Here's a great DIY article about making your own deyhrated meals for camping or backpacking. It's a good overview to get you started and directs you to some other reference sites for even more detailed information.
You may want to use this information for any number of things--backpacking, fishing trips, camping, hunting, or simply some meals on the shelf for if the power goes out. Whatever your reason you can draw some ideas from this simple way to preserve and prepare food. I am going to approach this from the backpacking angle, as that is what I use dehydrated foods the most.
First we’ll talk about equipment for a moment. There is no reason to go crazy in buying a dehydrator. You can buy units from $20 to $200 and probably more. Let me just say simply that all dehydrators work, some just work faster than others. Most things take from 12 to 14 hours to completely dry so just relax. The first thing to consider are what you will want to dehydrate, though. If you can find a unit that has the flexible tray liners you should opt for it, or at least make sure you can get them for the unit you have. These liners will allow you to dehydrate items you have run through a blender or food processor as well as help with dehydrating smaller items that could fall through the grates of the normal trays. Parchment paper can be used as well if you are unable to find these liners.
Now, we can go over the basics of dehydrating. You can find a wealth of information online about dehydrating all sorts of food and how to store it. One website I have come to refer to a lot is Backpacking Chef. Chef Glen goes into a good bit of detail about the in and outs of dehydrating various foods. Basically, you can break down the different foods to dehydrate into a few simple categories.
Basically, you can dehydrate any meat with fat content of less than 10%. The fat in the meat will not dehydrate and beads up on the meat which will need blotted off and makes the process a pain. Pork is the exception to the rule. Unless it is fully cooked like ham, it isn’t worth the risk. Hamburger is the staple meat to dehydrate. It is cheap, simple, and rehydrates relatively well. Add a half a cup of breadcrumbs to each pound of hamburger as you cook it and it will reconstitute to a better texture. Most meals only require ¼ to 1/3 of a cup of burger gravel. Three pounds of hamburger dehydrated yields enough burger gravel for about 10 meals. The gallon Zip-Lock bags in the pictures is all burger gravel. This batch was three pounds and I think I have actually taken a few servings out of that bag. As you can see, three pounds makes a good bit of stock to use. Other simple things to dehydrate are lean lunch meats. You can catch deli sales and really clean up on lean ham and turkey. Being as they are sliced to a uniform thickness they are really easy to use. Simply cut into strips and line your trays. Any meat should be brittle when fully dehydrated. It should break, not bend.
These are some of the simplest foods to dehydrate. Basically just clean and slice as you would to prepare for any dish and dehydrate until brittle. A great trick is to catch frozen mixed vegetables on sale (green beans, peas, carrots, and corn) and you can dehydrate these right out of the bag without thawing. You may want to cut the green beans in half as they will take longer than the rest if you don’t. Vegetables yield some of the greatest weight reductions due to the fact they are as much as 90% water. You can see an example of this reduction in the pictures. A one pound package of mixed veggies dehydrated is reduced to right around 1 cup in volume and just over 3 ounces. That is a pretty easy way to save weight in your pack. If you have items in the fridge on the verge of spoiling or catch a sale on produce you can dehydrate items to save them for future use. A basic rule of thumb is to expose the moisture inside to be sure to fully remove it. In other words, you wouldn’t put a whole cherry tomatoes or jalapeno pepper on the tray. You have to slice it open to allow the water content a means of escape. The thinner the slices the faster the drying time will be.
Fruits are just as simple as vegetables and most of the time the dehydrating process actually concentrates the sweetness of the fruits. Just like with vegetables clean and prep in a manner consistent with your end use. The majority of fruits have a skin to contain the juicy guts. Slicing the fruit is sufficient to allow drying, if you wish to skin items you can but it is not necessary. Those tray liners we mentioned earlier can be used to make fruit leathers. In a blender puree your choice of fruit; you can even mix some together if you like. Pour it out on the trays and let her go. Play with some flavors and you will yield some sweet trail snacks with no preservatives. Leathers should be tacky but not sticky when done.
Okay, so now you have a basic outline of how to dehydrate, now to apply some of it to practical use. Once you have batches of some things dehydrated, you will need to be able to store them for use at a later time. Three things are the enemy of dehydrated foods- sunlight, heat, and air. To combat all three of these things at once I store my batches of food in our chest freezer in large freezer bags. This is probably the best way to store the food for long term use but it is not the only way. If you have a fruit cellar, shelf, or basement closet that is out of direct light and stays cool (below 70 degrees is best) you could store for months if your food is fully dehydrated. Just be sure to check regularly for signs of mold or spoilage.
Alright, if you’ve stayed with me this long you’ve probably got a million ideas running around your head and the produce section or farmers market is going to look way different to you. Let me give you a relatively simple recipe to try that has a big pay off. It will also take you through a few different dehydrating methods. Then, we’ll discuss a trick from ultra light backpacking that will save you prep time on the trail as well as weight in the pack.
Here is your shopping list or cupboard raiding list for “Bean Bark Burger Stew”
- 2 – 1 pound packages of mixed veggies (green beans, peas, carrots, corn)
- 2 pounds of ground beef (spring for the less than 15% fat content)
- 1 cup of bread crumbs
- 2 – 28 ounce cans of vegetarian baked beans (remember no fat)
- Instant Brown rice
We’re going to dehydrate 3 separate loads- - first the veggies, the hamburger, and finally the baked beans.
