How to Dehydrate Your Own Backpacking Food
Hiking is my ‘thing.’ I love seeing amazing things that I couldn’t possibly have seen from inside a car. Having a one year old to cart around hasn’t stopped me yet either so far our major trips have included the Tour du Mont Blanc (when she was eight weeks old) and most of the Dingle Way in Ireland when she was 10 months. Here she on a humid day on the Kalalau trail on Kauai at six months old.
I realized I was ‘done’ with conventional freeze dried meals when I was backpacking with a friend in Haleakala about a decade ago now. We had traveled separately and each brought our own food. At the end of a long day of hiking we prepared our meals a freeze dried meal from a major manufacturer for me, and an MRE for him, as he was in the Marines at the time. MREs are not widely reknowned for their nuanced flavor palettes, but I kid you not his meal was better than mine.
I started brainstorming potential solutions and realized I could dehydrate my own prepared meals. The main benefits are that I can control the flavorings (I like assertive flavor/spice, but not heat) and salt (most freeze dried meals are almost inedibly salty). I can also easily include vegetables for nutritional value. Last but not least they taste good!
11/2/15 Update: A belated thanks for voting for my Instructable in the Camping Food contest I won a runner up prize! If you’re interested, the trip report for the Breckenridge to Aspen hike for which I made these meals, is up on my blog. (Sadly WordPress won’t let me put them in chronological order, so start reading at the bottom.)Step 1: Choose Your RecipeA key lesson I learned early on is that chunks of meat do not dry very well; they get hard on the outside before they dry out in the middle. Best case scenario is that your meal tastes nasty; worst case is that you get salmonella or E. coli while you’re on a backpacking trip, potentially days away from help. So pick a recipe that will be OK with ground meat, even if it’s not conventionally served that way (example: chicken tikka masala). Any kind of meat (or textured vegetable protein, if you like) in sauce is a good bet. I tried tofu once a long time ago, and I think it didn’t come out well. I seem to recall chewy pieces of tofu that didn’t really rehydrate properly.
I like recipes that have a protein ‘base’ with a carb side or topping of some kind. If you’re on a multi day trip and all your base meals are ground meat in different kinds of sauce,
it’s nice to have more variety in toppings. I try to pick a selection of meals that go with rice, mashed potatoes, noodles, biscuits, etc.
I also add vegetables to the base even if the meal wouldn’t normally have them there as a way to make sure I get enough fiber to keep things moving through the system. Here I’m cooking the base for the English classic Shepherd’s Pie.
A key step in every recipe you make occurs after you brown the meat: you must then drain the fat. Excess fat in a dehydrated meal will go rancid. I pour the whole lot into a colander (over a bowl, the contents of which are then thrown in the trash you don’t want all that fat solidifying in your drains), and press down on it to extract more fat. After putting it back in the pan, I “wipe” the food and the base of the pan with 2 3 paper towels to absorb as much fat as possible.
If your recipe does not start by browning aromatics and then meat you’ll need to reorganize it so it does, or plan to drain the meat at some other point in the process before you start adding flavorings and spices.
Once you think the dish is ready, taste it in the pan and add salt/pepper/more seasonings as needed. In general you want the food to be slightly over seasoned as it seems to lose a bit of flavor in the dehydrating process. Make sure it tastes good. When I prepared these photos some years back for a little tutorial (pre Instructables!) for a friend we had a crappy old blender so I could only blend small quantities at a time. Now we have a Vitamix that could technically do the whole lot at once but I still only do half batches. Packing the whole meal into the Vitamix at once would yield pieces at the bottom that were too small while the stuff floating on top wouldn’t be small enough. You can add quite a lot of water if your meal is dry to help things move in the blender maybe a cup or more per batch.
PULSE for just a second, stop and evaluate, and pulse again as needed. I can’t over state how little you will likely need to process the food.
I have an American Harvest FD 50 dehydrator, which I like, but other brands/models will do the job just as well. I got a couple of extra trays for it (the four trays it comes with may not be enough for a full meal) and you will also need one fruit roll sheet per tray.
Place a fruit roll sheet onto each tray, and divide the meal evenly among the sheets. Spread it so it just covers the fruit roll sheet;
if you spread it too thick it won’t dry properly.
Turn the dial to the appropriate temperature setting for meat. Mine is pictured in the laundry room so I can close the door because I find the fan annoying.