Be A Dried-Food Gourmet Chef

Create tasty trail meals like fish chowder, lasagna, and seafood with pasta.
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Create tasty trail meals like fish chowder, lasagna, and seafood with pasta.

What a day. Monarch Divide in California's Kings Canyon National Park was tougher than we'd expected, and our 10-hour hike stretched to 12. By the time we dropped our packs against white pines atop the upper basin, we were beat—and ravenous. My partner and I like to eat well, but this wasn't the time for slicing and sautéing and simmering. Even so, just minutes after firing up the stove, we dove into hearty portions of Southwestern Pasta loaded with juicy tomato chunks, Italian salami, and mild green chilies.

Our secret? Complete one-pot meals we cook at home, then dehydrate and pack for the trail. In camp, we simply add water and boil.

Most meals you prepare at home—beef stew, lasagna, even ham casserole—can be popped into a dehydrator and turned into quick-and-easy camp fare. Granted, you'll need to spend some time at home in your kitchen, but you'll eliminate food-prep hassles (and use less stove fuel) on the trail, where all you really want is hot grub in your grumbling belly.

Here's how to turn your favorite dinner into your favorite trail dinner.

  1. Cut vegetables and other ingredients into small pieces so they'll dry quickly and easily. We're talking mincing here, not cubing.
  2. Cook the meal as you normally do at home. Many soups, stews, and casseroles make great one-pot trail meals, although only trial and error will reveal which best translate to backcountry use. Line your dehydrator trays or cookie sheets (if you're using an oven) with parchment paper or clear plastic wrap. Leave 1 inch of space between the wrap and tray edge for better air circulation, and anchor the wrap with small squares of masking tape. Preheat the dehydrator or oven to 1450F for 10 minutes; if you can't select the temperature, use the lowest possible setting and check the food often. Spread the freshly cooked meal as thinly as possible over trays.
  3. Turn and crumble the food often to ensure fast, even dehydration. Most of the meals I've made take about 5 hours or so to dehydrate, but drying times vary according to your dehydrator and the fat and moisture content and density of the ingredients. The food is done when it looks and feels dry and crumbly.
  4. Cool the meal completely by letting it sit for several hours on the dehydrator trays or cookie sheets.
  5. Package the dried meal in doubled zipper-lock bags. On the package, write the date, number of servings, recipe name, and these simple cooking directions: Empty the contents into a saucepan, cover with water, bring to a boil, stir, and serve. Store meals in a cool, dark, dry place. If wrapped in a heavy, black plastic bag, these meals will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 years, or in the freezer for 3 or more years.
  6. Reduce, reuse, and recycle. The plastic wrap, parchment paper, and plastic bags can be washed, dried, and reused many times.

The following recipes provide instructions for preparing and drying the meals at home. On the trail, pour the dried meal into a pot, and add enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, stir, and serve. Each recipe feeds four people generous 2-cup portions.