The next step is really going to be simple. Open both packs of the vegetables and spread them out on a cutting board or whatever you have available. Cut all the green beans into more uniform sizes to match the other veggies. If you take them straight out of the freezer, you can just break them. Simply spread them out over your trays in a single layer. If you have any left, just stick them in the fridge in a container and do them later. Next, set the dehydrator to 125 degrees if it has a setting and let the magic happen. They’ll take about 6-8 hours. Once the veggies are dried uniformly you can stick them in a container or freezer bag for storage.
The next step is to make some hamburger gravel. I like to mix the bread crumbs and hamburger together with a little marinade so it has some flavor when it reconstitutes. Just use a ½ cup of bread crumbs for each pound of burger. Let it marinade in the fridge for a few hours and them brown and drain. There might not be much to drain if you got lean enough beef. Blot off whatever you can with a paper towel and transfer it to the trays of the dehydrator. Try to make the layers as uniform as possible, and crumble it up to allow air flow. If your dehydrator has a temperature setting set it to 145 degrees for 2 hours and then 125 for another 6 hours. You can flip the burger over on the tray by putting another tray on it and flipping them over when you have about 2 hours left. Once the burger is dry, it should really look like gravel and it should break when you try to bend it. It needs to be dry all the way through. Once dry, you can store in whatever container you wish, but if you’re going to use bags or vacuum seal, you should run it through a food processor to break it up small. The rough edges will puncture a bag when it rolls around in your pack if not. You can use this same method for ground turkey and tuna. Two down and one to go!
On to the beans. Regular beans take a long time and that requires more stove fuel which is just more weight in your pack. A can of beans is mostly water and you would have the can to deal with when you’re done. Chef Glen from Backpacking Chef has a great compromise called bean bark. Jump over to his website for some really easy to follow instructions and good pictures. Bean bark has basically all the taste with none of the hassle. Just take those cans of beans juice and all and get your blender. Remember we got vegetarian beans so they would be low fat content. Dump it all in a blender and liquefy them. Now pour them evenly out on your tray liners and dehydrate. 135 degrees for 8 hours will get you in the ball park. The bark dries like cracked mud and you can employ the same flip trick as the burger. Again, the bark should break and not bend. This method can be used for pastas with the sauce, other beans, and more. Also, when storing the bark you should run it through a food processor if you are using freezer bags or vacuum sealers.
Now that you have your ingredients, you’re ready to make a meal. If you have a vacuum sealer, I recommend using it to package your meals. You will be amazed how tight a little package a meal is. If you don't have a vacuum sealer, try quart freezer bags as I will be showing you how to cook and eat your meal in one of those any way.
Combine the following ingredient and amounts specified in a quart freezer bag or vacuum bag (bag up a few of these meals, they keep fine). All of these quantities are approximate. If you like something use more of it. Just keep the relative size of the meal about the same. If you go bigger you will just need some more water.
- ½ cup bean bark
- ½ cup instant brown rice
- ¼ cup mixed veggies
- ¼ cup burger gravel
- 1/3 or a pouch of your onion mushroom soup mix
- Other spices you want to suit
This recipe will require just over 1 cup of water to be a thick stew or a little more like 1 ½ cups to be soupy when rehydrated.
So, you have done veggies, meat, and bark. You’re a pro now! But, what do you do with it? You can dump it in a pot with the water and let it soak for 5-10 minutes and then bring it to a boil. Set the pot off the flame and allow it to cool – mix and enjoy. A simpler method only requires you to construct a very simple apparatus that can be used to make all sorts of back country goodies. Check out Trail Cooking for some fantastic recipes that employee this simple to make “freezer bag cooker”. All you need is either a roll of reflective insulation or an insulated windshield reflector and a roll of duct tape. These are two sheets of Mylar like material, like a space blanket. Between them there is a layer of bubble wrap. The windshield style ones are cheap and you can pick them up at Wallyworld for under 5 bucks. Incidentally they aren’t bad for a no frills sleeping mat either. Just cut out a strip of the insulating material big enough for a quart freezer bag and its contents as shown, plus enough for a flap to hang over. Give yourself maybe ¾ inch to 1 inc around the bag to allow for some bulging.
Now, duct tape the seams so it will hold in the heat. That’s it-- your very own bag cozy. I got my hand in there so you can see how small you can get a meal, bare in mind I am 6’4” so my mits are pretty good size. I carry a really light weight mess kit with a “Heineken pot” and an alcohol burning stove. I can keep my meals for a day under a pound (not counting water) and the whole kitchen is right around a pound too. Sadly though, the way to build the stove and mess kit may need to be another how-to.
After this, you don’t need to carry a bowl or even do dishes. You just eat right out of the bag and pack it out with you. The method is simple too. Bring the required amount of water to a boil, in this case a cup or so. Once boiling carefully pour it into the freezer bag, already inside the cozy with the meal in it and let it sit for about 10 minutes. No muss no fuss. Also to consider is the fact that since you are boiling your water you won’t need to waste your purified water for drinking. Check out the website and you will see you can convert almost any recipe to this style of cooking.
I hope you enjoy the information provided and use it to expand your enjoyment of the great outdoors. Remember nature misses us all and hopes we come for a visit!
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