crispy-dry and tasty for as much as a year, and certainly four to six months is safe as long as you ensure that the food stays dry.
Nasty germ spores that might have survived in the food after cooking are not a big concern due to the open air nature of the drying (anaerobic – i.e. low-oxygen – conditions can foster growth of some nasty pathogens), as long as the food remains very dry through storage. Check the food periodically during storage to make sure that it has remained crispy-dry. If it appears to have gained moisture in storage, put it back in the dehydrator, cool, rebag and put it back into storage.
Treat any rehydrated food as perishable. Once the food is rehydrated, it requires refrigeration to control pathogen growth. Any leftovers should be discarded.
Vacuum-bagging or seal-a-meal type food sealers work well. I use freezer quality Ziploc bags. Allow the food to cool completely before bagging. Gently squeeze out every bit of air before sealing the bags. Store single servings in larger bags to doublebag. Mark the date and contents on the bag or on a small piece of paper put inside the bag. Add a dessicant pack. Freeze.
REHYDRATION. You can rehydrate the food in a number of ways.
1. The best way I have found is to use a locktite plastic box. At lunch or when necessary to rehydrate the food for the planned meal, add some water, close the completely water tight box, shake well. Check again a few hours later and add more water if necessary. Great when backpacking or doing other activity. Simply put in pack and it will never leak. There are many sizes of lock boxes.
Another less secure option is to add water into the Ziploc up to the level of the dry food, and put it back in your pack. By the time dinnertime comes, all you’ll need to do is dunk the closed bag into hot water to warm it up before eating it.
2. Heat water to a near-boil and pour it into the Ziploc bag (or into your mug or bowl if you are concerned about chemicals in the plastic), stir, and wrap the bag in heavy-duty foil or put it into a cozy for ten minutes or so. You want to keep it hot, as that assures faster and more uniform rehydration.
3. Boil water in your pot in a quantity equal to the volume of your serving, dump in the dried food, and let it boil for 3-5 minutes until the food is rehydrated and the water is absorbed.
4. You can quickly reconstitute veggies by adding them directly to the water as you boil pasta, rice or instant mashed potatoes. Some veggies, like red peppers, tomatoes or zucchini, can be eaten right out of the bag. Sprinkle them with Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper before drying to create homemade veggie chips.
For a special lunch treat, before leaving camp in the morning, add boiling water to a dehydrated meal in a thermos.
Now you have a compact Ziploc bag of your favourite comfort food at camp, taking up much less space in your pack and making a lot less trash to haul out.
Another Fork in the Trail – Vegetarian recipes for the backcountry by Laurie Ann March, wildernesspress.com Covers dehydrating basics, menu and meal planning. 160 recipes.
Kayak Cookery – A Handbook of Provisions and Recipes by Linda Daniel, menasharidge.com Menu planning and outfitting a mobile kitchen.
Food Drying with an Attitude by Mary Bell, skyhorsepublishing.com Also recipes
backpackingchef.com. Recipes and links.
organize-simplify-prepare.com. Website with lots of great ideas.
honeyvillegrain.com. Discount bulk items with many hard to find foods like organic powdered eggs and organic whole milk powder.
justtomatoes.com. PO Box 807, Westley, CA 95387 1-800- 537-1985 / 209-894-5371. Has great selection of vegetables and fruit already dehydrated. Mail order.