Trail Food with the Goatman Installment #2
Dehydration is easy. Just hike into the wilderness without any water, lie down in the hot sun, and wait for a day or two. Oh, this blog is supposed to be about dehydrated food? Well, I can do that too, I suppose. The principle is the same.
So, you’re going on a backpacking trip but you don’t want to starve. Typical human urge. You would also like to cut the weight in your pack to a minimum so that you don’t get super strong and grizzled like the Goatman, who town folk whisper about dreadfully in the night (though I am usually out cold at sundown and miss all the late night small talk). Or maybe you just don’t enjoy hauling around 50 pound packs for some reason. Either way, a simple, effective way to cut down on pack weight is to bring dehydrated foods. Backpacking 101, right? Well, this blog entry isn’t just a list of prepackaged foods that you can buy at the store (though they do come in handy on those really long hauls). What I aim to do here is to lay out the basics of DIY dehydrating from your own home with a focus on preparing weeks, if not months, ahead of time for backcountry adventures.
To be honest, my interest in dehydrating goes beyond backpacking. Sure, I love the fact that foods with moisture removed become lighter and easier to pack. I also love that I can supplement store-bought noodles and instant rice meals with veggies and meat that I myself prepared, adding not only to the flavor of the meal, but also to the nutritional value. Good food equals good health and that goes double for hard-working backpackers whose options are limited.
That, however, is but the beginning of the usefulness of dehydration. When water is removed from food, you are also preserving that food by denying bacteria a foothold. Just like us humans, those little food spoilers need water to live and to reproduce. Dehydrating increases the shelf life of food to a great extent (exact numbers depend, of course, on the properties of the exact food itself). So, when fruits and vegetables are in season and relatively cheap, I can stock up, knowing that the portion I don’t use immediately can be dehydrated and kept throughout the winter. Have a garden? Perfect. Plant some extra rows. You’ll be making stews all winter with dehydrated vegetables. There is a lot of money to be saved with DIY dehydrating, money you could be using to plan your next trek.
2: Materials and Tools
That brings me to the meat of it: What do you need to get started? Behold, the basics:
1. Dehydrator. These can run you anywhere from $50-$300. In its most basic form, this is a box with a hot air fan blowing through ventilated trays on which food is placed. Opting for a model that has both a timer and a thermostat will make dehydrating a variety of foods a lot easier.
2. Colander. There are times when you will need to blanch food (we’ll deal with this in a moment). This handy tool makes it easy to remove excess moisture from food before it is placed into the dehydrator.
3. Heat-proof metal strainer. Again, for blanching.
4. Fine mesh tray liners. These are normally sold specifically for dehydrators by the manufacturer. They allow you to dry food that becomes tiny when dehydrated without it all falling down into the bottom of the machine.
5. Parchment paper. For dehydrating wet items such as fruit leather, soups, or chili. Can also be used to prevent sticking (in the case of high sugar fruit such as strawberries, for example). Alternatively, the manufacturer of the dehydrator may also make a specific “leather tray” that is a reusable alternative.
6. Sharp knives. The more precise you are when cutting food, the more evenly that food will dry. This is huge and we’ll talk more about this later, but don’t count out the importance of a simple, sharp kitchen knife.
7. Vegetable peeler. Sometimes, the skin of a vegetable or fruit needs to be removed before dehydrating. Make sure you have a sharp one. No use wasting food by peeling too much of it away with a dull peeler.
8. Air-tight Containers. Glass or metal containers with air-tight lids work the best for long-term storage. Plastic bags are great when packing for your trip, but let in too much air and moisture to be effective for long-term storage.
Some other things you might consider having around would be a food processor or blender, a jerky gun, kitchen scissors, or a mandolin. These items are used very specifically. As a first time dehydrator, I wouldn’t worry about these until you’re ready to branch out.
So you’ve got your kitchen ready. Before you get to chopping and waiting patiently, there are a few things to consider that, if done correctly, will save a lot of time later on.
First, you must prepare the food to be dehydrated in the appropriate manner. Not all food dehydrates equally. There are ways to deal with stubborn food that we will get to in a moment. Here, I simply want to state a few basics that apply to all and any food being dehydrated.
The act of dehydrating goes something like this: hot air moves over the surface of object, carrying away moisture. As the outside of the object loses moisture, water from the center of the object moves to the outside (this is called diffusion). When all of the moisture is diffused, the object is thus dehydrated. Diffusion itself is a slow process, however, and can be helped along by cutting food into the appropriate thickness, thus revealing extra surface area over which air can move and moisture can escape.
