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The DAILY DIRT - The nitty and the gritty of outdoor news

Trail Chef: Gourmet Cooking on $5 a Weekend

How any hiker can create inexpensive yet sumptuous meals and snacks

At some point in your backpacking career, you’ve probably heard a self-professed backcountry gourmet rave about food dehydrators and the wondrous concoctions she’s made with dried fruits and veggies. (Usually, right after she sniffs at your favorite recipe.) And you’ve probably rolled your eyes and thought, “Drying food? Sounds snobby and complicated, and who has the time?” Well, Trail Chef is here to tell you that it’s worth a try.

As a fan of all things cheap, light, and tasty—and an ardent opponent of making any camping experience complicated—I promise you that buying a food dehydrator is the simplest and quickest way to take your backcountry recipes from two stars to four. You can upgrade any trail snack instantly, pack healthier foods that would usually go bad (or get bruised), and reduce pack weight significantly. Here are my top five tips based on more than a decade of drying everything from blueberries to salmon jerky.

1. Buy a dehydrator: Yes, you can dry foods in a standard oven set to 125°F (leave the door open slightly), but the circulating air in a commercial device does a faster and more even job. You also get trays specifically made for drying sauces, fruits, jerkies, and more. Trail Chef is a big fan of the American Harvest Snackmaster; models range from $44 to $70.

2. Slice it thin: The first thing everyone makes is dried fruit. And with good reason: Apple slices, pineapple rings, berries, and other sweet treats are a great way to carry dense calories and vitamins and spruce up bland GORP. You’ll nail these on your first try, because the Snackmaster comes with clear instructions—and it’s easy. Next up is usually jerky, which takes a few tries to master (hint: buy the leanest meat or fish you can find). For all of these foods, my best piece of advice is to cut your sections thinner than the books recommend. You might wind up a bit on the crunchier side with your apples (leave the skins on—yum), but the fruits and especially the jerkies will last longer in the field. They also dry faster and more evenly if you cut ¼-inch slices rather than the typical 3/8-inch.

3. Experiment with exotics: Why settle for regular bananas when you can wow your hiking buddies with the incredibly rich, sweet flavor of baby bananas? Or accept beef jerky when you serve a spicy salmon (douse the strips with your favorite hot sauce before drying) or wild boar jerky (order it from a butcher)? My all-time favorite dried fruit is kiwi, which gets so intensely tart that you can suck on one ring for 20 minutes while and not exhaust its flavor.

4. Spice it up: Tabasco on your salmon jerky is just a start. Next time you’re in the spice aisle, check out the flavored salts and sugars. Trail Chef has discovered that a tiny pinch of green chile sugar (yes, it exists!) sprinkled pre-drying on apples and pears will create the most popular snack in camp. In fact, on my last trip, the kids picked these slices out of the GORP before I had a chance to eat a single one. Another favorite: Smoked sea salt (popular in the Northwest) on dried peppers, tomatoes, and jerky. If the exotic spices are too much of a hassle, try something simple, like cayenne on your pineapple chunks, or brown sugar on your bananas.

5. Hit the sauce: Yes, it’s easy to dry liquids. And this is where the weight savings really add up (not to mention the recipe possibilities). One of Trail Chef’s simplest tricks is to pour a jar of pasta sauce on the Snackmaster tray on a Wednesday night after work. By Thursday night, the sauce will be dry, and will peel off easily (spray the tray with Pam first). Pack it in a zip-top bag and rehydrate in warm water in camp (takes 5 minutes)—and there’s a pound-plus you didn’t have to carry. Once you master simple sauces, move on to fun stuff like fruit leather. Trail Chef buys 1-pound bags of frozen berries, thaws and purees them, and dries the mixture just like a pasta sauce. The results is a nicely textured, fresh-tasting version  of the expensive strips you see in the grocery.

Do you have more dehydrating tips? Drop them in the comments below!


