After my big thru hiking announcement last week I've decided to share some of my favorite backpacking recipes with you guys; however, it occurred to me that while I'm whipping up a lot of these recipes like it's no big deal you might not feel that way too! In fact, it took me a while to perfect my methods for dehydrating tasty meals. Once you finally start to master techniques to make your food taste better, dehydrating your own backpacking meals is an easy "set it and forget it" option that not only can provide you better nutrition, but can also save you money on resupplies in tough areas. Here's my quick and dirty guide to dehydrators - both purchasing and techniques to help you make your best backpacking meals.
Buying a dehydrator is going to be an investment. In fact, I'd look at it the way you look at purchasing a major kitchen appliance. After doing plenty of research about what I'd like to use to make an entire season's worth of hiking meals I chose a 5-Tray Excalibur system with a thermostat. The thing about dehydrating backpacking meals is that you aren't throwing them all in at one time. First, you're dehydrating the mixed vegetables for a few days. Then maybe you're doing rice for a few days. Then, you might be doing a few batches of sweet-flavored rice. You do everything in parts before assembling the meals. Having a fan and a thermostat will help ensure you're dehydrating fruits and veggies at optimal temperatures to keep nasty bacteria at bay. Meat, fruit, veggies - they all have optimal temps for pulling out moisture. The thermostat will definitely make sure you're drying your food at the safest temperatures.
While there are cheaper countertop models of dehydrators available, I definitely recommend going with a model with a fan for air circulation. The round tray systems need constant babysitting to move the trays. If you don't do this in a fan-less model, you'll have leather-like layers closer to the heat source whereas your top layers might not even be halfway dry. You can definitely do months' worth of food on one of these budget models, but be sure you have the time to dedicate to rearranging the trays.
Finally, you'll need a set of fruit leather trays for your dehydrator. You can again go the budget option and use parchment paper. I went with the generic fruit leather reusable inserts on Amazon. I've reused them countless times for the past three years and they don't hold flavors and just need a quick rinse. I highly recommend them. Aren't planning on making fruit roll-ups? That's fine - neither did I! But, you'll need these guys to dry sauces, veggie paste, even condiments you'll want to dry to make them more potent. Trust me, you WANT these tray inserts!
So you've purchased your dehydrator and you've found a couple of recipes you want to try out. Maybe you want to try and recreate one of your favorite pasta sides at a fraction of the price you'd pay for them over the period of a distance hike. Either way, it's time to start dehydrating.
Let's say your recipe calls for you to use your own dehydrated rice for a savory recipe. Instead of just making plain rice like you'd make at home, I highly recommend seasoning the rice before you get it into your dehydrator. If you're making a savory dish, I recommend cooking your rice in chicken, beef, or vegetable stock and salting it slightly heavier than you would eat at home for a normal meal. On trail, you'll wish it had more salt! After the rice cooks, cool it to room temperature before dehydrating. Making a sweet rice - maybe for a pudding or breakfast treat? Try cooking it with vanilla almond milk instead of water! When it comes time to dehydrate your rice, spread it out thinly and try to avoid clumps of rice. Clumps will hold more moisture and take longer to dehydrate. If you're home while it's dehydrating, go out and break up the chunks of rice every so often to help it dry out faster.
Not all frozen veggie mixes are created equally! My favorite store, Aldi, has mixed veggies in a bag as cheap as $0.95! However, their mixed veggies aren't all the same size and, in fact, the carrots are in rounds that are easily four times the size as the other vegetables. This doesn't make for fast dehydrating OR rehydrating! On the flip side of this, Wegmans makes a great mixed veggie blend with the exception of the lima beans. Lima beans are another rehydration nightmare. I don't care how long you soak or boil lima beans - they never seem to fully rehydrate properly. When you're looking for mixed vegetables to dehydrate for additions to your meals, I highly recommend looking at the contents and shapes of the veggies in the bag. BJ's Wholesale has great 4-lb bags that require minimal changes. The only thing I did to these was cutting the green beans in half to make everything the same size. When it comes to vegetables, uniform size is key to getting them dehydrated and rehydrated at the same times. Trust me, there are few things sadder than being hungry on trail and crunching into half-rehydrated corn when the rest of your meal is ready!
Something I did for our meals a few years ago was broiling and blackening bell peppers before dehydrating. This little something extra really made the flavors taste even more homemade despite being in the backcountry. My most important tip is to NOT mix different veggies in your dehydrator at the same time if you can help it - especially strong-smelling veggies. If you want to do a tray of red onions, put them in by themselves or else all your food will taste like onion!
Meat is a tricky, tricky thing to home dehydrate. If you're doing beef or ground turkey you'll quickly become familiar with the term "gravel". The reason? Ground meat basically has the texture of gravel when you do it right. Buying meat is the critical first step and you've got to do it right. If you're set on using ground beef, you'll need to buy the leanest possible cut you can find (less than 90%, and 95% lean is more ideal). Since buying meat this lean is often expensive, I chose to go with lean turkey as my meat choice. We bought 99% lean white ground turkey. Now, cooking the meat is also tricky because you'll have to do it low, slow, and as dry as possible. No oils at all can be added to the pan, as every bit of oil can go rancid in packaging. Adding dried breadcrumbs to your meat to soak up the oil is a great step you can take during the browning process. After cooking the meat to well done, you'll need to sop up any oil that happened to cook out before breaking it up to place in your dehydrator. Like rice, meat has a tendency to clump, so you'll need to break up the clusters every once in a while. Once your meat is completely dehydrated, I highly recommend vacuum sealing each portion to keep it fresh, just in case.
Like veggies, uniformity is key with fruit. Having all your pieces roughly the same size will save you time on both ends of the dehydrating and rehydrating process. One tricky element to dehydrating fruit, however, is browning. Apples and bananas both tend to brown when they're exposed to oxygen for a period of time. I solved this problem by brushing easily browning fruits with lemon juice on both sides before putting them on trays in my dehydrator. I liked seasoning my fruit as well. A sprinkle of ginger and cinnamon on apple slices comes out delicious!
Just like with any good recipe, mastering skills with a dehydrator will take time and a few errors will happen as well. It's all part of the journey! Have you experimented with dehydrating meals? What is your favorite backcountry meal?