Camping, Dehydration, Romance, and the incomparable Excalibur April 17, 2014 16:54
Thanks to guest contributor Christine McLaren for this one!
My obsession with dehydrated camping food started where every good story does: with the quest for love. I’d met a dude and everything was sunshine and rose petals from day one. We both loved camping, and were excitedly plotting out a summer of multi-day hiking trips by the second week of the relationship. But when packing commenced for the first trip, we struck a monumental battle of wills: I have uncompromising standards for the quality of food I eat when I camp; he was utterly obsessed with ultra light camping. While I was planning to happily heave cans of coconut milk and potatoes to through the Stein Valley for the sake of delicious curry, he was cutting off the ends of the straps on his already ultra light backpack to save weight. The arguments that ensued were out of proportion. The pre-packaged dehydrated meals from MEC are far too sugary and artificial for my tastes, but this guy meant such serious business when it came to ounces-to-nutrient ratio that I genuinely feared it might end the relationship. I was determined to have the best of both worlds and to learn to do it myself.
I got my hands on an Excalibur food dehydrator – the gold standard – and though the relationship eventually, er, dried up (it turns out the personality clash extended beyond hiking weight—go figure) my life as a hiker changed forever. Dehydrating food for camping is one of the simplest, most rewarding processes around, and a perfect off-season activity to while away the wet winter days until hiking season comes again. You can dehydrate individual ingredients—including meat and other proteins!—and build a meal on the trail, or dry up full meals that are ready to go. But there are some important things to note.
- Cook the food before you dehydrate it. Some vegetables, like peppers, can be dehydrated without prior cooking, but most (broccoli, carrots, potatoes, kale, and most others) should be lightly steamed before you put it into the dehydrator. This will shorten both the rehydration and cooking time. Also cook grains (rice, quinoa, or anything else) and pasta before dehydrating as well. While it might seem counter-intuitive to cook already-dried food, then re-dry it, if the food is already cooked it will reduce the cooking time on the trail significantly which will save a lot of time, water, and fuel.
- Cut the food into very small pieces before dehydrating. It will not only reduce the dehydration time, but it will prevent the outside being over-dried while you wait for the inside to finish.
- Adding bread crumbs to ground meat before you dehydrate it helps it dehydrate and rehydrate.
- Food dries more quickly on the outside of the drying trays than the inside, so a little babysitting is required to make sure that everything dries equally. This may require either taking some of the food out earlier than the rest, or mixing the food around occasionally.
- Some foods take significantly longer to dehydrate (and rehydrate!) than others, so be careful when dehydrating entire meals. If you’re making stew or other meals with large chunks of meat, potatoes, carrots, or other things that take much longer than other veggies in the meal, its probably best to dehydrate them separately and build the meal on the trail.
- Food generally rehydrates on a 1:1 food to water ratio, but when rehydrating full meals, start with less water and add more as necessary, otherwise you risk eating a very watery chili or curry.
- Avoid using butter, or too much oil in full meals for rehydration. Most food can keep up to six months once dehydrated, but oils and dairy shorten shelf life. Either way, it’s best to vacuum pack, but in a pinch, ziplock bags in a tightly sealed container work.
- Use hot water to rehydrate (boiling, ideally). This works best if you make a pot cozy (http://www.backpackingchef.com/pot-cozy.html) for your pot out of foil insulation.
- Dehydrating food takes time. Some foods take up to 20 hours, so plan well ahead.
- Dehydrating food also sucks energy. Having the Excalibur on 24 hours doubles my house’s energy bill for the day. That said, the daily bill jumped from $1 to $2, so the cost is minimal, but still worth keeping in mind.
With the Excalibur Paraflexx drying sheets, you can also dry semi-liquids, like pasta sauce, fruit leather, mashed potatoes, soups and stews, chili and even yogurt (this is better than you might think – slice it up and roll it into tiny, tight balls for amazingly delicious chewy snack treats) or flaky things like tuna, quinoa, ground meat, etc. A few of these sheets are a very worthy investment, and absolutely essential if you’re looking to dry whole meals or grains. The Backpacking Chef (http://www.backpackingchef.com/) is a great resource for other ideas and tips along the way. Now go forth and dry. May your backpacks be light, your bellies full, and your hearts and relationships the best of both. Have fun!