Cut your food evenly into 1/4 inch (0.5 cm) pieces. This thickness helps foods to dry quickly and evenly while being thick enough to prevent over drying.
Once cut uniformly, you will want to spread the food as uniformly as possible. This prevents uneven drying. You may also need to rotate the trays within the dehydrator as food closer to the fan may dry faster than that further away. It’s all about balance here. You want all of your food to dry equally in order to prevent over drying of some and under drying of the rest.
Other factors in successful dehydration are all tied up together. For every food product, there is an appropriate time and temperature:
1. Most fruits and vegetables do well at 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Meats must be set at a higher temperature to ward off bacteria. 155-160 degrees Fahrenheit will do the trick.
3. Herbs can be more delicate than other foods. 110 degrees Fahrenheit will work for these tasty treats.
For a more comprehensive list of drying temperatures, as well as times to expect, see the list of resources at the bottom of this article. I don’t have room here to go into great detail, unfortunately, but there are a lot of great books on the subject.
Consistent temperature is important. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that cranking up the temperature in order to speed up the dehydration process will work well. In a lot of cases, this will actually slow down your drying time due to a little something called “case hardening”. Basically, a higher temperature than what is recommended can dry out the outside of your food to an extent that it hinders the process of diffusion from the inside. Think of searing a steak to lock in moisture. We are going for the opposite of that. Consistent, correct temperature will in the end not only dry food faster, but will also retain the flavor of foods once re-hydrated.
4: Storage and Trail Preparation
I have already mentioned the fact that air-tight containers are ideal for long-term storage of dehydrated food. These can be made of glass or metal. You will want to store these in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight such as a pantry or cabinet. Foods can also be refrigerated after drying to increase the shelf life. Another common practice is to obtain a vacuum sealer and to freeze the food once sealed. For long-term storage, this is obviously the best option. However, if you know that you will be using the foods within 6 months to a year, such measures are not required.
There are a few things to look for when storing dehydrated food:
1. Again, make sure all of the food is evenly dried. If some food contains moisture, this can leach out into the rest of the food, allowing bacteria to spread or mold to grow.
2. Some foods turn strange colors when dehydrated raw (cauliflower turns purplish black. Yum.) This can be avoided by a process called blanching. Blanching is boiling a vegetable or fruit for a short of amount of time, mainly to kill the enzymes that cause discoloration. Blanching can also loosen cells in tougher foods, such as broccoli, that allow for a tenderer re-hydration.
3. If oxygen permeates your container, even well dehydrated food can develop off flavors. Make sure those lids are on tight!
When preparing for a backpacking trip, take your food out and put it in a plastic bag. Make sure, however, not to mix foods that are not meant to be together (onion flavored blueberries anyone?). If you dehydrate ingredients separately, you can combine them before leaving for a trip into single meal packets. For example, I have dehydrated onions, peppers, kidney beans, tomato sauce, and ground beef. Throw it all in a bag and I’ve got some backcountry chili. It only gets more elaborate from here. Below, in the resource section, I have listed a variety of great dehydrated food cookbooks that are more decadent than you thought possible.
5: Tips and Tricks
I am going to get specific here for a section and troubleshoot a few common problems one might come across while dehydrating different styles of food. Obviously, this list is not comprehensive, but is meant as a good starting place for beginners.
Fruits and vegetables are traditionally the easiest type of food to start dehydrating. In fact, starting out by experimenting with some basics will teach you a lot your first time through. So go ahead and slice up those apples (evenly). That brings us to our first tip: color preservation. Food you buy in the store has all sorts of preservatives to protect color. One point of DIY dehydrating is to avoid such things. This one is easy. Take a 1/4 cup of lemon juice and 4 cups of water, mix them in a bowl, and soak your apples in this solution as you slice. This will prevent browning.
Another common problem with produce is how to dehydrate “tough” fruits and vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, green beans etc.). I have already mentioned the answer a few times: blanching. The rule here is, if you don’t typically eat the food raw, blanching will help with re-hydration when the time comes. Take your food and cut it up while boiling enough water to cover all of your food. Place the food into a heat-proof metal strainer, dip it into the boiling water for approximately 30 seconds to 1 minute, and remove from the water. Throw in a colander to drain and you’re ready to put it in the dehydrator.
