Looking to dehydrate food for your backpacking trips? Here is V1 of my adventures with dehydrating my own backpacking meals!
Why should you dehydrate food for backpacking yourself?
On a recent backpacking trip to the Sequoia’s, a friend of mine pulled out this bag full of dehydrated yogurts that basically tasted like fruit roll ups – they were amazing. Then she pulled out a bag of dehydrated strawberries that tasted like candy, and I was sold. This dehydrator you speak of, is it magical? How do I dehydrate? Oh, just think of the things I could do!
I usually buy freeze-dried pre-packaged meals from Backcountry.com, but with those, you’re not always quite sure what’s in your food. I’m not super neurotic with eating all organic foods and all that jazz, but I do try to eat fresh whenever possible – I only eat out maybe once or twice a week, I like to cook with fresh veggies and meats rather than buying pre-packaged foods if possible – so being able to bring that concept into the backcountry for our backpacking trips sounded like a great idea! And, I figure if I can do it right, I can save us some money as well.
To get started, I volunteered my friend’s Excalibur Dehydrator and said that we should have a huge dehydrating party and figure out really cool recipes and make all kinds of stuff! As we tried to plan for this and I did some research, I realized there was a lot more planning, learning and testing that would need to be done, and we were really just looking to have brunch and bloody mary’s, so she offered to let me hang on to her dehydrator and play with some recipes myself!
I’m a process oriented person, so whatever I do, I like to have some sort of strategy – but when it comes to cooking, I’m not big on following recipes. I see them more as a guide. However, dehydrating is almost more like baking in the sense that there is a science to it – what dehydrates best, what should be cooked first and what shouldn’t, how long to dehydrate, etc. I went about doing my research and decided Phase I would be testing. Here are the results of Phase I!
Learning to dehydrate food for backpacking Phase I – Testing individual ingredients
Yogurts were easy – buy yogurt (generally not fat free yogurt, but you can play with different kinds and see what works) – spread them on the sheets provided with the Excalibur dehydrator, but not too thin, dehydrate overnight (about 6-8 hours), and boom – delicious yogurt rolls! I also tried adding some peanut butter powder (from Costco) to some of the yogurt mix since there are some in our crew who live for peanut butter, and that came out great as well! I’ve tested a few different flavors so that we have some variety, and now I have a ziploc of dehydrated yogurts sitting in my fridge, ready for our next trip. It seems that if left out, they’ll last a few weeks without spoiling if not vacuum sealed, but in the fridge they can last up to 6 months. I also separate each piece with parchment paper so that they don’t stick together. They’re kind of sticky on the teeth when you eat them, similar to a fruit roll-up, but delicious!
Another variation I tried with this was to make little yogurt and date snacks. I bought vanilla fat filled yogurt (the fat free or low fat stuff doesn’t work as well), added it to the food processor with some pitted dates, chocolate protein powder, peanut butter powder, and honey. Processed it enough so that there were no big chunks, and then laid them out on the dehydrating sheets in clumps, but not too thick. These came out very yummy, but very sticky on the teeth, of course – I don’t think I could eat a whole jar of them in a sitting (I’m also more of a savory person over sweet), but if you need a little sweet in the backcountry, these would be great!
If you’re learning to dehydrate food for backpacking trips, fruits are super easy too – slice them real thin, lay them on the netted layers provided with the Excaliber, and dehydrate overnight for yummy snacks. Strawberries are great, so are peaches and apples. Oranges were okay – I even did lemon slices, and figure these would be great if you like a little lemon in your tea in the backcountry. You can store them in the fridge until you’re ready and they should be fine unsealed for a week or two in the backcountry. Or, vaccuum seal them and they’ll probably last for year or so. I didn’t bother adding any additional sweeteners to the fruit, as I had seen on some sites – they’re plenty sweet on their own!