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Tony R
Apr 21, 2011

I am a builder and electrician who wanted a dehydrator cheap. So I Used a sheat of oak plywood I had, purchased 12 dollar space heater with a 500 watt and 800 watt coils. rewired so the controls were on top calclulated intake and outtake exhaust. i made trays out of polyester window screen and hardwood from a pallet. It works great and I check tempetures with a digital meat thermometer that cost 10 bucks.

Apr 03, 2011

I have a spaghetti dinner that's quite easy. I cook a traditional hamburger recipe (1 lb of hamburger, an onion, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper). I dry the meat fixings at 145 degrees for about 4 hours. Then I use two 8 oz. cans of tomato sauce poured on a sheet for liquids that store in my dehydrator. And as previous writers have commented, they roll up like a fruit leather. I add the quickest cooking pasta (angel hair pasta). In three zip-lock bags I put in the three items (meat, sauce, pasta). In camp start with a cup of water in a pot. As it heats, add the meat and sauce. Add more water as needed. Let it set for 30 minutes off the fire. Then reheat. Meat and sauce should be re-hydrated. In another pot boil water, add salt, add pasta, time for two minutes, drain. Serve all at once. This recipe will actually serve four people.

Apr 04, 2010

Absolutely love Linda Yaffe's Backpack Gourmet. She dehydrates entire meals that just need to be rehydrated and brought to a boil in camp. There's plenty of room to add your own touch with spices (a little chipotle in the Southwestern Lasagna, a little Old Bay in the Hash Brown and Sausage recipe if you like spicy, and we DO) and you have a fabulous and easy trail meal. We dehydrate overnight when we have time and freeze the meals in individual bags. Great stuff!

Apr 02, 2010

Forgot to mention - if you are doing a lot of firm fruits, vegetables and/or meats, invest in an electric slicer. I got mine at Costco for less than $50. This makes fast work of trying to thinly slice 3# of partially-frozen steak, or 10# of apples.

Apr 02, 2010

Fuji apples soaked in 7-up are the best. I buy my apples from the cannery and sell the dried versions to a trail angel.

IMHO canned turkey is much better hydrated than canned chicken, although coming out of the can the turkey looks gross.

Pre-cook everything and they dehydrate it. I have solid round sheets, even though my dehydrator is almost 40 years old. I premeasure onto the solid sheets and then if I package into a large zip bag, mark on the outside how much one serving is (3 sporks = 1 serving).

I've had bad luck with some vegetables, so experiment with small batches to find out what your tolerance is.

Spicy salsa can add zip and zing to a lot of ho-hum dehydrated meals. Usually takes less than a teaspoon.

Do-it-your-self jerky is oh so much better than the store-bought kind. I use steak, which I've trimmed of fat.

Mar 30, 2010

Could I use a litle chief someker for for for dehydrator ?

Larry S.
Mar 30, 2010

There's a device called a jerky pistol (got mine at Cabela's)that easily turns ground beef into thin strips for dehydrating.

Justin Young
Mar 30, 2010

Remember-you can do entire pre made meals in the dehydrator on one entire shelf. I am a vegetarian so I put green beans/mushrooms/shallots on one shelf and then stick it in a vacuum seal bag with rice noodles, a cube of boullion and a tablespoon of cornstarch and salt/pepper. Stick it in a bowl at meal time, add boiling water--and you are the envy of your mates!

Mar 30, 2010

One of the most popular things I dehydrate for backpacking is cole slaw. I use a sweet/tangy vinegrette for the dressing. I add water at lunch time and by dinner I've got a nice crunchy slaw everyone wants a serving of.

Mar 30, 2010

Try dehydrating salsa. It's fantastic. Those of you with older dehydrators, you can use parchment paper or plastic wrap to line your dehydrator shelves. Just pour the salsa on the trays and let dry overnight. It will look like the consistency of a fruit roll up. Put in a zip lock bag and at camp just add some warm water and let sit for a bit until rehydrated. The best dehydrating book out there is Lipsmacking Backpacking and Freezer Bag Cooking.

Mar 30, 2010

I use a mandolin slicer to get a consistent thickness for fruits and vegetables.

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