To put it simply, I go bananas over dried apples. I love their tangy, slightly sweet zip while I’m hiking. Problem is, the store-bought variety comes complete with chemical preservatives and isn’t cheap. That’s why I started drying my own.
Then one day, after dehydrating enough apples to feed a battalion of backpackers, I realized as I stared at my home dehydrator that it was time to go beyond fruit. Here was the means of sucking out the water—and therefore weight—from many more foods, while preserving the vitamins, minerals, and taste! I dove in head first, making a few mistakes along the way, but in the end, I came up with a trail diet that’s not only loaded with variety, taste, and nutrition, but also economical. In addition, I discovered that drying, whether done in an oven or dehydrator, is pretty darned easy.
Here’s an introduction to dehydrating individual ingredients, all of which you can use to make fabulous one-pot trail meals (see the recipes below). The recipes also include snacks, sauces, and side dishes. Look in the next issue to learn how to dehydrate the gourmet meals you cook at home so you can enjoy them on the trail.
The secret of dehydration is to dry food at a temperature high enough to get rid of the water, but not so high that the food cooks. Moisture, which accounts for 60 to 90 percent of a food’s weight, acts as a natural petri dish for the yeast, molds, and bacteria that cause food to spoil on the trail.
Drying time depends on a variety of factors ranging from the size of the food to the relative humidity of the air in your kitchen, so judging doneness is a skill learned through practice.
Fruits and vegetables: These dry best between 120° and 140°F. When done, fruit feels more leathery than sticky and vegetables are brittle.
Very fresh fruits and vegetables make the best dried products. Before drying veggies, blanch them until they’re slightly tender to help preserve flavor, color, and texture. Tomatoes, mushrooms, and onions are the exceptions; they should be chopped and placed in the dehydrator without other preparation.
Meats: Meat can be either cooked and preserved or made into jerky. Meats dry best at or above 145°F and are dry and flaky when done. Jerky is done if it cracks like a green twig when bent.
Dried precooked meat is a spoilage-free, salt-free additive for soups and stews made in the field. After trimming off all visible fat, steam or roast red meat, fish, and poultry. Cool, cut into 1/2-inch cubes or 1/4-inch-thick slices, and dry. Before drying lean ground beef, sauté it, then remove as much fat as possible by rinsing the meat under hot water or draining it on layers of paper towels.
Ever-popular jerky is simply dried strips of raw meat seasoned with salt, soy sauce, ginger, and a variety of other seasonings (see Moveable Feast, Backpacker, October 1996, for recipes). The USDA recommends cooking meat to an internal temperature of 160°F to destroy bacteria before dehydrating; call its Meat and Poultry Hotline at (800) 535-4555 for more information. Beef, game meats, and fish—especially trout, pink salmon, halibut, and cod—all make good jerky. To reduce the risk of food-borne illness, avoid using uncooked poultry or pork to make jerky. Dried tofu pleases the vegetarian crowd and carnivores looking for a change of pace. Marinate firm tofu, then dry it at 160°F until brittle.