Dehydrated Vegetables and Potatoes
For vegetables, I started out just slicing them and dehydrating them, but found out after that it’s best to cook most veggies first, and then dehydrate them. This way they’re actually cooked once you re-hydrate them, rather than raw. So far, I’ve tried mushrooms, spinach and artichoke hearts (non-marinated – the ones with oil won’t dehydrated well) – the artichoke hearts surprisingly held all of their flavor when rehydrated – they were great!! I didn’t cook the spinach and artichoke hearts before dehydrating since they basically just need to be heated. I left them in their mason jar for the hydration processes, added less water than I thought I would need for starters, and then added just a bit more after about 5 minutes. The spinach and artichoke hearts hydrated pretty quickly, but the mushrooms took just a bit longer – probably just under 10 minutes for all of it.
I also sliced up some potatoes and sweet potatoes – I cut them in chunks and boiled them for a bit first (not fully cooked, but close) – they dehydrated fine, but I needed to hydrate them a bit longer next time – and they don’t hold much flavor so it’s really about the seasoning you add. I still have some experimenting to do with them – maybe I’ll add the seasoning before I dehydrate them.These would be great in the morning with some eggs, or at dinner time to add to a dish!
Meats are a little harder to work with. Jerky is easy enough – find lean meat, trim the fat (fat won’t dehydrate well), marinate it, slice it real thin along the grain, and then dehydrate. The first time I did it, I didn’t cook it first, I let the dehydrating take care of that. Unfortunately, I second guessed myself with the whole “should I have cooked this first??” so I tossed them before doing more research. Of course, I found out that you don’t need to cook the meat for jerky, so I did a second batch and it came out great. I marinated flank steak in soy sauce, garlic salt and a little bit of sugar, so it has a teriyaki kind of flavor. Next up I need to try out some pepper flavors for the others.
I also dehydrated ground beef, but from my research I had read that cooking the ground beef and then putting it in the food processor with some bread crumb makes it hydrate better as the bread helps absorption during the hydrating process. For this test, I used regular Italian bread crumbs, and it hydrated pretty well and tasted pretty good with pasta and a marinara sauce. It looks like some meats are pretty hard to hydrate and can be very chewy, so it’s good that at least we can have some ground beef! I also tried it with some gluten-free bread crumbs for my gluten-free friend.
Dehydrated Pasta Sauce
I’m picky about my pasta sauce – I usually make my own and let it simmer for 3-4 hours, and then I freeze a bunch and defrost it as needed for meals. However, for the purposes of testing, I decided to simply buy a jar from Trader Joe’s and try it out. I laid the pasta sauce out on the wax sheets in circles, similar to how I did it for the yogurt, and made sure not to go too thin. Dehydrated overnight, and in the morning I had these great dried circles of pasta sauce! It hydrated perfectly as well, and tasted just as it had before dehydrating it. Next up, I’ll be making a batch of my own sauce to dehydrate. I usually make my sauce with the ground beef in it though, so I need to think through that a bit – do I saute up the ground beef as I would before adding the sauce, but add some bread crumbs then? Or do I just cook the meat separately and add it at the end? So many decisions!! That’s why we test! But this will make for a great backcountry meal for sure.
Pasta was pretty easy to dehydrate. For Phase I, I dehydrated some rigatoni and penne, and then I also tried this edamame pasta I got from Costco for my gluten-intolerant friend – I’m not generally a huge fan of this pasta as it doesn’t really cook to the normal consistency of regular pasta, but for those who need an alternative, it tastes just fine. Best to cook them all first, and then dehydrate them, so that they hydrate more quickly later. The rigatoni and penne were easy, and for the edamame pasta, I dehydrated it in small clumps so that it would be easy to store after it was dried – if you leave it in strands, you’re going to have to break your pasta – and breaking pasta is just not okay! Anyway, they all re-hydrated really well. No problems here! Next phase, I’m going to try out some quinoa and rice for other base-meal options.
