Dried food is a staple of backpacking. Dried food usually comes in the form of prepackaged, freeze-dried meals or meals that you have dehydrated yourself. While the pre-packaged meals can be great, dehydrating your own meals has a lot of benefits. Here is a snapshot of those benefits:
- You can cater meals to your dietary needs (e.g. gluten-free, dairy-free, peanut allergy, etc.);
- You can dial in the amount of calories you need per meal;
- You get to choose how much vegetables and meat to put in (pre-packaged meals are often heavy on the “fillers); and
- Saves you money!
Dehydrating your own meals can be intimidating. It’s hard to know what you can dehydrate and how to dehydrate so you end up with tasty meals. There is also the upfront cost of a dehydrator. While you can dehydrate in your convection oven, I highly recommend getting a dedicated dehydrator. A good dehydrator can cost less than $200 and you will recoup that cost after 20ish meals. I recommend Excalibur dehydrators. Myself and many of my friends have these dehydrators and they have worked well and are easy to use. You can pick them up on Amazon, or Costco will sometimes have them on sale. For reference, the Excalibur 4-tray can dehydrate approximately two 800 calorie meals at a time.
What can you dehydrate
You can dehydrate almost anything! The only things that you cannot dehydrate are dairy products and highly fatty items. Fat doesn’t dehydrate well and can go rancid if left for long periods of time. For example, I wouldn’t dehydrate bacon and expect it to keep well.
So fruits, vegetables, meats, and sauces are all fair game for dehydration. Large chunks of anything will not dehydrate well, so you want to make sure you choose meals that have smaller chunks of food. Dehydrating an entire steak, for example, probably wouldn’t turn out well.
Planning for dehydrating
Your first step before dehydrating anything would be to plan the meal. Are you dehydrating a snack? An entire meal? Not having a plan will leave you with different dehydrated foods that you won’t know how to combine. I like to choose an everyday meal that I would cook and enjoy and build my dehydrated meal from there. For example, if I was dehydrating a rice stir fry, I would look at the ingredients and make sure there is not a lot of fat/oil or large chunks; this isn’t an issue for most of my stir fries. If using beef, buy extra lean beef. Chicken can be difficult to rehydrate when cooking your meal – I’ve found dehydrated canned chicken to actually be the tastiest after rehydrating it.
How to dehydrate
Once you have your ingredients gathered, you’ll want to do your cutting and chopping. I like to have a maximum thickness of ¼” for anything I am dehydrating (i.e. fruits, vegetables, or meats); this thickness makes for efficient and even dehydration. Once I have all my ingredients chopped, I cook everything I am dehydrating. Depending on the recipe, I will keep the sauce to the side and cook the meat, vegetables, and starches separately. If I would cook an ingredient for a regular meal, I cook it before dehydrating. An exception is frozen vegetables. Frozen vegetables do not need to be cooked or thawed prior to dehydrating. Once cooked (if needed), I spread the ingredients onto the dehydrator trays. I dehydrate meats, vegetables, starches, and sauces in separate batches. The different ingredients can require the dehydrator to be set at different temperatures; check your dehydrator manual for the recommended temperatures.
If I am dehydrating something where all the ingredients are in small pieces (e.g. chili, some stir fries), I will mix everything together, including the sauce, cook it, then dehydrate it all at once. When dehydrating sauces or meals with sauces added, use a teflon or silicone sheet in the dehydrator tray. A cheaper option, but not quite as easy, is to cut parchment paper into squares that fit your dehydrator tray.
Follow the instructions for dehydrating times that are in the dehydrator manual. I dehydrate most items for 10-12 hours in my Excalibur 4-tray. Sauces will take longer to dehydrate. Once dehydrating is done, check to make sure everything is dry. If there are parts of the tray that are not dry, continue dehydrating. Not fully dehydrated food will spoil quickly and could lead to gastrointestinal issues. Once fully dehydrated, let everything cool and then prepare your meals for storage.
How to store dehydrated food
It is fairly easy to store dehydrated food. You can put it in freezer bags or mason jars for short-term (1-2 months) and keep it in a dark and cool place. If you put the freezer bags in the freezer, the dehydrated food will last a year or more. Two things that add longevity to your dehydrated food are adding desiccant pouches to your bags and/or vacuum sealing your meals.
How to rehydrate food
Depending on when I get into camp, the first thing I will do is throw some water in with my freezer bag of dehydrated food or pour the food into a pot and add water. If using a freezer bag, I add just enough water to wet all of the food. If in the pot, I add water until it is just covering all of the food (this is usually enough to fully rehydrate and cook food). I like to leave my food rehydrating for ~45min or longer. For tough to rehydrate items like chicken, longer will help. While the food is rehydrating, I go and set up the rest of camp. When I am ready for dinner, I throw my pot onto the stove and bring the rehydrated meal to a simmer. Cook time depends on the meal, but cooking will continue to rehydrate the food. Add water as needed. Test morsels of food as you are cooking to determine whether rehydration has been achieved. Once all the food has a good rehydrated texture and is hot for eating, you’re all set!
If you are new to dehydrating, it may be worthwhile practicing rehydrating and cooking a meal at home where conditions are a little more forgiving.