Reprinted as seen in the May + June 2009 issue of Washington Trails Magazine, written by Laurie Ann March.
Enjoy Delicious Food in the Backcountry
As the author of a wilderness cookbook, I often get the opportunity to talk with people about food for the backcountry. I’ve noticed over the years many people are intimidated by the thought of dehydrating their own foods. Some feel the task would be too difficult, while others are concerned the equipment is too expensive or the results unsafe. In this quick primer on food dehydration, I will alleviate some of these concerns and start you on a journey that will make food in the backcountry more enjoyable.
Food dehydration is like any other method in the kitchen—it’s only as difficult as you make it. There are two ways to dehydrate foods. One is to dehydrate ingredients separately and then create the dish by packaging the ingredients together afterwards. Some people prefer this, but I prefer to do things a little differently by drying whole meals. This can be as simple as putting leftover stew or chili on lined dehydrator trays or as involved as creating a special meal just for your trip.
Most people have everything they need in their home kitchen. While you can dry foods with your oven, it’s more efficient and cost effective to do so with a food dehydrator. There are several companies that make these and they can cost as little as $40. I recommend that you choose a unit that has at least 500 watts of power and has a temperature control that goes as high as 160 degrees F. A top or side fan is preferable because it makes clean up much easier. You might also consider purchasing fruit leather trays specifically designed for your unit. If you can’t find these trays, parchment paper is a great alternative.
The way you dry a meal depends on the ingredients. Sometimes it’s better to dry ingredients separately. An example would be a beef stew, where the vegetables dry at a different rate than the meat. In that case I recommend separating the meat for drying and putting everything back together when you pack it for camp. Other meals, like minestrone, can be dried without separating. It is also best to keep pieces small and uniform.
Meats and seafood can be dried successfully but there are some special considerations. Beef and salmon can be made into jerky. For beef jerky, you need to choose a lean cut, such as the flank or skirt, and make the slices uniform. For salmon jerky, use smoked salmon instead of fresh. For the best jerky flavor, marinate overnight.
Beef, as well as pork and chicken, can be dried as part of a meal. It is best to use a moist method of cooking that involves a sauce and cook the meat until it is fork tender. Pork and chicken will do better if shredded before being dried. If you are using chicken for something like a wrap or chicken salad you will find canned chicken gives you better results. Ham can also be shredded and dried.
Cooked ground beef and lean sausage dry well, but after cooking you should give it a good rinse with boiling water. This will also remove some of the flavor so you may have to season the meat again. Canned seafood can be dehydrated but does smell up the kitchen. If you decide to dry seafood such as tuna you might want to consider putting a fan in the window to blow any odors outside.
The best way to tell if food is dried is to look at it. Fruit and vegetables will appear leathery and when torn you should not see any beads of moisture. Ground meat will resemble gravel, as will feta cheese. Jerky will crack as you bend it. Spaghetti and other sauces will have the texture of fruit leather.
Not all foods can be dried. Avoid raw meats such as pork and poultry as well as raw fish. Do not attempt to dry raw ground meats unless you are using a jerky cure. Yogurt can be dried into a treat similar to fruit leather or as a minor ingredient in a meal; however, it will not reconstitute as creamy yogurt. The same goes for cottage cheese. Sour cream works well when dried as a minor ingredient but does not come back for use as a topping.
Dehydrated foods are safe, provided you practice good kitchen hygiene, dry the food thoroughly and store foods properly. Dried foods should be stored in the freezer or other cool, dark, dry place until you are ready to leave for your trip. If stored properly, expect a shelf life of eight months before there is flavor loss. Sweet potatoes are the exception and start to lose flavor after three months.
Rehyrating Your Food
Rehydrating a dish depends entirely on what you are reconstituting and the temperature of the water. Recipes such as Sunny Garlic Hummus can be quickly rehydrated using enough cold water to reach your preferred consistency. Meals that contain meat should be rehydrated with very hot to boiling water and placed in a cozy until fully rehydrated. Rehydration time can vary–meats such as chicken take the longest. You can also start rehydrating a meal for lunch by adding cold water at breakfast. This way you don’t have to take your stove out at lunch time. This works well for meals such as the Citrus Lentil Salad.
Once you’ve dehydrated and rehydrated your first meal you’ll see that it’s quite easy and you will find that the taste is much better than the expensive, pre-packaged fare found in outdoor equipment stores. A simple way to get started is by drying leftover spaghetti sauce or a dish like chili. By learning the techniques for drying your own meals you’ll open up a whole new world of possibilities and you’ll be the envy of your fellow backpackers.