Most of us have done it more than once in our backpacking lives – tear open a foil packet, pour in steaming water from the camp stove, wait ten minutes, then shovel the contents into our mouths in the hope that the quantity is right, the food is palatable and the salt content doesn’t cause congestive heart failure.  Then we rinse and haul the bulky foil packets back out to the trailhead.

And 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 quite expensive, they involve a great deal of excess packaging and bulk – two enemies of lightweight backpacking – and flavor as well as control over undesirable ingredients is a bit of a crapshoot.

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Some of us have been turning to an alternative, a take on an old standby which can be much more straightforward and less time-consuming than you think:  dehydrating your favorite “comfort food” meals for the trail.

No, STOP, don’t run away!  Stay with me for just another paragraph or two!

With a little practice, I’ve found that you can take leftovers from many of your favorite recipes – meals that you’ve already made for your dinner – and adapt them so that you just pop them in the dehydrator overnight and bingo!  By morning they’re ready to bag up in a Ziploc to store for next summer’s expeditions.  And you don’t even need to be a home cook – the same process works with many of your favorite frozen casseroles from the grocery store, or with favorite entrees from the deli counter – even leftovers from your last restaurant meal.

In this article I’ll give you some of the basics for doing this successfully; then in a subsequent article I’ll share more about safe storage of dehydrated meals.

First you need a basic dehydrator.  Yes, you can use your oven, but most ovens run too hot, run the risk of over-drying your food and are horribly energy-inefficient to leave on overnight.  Some features I swear by are adjustable temperature settings (veggies and herbs should dry at lower temps than meats and meat or egg-containing casseroles), adjustable capacity via the ability to buy and stack on extra trays, and the availability of both mesh and solid plastic ‘jellyroll’ tray liners for different foods.  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.

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Next you need to know which recipes work and how to adapt them for the trail.  Recipes that work well:

–      Casseroles, stews 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

OK, there is something you need to know early on.  If you want the food to rehydrate quickly at camp in hot water without having to boil it in your pot, it’s important to prepare your dish for the dehydrator so that it has a uniform consistency, with small pieces – nearly a puree.  (I for one am not someone who can wait 30 minutes for my food to rehydrate at the end of a long trail day!)  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 can leave the texture of larger pieces with a very quick rehydration time at camp).  But the flavors carry through very well – richer flavor in my opinion than with freeze dried and a more natural texture.  (If you don’t mind boiling your dehydrated meal for 5 minutes in water in your pot at camp, then you can leave somewhat larger pieces.)

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.

Roasted red pepper-garlic-goat cheese pasta

So THEN what?  I have my leftover yummy shepherd’s pie dinner from the Safeway freezer case.  What do I do now?

  1. Be sure that the entire batch of leftovers to be dehydrated has been cooked to at least 200 degrees to destroy any harmful bacteria, especially if it contains eggs or meat.  An extra blast in the microwave or oven might be called for.
  2. Chop/puree all components to uniform small size if needed (I use my food processor for this).
  3. Measure the food into servings (I usually consume about 1.5C per serving, measured before drying).  Make a note of the volume per serving that you planned.
  4. Spread each serving onto a separate dehydrator tray.  Drippy dishes or sauces go on the solid plastic ‘jellyroll’ trays, while drier dishes can go on the mesh trays.  Don’t fill the dehydrator too full!  I like to 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.
  5. Turn the dehydrator to the appropriate setting for the type of food you’re drying (165 degrees for meat and egg dishes, 145 degrees for vegetables). Stack the trays and go to bed.
  • If you have some time, transfer the food from the jellyroll trays to mesh trays once it’s dried enough to do so.  This improves air movement through the dehydrator.
  • I also like to rotate the trays if I have the chance.
  • Neither of these things are critical, if you don’t have the time to do them
  1. Come back in 8-10 hours and check the dryness of the food.  It’s done when the food is crispy-crumbly (some fruits will be fully dry but still pliable – they just shouldn’t be sticky).  You may need to stir things around, rotate trays, and leave it while you go to work.  At these temperatures I have not found things to get ‘too dry’.
  2. 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.   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, and toss the bag into the freezer or into a closed bin in a cool place.
  • 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.

A few other tips:

  • 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 favorite casserole or sauce.
  • 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.

 

Now you have a compact Ziploc bag of your favorite comfort food at camp, taking up much less space in your pack and making a lot less trash to haul out.   You can rehydrate the food in a number of ways.  (1) Take it out of your pack at lunch, put 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.  Or (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.

Winter is a great time for trail-food experimentation.  Every time you make a favorite dish for dinner that you think might make a good trail meal, double the recipe and dry the leftovers.  Dehydrated meals are easy to store until you need them the next spring or summer.  By the time the backpacking season comes along, you will have a selection of tasty meal options to choose from, all from your own repertoire of favorites!

For some tried-and-true comfort food recipes, go to my blog.

In the next article I will share some information about safe storage of dehydrated foods.

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