Some fruits have a thick casing, such as blueberries and cranberries. This is nature’s way of preventing dehydration, so we have to be smarter than nature (or at least a bit clever now and then). The case must be broken to allow diffusion to occur. This can be done by heating until the case breaks (the fast, easy way, though flavor may be affected) or you can pierce the casings individually with a toothpick or other pokey object (tedious, yes, but makes for better tasting fruit).
2. Starches and Beans
I put these together because they share a common method. Both starches (rice, pasta, barley, etc.) and beans must both be cooked prior to dehydration for fast and effective re-hydration (Canned beans are ready to use and don’t require extra cooking). We’ll use an example that involves both: red beans and rice. Delicious, nutritious, and filling, this makes a great trail meal. Although both beans and rice are dry when you buy them at the store, both take a long time (hours in some cases) to cook as to be edible. Instead of wasting fuel in the wilderness, cook these ingredients at home, either separately or together, and then dehydrate the meal afterwards. When you get out on the trail, fire up your camp stove, boil some water and you’re done. The meal should only take a few minutes to rehydrate, saving you both time and fuel when such things are a precious commodity.
Jerky takes a while to perfect and I don’t have the space here to treat it as in-depth as I would like. Luckily, there are a lot of great books and recipes out there that take the guessing out of jerky making.
Here I will simply mention the basics of choosing an appropriate cut of meat (you’re on your own for finding a recipe that you like!). The general rule with jerky is that the leaner the meat, the longer the jerky will last. Fat and oil are enemies of dehydration, unfortunately. Any fat left in a piece of dehydrated meat (or anything for that matter. I’m looking at you, avocados) will eventual turn rancid and ruin your snack.
That being said, you want to look for meat with less than 2% fat content. Cooking your meat and draining the excess fat is the first step (which also kills any bacteria within the meat). While dehydrating, you will need to periodically test your jerky with a paper towel. If oil is absorbed, take your meat and press it between paper towels to remove the oil. Do this a few times on and off and, once the meat is dried to your liking, do one last test. If no oil comes out, you’re good to go.
I’m not talking about cow hide here. Leather, whether fruit or vegetable, is a pureed, dried form that is great for snacking, among other uses. Basic fruit leather can consist of nothing more than applesauce and your favorite berries, mixed together and dried into strips. This is where a food processor or blender can come in handy.
A few tips for good leather: Press the fruit mash down when placing it on your leather tray or parchment paper. Avoid spreading, especially spreading thinly. Once again, the magic dimension is 1/4 inch. This thickness is more important than covering the whole tray. 1/4 inch, pressed uniformly, will make for leather that doesn’t over dry and crack. Leathers will firm when cooled, so don’t worry if it’s a bit wobbly when first removed. A good indicator is the stickiness of the leather: too mushy means underdone, not sticky at all means overdone.
If making veggie leather, it is better to powder the result after dehydrating than to leave it in its leather form. The whole point of veggie leather is to add flavor and nutrition to meals. Powdering makes this easy. A food processor works best for this.
Don’t forget: leather doesn’t have to be all fruit snacks and veggie powder. Take some tomato sauce and follow the instructions for making leather. Ta da. You have backcountry pasta sauce that doesn’t weigh much. Try this with salsa or barbecue sauce and suddenly your bland backpacking meals aren’t so bland anymore.
Goatman didn’t invent dehydrating food. Caveman did (or cave woman. I don’t know. I wasn’t there). The point being this: I have tried to lay out some basics for DIY dehydrating, but there is a lot more to learn. The best way to learn, as in all things, is through trial and error. To start out on the best foot, however, there are some resources that have been a great help to me and my friends as we prepare for our trips, treks, and rambles across this wild planet of ours. Below are a few specifics I have found helpful (I left out internet resources simply because there are too many to include and a simple search will pull up more than you will ever need). We stock a lot of these at RRT, so stop in for some knowledge.
MacKenzie, Jennifer, Jay Nutt, and Don Mercer. The Dehydrator Bible. Ontario: Robert Rose, 2009. Print
March, Laurie Ann. Fork in the Trail: Mouthwatering Meals and Tempting Treats for the Backcountry. Birmingham: Wilderness Press, 2007. Print.
March, Laurie Ann. Another Fork in the Trail: Vegetarian and Vegan Recipes for the Backcountry. Birmingham: Wilderness Press, 2011. Print.
Meredith, Leda. Preserving Everything: Can, Culture, Pickle, Freeze, Ferment, Dehydrate, Salt, Smoke, and Store Fruits, Vegetables, Meat, Milk, and More. Woodstock: Countryman Press, 2014. Print.