So, let’s start thinking about the food. We’ll start at the most obvious place for UK hikers â€” dried casserole-type meals.
Take Your Favourite Recipes
The first thing to make clear is that you start with one of your favourite or usual recipes. You can just dry these are they are but it is beast to tweak things a little. These tweaks will give you the best results and food that is reasonably long lasting.
Effect on Taste
Dehydration does have an impact on taste and this works more or less in the opposite way to freezing. If you freeze a garlic rich dish and leave in the freezer for some time you will often find that once it is thawed that the taste of garlic overpowers everything. For this reason lots of recipes will suggest that you omit the garlic and then add it prior to consumption after it has thawed.
Dehydration deadens taste somewhat. You will end up with eatable food but not quite as tasty. I find that spicier food dehydrates better in that it is still packed full of taste when you eat it. I’m talking spice and herbs here not necessarily chillie heat. I do think that chillie heat is reduced a little but not that much â€” don’t over compensate here. I’m thinking about subtler flavours such as basil, coriander, cinnamon and so on.
In general well spiced food works best.
Be Very Careful with Fat
Fat is a problem. Firstly, it doesn’t properly dry as there is not that much water to be lost. As a result the fat in your food will deteriorate at a faster rate than the rest of the food. This does mean that when you rehydrate you may find the food tastes fatier than usual.
So, be careful with fats.
Some people will, for example, simmer onion and garlic in a little water before they add it to a dish I find this is not really needed if you are going to be consuming the food within a month or two. But do be very light on the touch with olive oil or sunflower oil.
Secondly, use leaner meat than you might normally.
I often make a Bolognese sauce with 50 percent beef and 50 percent pork, or I include pancetta or streaky bacon When ‘m dehydrating I’ll make my own mince, buying reasonably lean frying steak and pulsing it in a food processor. If you don’t have a food processor then buy lean beef mince from the butchers. Leave out the pork and the bacon.
The same goes with lamb. If you’re using lamb use lean lamb steaks as your base.
Mince Your Meat
Not everyone does this, but I strongly recommend you to mince or pulverise all of your meat.
Big chunks of meat not only take a long time to dry they take forever to re-hydrate. Chicken is a particular problem here. It takes a long time to dry and a long time to reconstitute. I tried slicing chicken breast very thinly but this didn’t help. Eating chicken that hasn’t been properly reconstituted is horrible with stuff just getting stuck in your teeth and which takes days to get out (or hours with a tooth pick).
In general mincing is pretty straight forward. I do find that chicken is a bit messy though. The meet tends to ‘congeal’ in the sauce and I use a hand blitzer to bring it all back together.
If you are adding vegetables it also a good idea to ensure that they are added i reasonably small pieces rather than huge chunks.
It does take a long time to dehydrate a meal and you just have to be patient. It is difficult to give real trying times although some things take longer â€” the more tomato in a dish the longer it will take to dry. It is not unusual to come towards the end of the recommended drying time to find that some of the food is still a little moist. Simply break it up a bit and dry some more.
I nearly always follow the same system. I make my food in the evening and start drying it towards the end of the evening. I let the machine run overnight. In the morning I check the food, break up any clumps that have formed that will retain moisture and then leave the machine to continue running until I get back home in the evening. That will usually have done the job.
After switching off the machine let the food cool. I then add it to those zip locked freezer bags.
It is a good idea to be clear about portion control before you start â€” one tray for two portions or something like that. This means it is relatively easy to store the food in sensible single or double portions.
Stored like this the food should happily last a couple of months but you can extend shelf-life by storing the dried food in a freezer. Stored this way the food will last indefinitely.
It does some energy to re-hydrate your food. Just add water and soak and you’ll wait a long time. Here are three tied and tested backpacking methods for re-hydration.
Version 1. A very traditional method. Half way through the day take out your food and add a little water to it â€” this is nearly always less than you think you need. But with practice if gets easier to judge the amounts. The food probably needs transferring to a tougher container like an Aloksak (backackinglight.co.uk or hike-lite). Be careful how you store the package in your pack or pocket in your pack. That afternoon’s walking will gradually agitate the food and you should find that it is properly re-hydtated when you stop for the evening.
Version 2. It is not always easy to stop half way through the day â€” in really bad weather you will want to just keep going. When you make camp simply empty the dried food into your pot and add water. Bring to the boil, turn off the heat and leave the food for 15 minutes or so. Turn on the heat again and stir and you should have perfect food. Takes longer of course and uses more fuel.
Version 3. This is what I tend to do these days. This final method utilises the Pot Cozy system that is becoming more and more popular. First, you have to make your own pot cozy. Cheap but effective material for making your pot cozy is available from backpackinglight.co.uk.
You do have to make your pot cozy which is pretty straightforward. You want something into which your pot fits snugly. Fashion a bottom and also a lit for the pot.
When you make camp add dried food and water and bring to the boil. Then place in the pot cozy and place the cozy top on the pot and lid. Simple leave for 10-15 minutes. You’ll find that the food is perfectly cooked through and is still piping hot. Very fuel efficient.
Next up: Carbohydrates.