Cheese…well, cheese is a special beast. I shredded up some Parmesan, sharp cheddar and mozzarella and set them on the wax sheets. I dehydrated them overnight, and in the morning they had clumped together and there was oil underneath them, but they didn’t quite feel dehydrated fully. I dehydrated them through the next day, and the next evening, wiping the grease every so often The final product still didn’t quite feel completely dry, but probably good enough to last a day or two in the backcountry. The Parmesan cheese dehydrated the best – cheddar and mozzarella were still a bit greasy in the end. I used my chop-it to grind them up small, and then put them in the fridge. I added some to my pasta and sauce test, but I think I needed to add a lot more to actually taste it. In the end, I think it’d probably be easiest for me to buy and seal some powdered cheese, energy and cost wise!
Learning to dehydrate food for backpacking Phase II – Testing Recipes
Dehydrated Pasta Meal for the Backcountry
Now that my first round of testing was complete, I was ready to test some actual recipes. If I was going to dehydrate food for backpacking, I wanted it to be real tasty! First up, I sautéed some onions, mushrooms, spinach, and sun dried tomatoes, added some half and half and goat cheese, and let it simmer and sit for a while. Then, I threw it all in the food processor so that it became a paste, spread it like the yogurt rolls in a circle, and let it dehydrate overnight. It dehydrated rather well, but took a bit longer than other foods because of the cream base.
Additional dehydrated recipe ideas that I’ll be testing:
- Quinoa with bacon and veggies – I make this dish where I cook some quinoa with garlic salt and curry, and then I add mushrooms, broccoli, some mozzarella cheese, sriracha, and either chicken or shrimp. It’s delicious, easy, and great as leftovers! But, knowing that chicken is tough to hydrate, and shrimp…well, I think dehydrated shrimp are just weird…I’m thinking of trying some lean bacon. My plan is to make the veggies and bacon, chop them up a bit in the food processor (but not TOO tiny), and then mix them with the quinoa and a little bit of mozzarella cheese – just enough to get them to stick together. Hopefully they’ll come out as little clumps that I can flatten on the wax sheets – kind of like making cookies – and then we’ll see how the mix hydrates!
- Vindaloo sauce – I love indian food. It’s delicious. Recently, I went to Costco and they have these coconut curry and vindaloo sauces. The portions are pretty huge, so I usually buy it and then add them to ice cube trays and freeze them so that they are portioned out nicely for when I need them. Then I thought – hmm, I wonder if I could dehydrate them like I do pasta sauce. Would be a great meal to add to some potatoes and rice/veggies for backpacking! And, if they do well enough, I can try out making my own sauce for the future.
- Chili – I don’t really have a recipe for good chili; it’s not something I’ve ever really thought about making. But, on our last backpacking trip we bought a chili cheese pasta freeze dried meal and it was delicious. I’m going to test out making some chili using small beans, and probably processing it up smaller than normal chili would be – it will be more of a paste than the chili you normally get out of the crockpot, but it dehydrates much better that way. My expectations while backpacking are a bit lower anyway, I mean, you are in the middle of the woods with only a little backpacking stove, but I figure we could add this with some cheese powder over some pasta and yum!
- Fruity yogurt and date treats – Same thing as above, but without peanut butter and with more of a fruit taste. I LOVE all things lemon, and there’s this yummy lemon yogurt I get from ralphs, so I’m going to mix that with the vanilla yogurt and dates and see how it comes out.
- Peppered jerky – I have the teriyaki flavored jerky, next I’m going to try for a smokey peppered flavor!
Backpacking trip coming up in less than 2 weeks and I’m hoping to have these recipes figured out and ready to go by then! I have a vacuum sealer and bags my friend got along with her dehydrator, and we’re thinking that we should be able to bring some foil for the backcountry and hydrate everything in those to help with having to clean dishes. The bags say they are BPA free and safe for microwaving and simmering, but meh, safer to use foil. I’ve thought about trying eggs, but they scare me a bit so I think we’ll just buy some meals from backcountry.com for breakfast. But lunch and dinner…I’m on it.