I’m an enthusiastic home cook, but when it comes to backpacking meals, I tend to opt for packaged, freeze-dried dinners. They’re packable, easy, and (usually) fall somewhere between palatable and downright tasty. While I’m not opposed to cooking in the backcountry, it’s hard to beat the convenience of boiling water and having a near-instant hot meal soon after rolling into camp. Plus, who really wants to do dishes instead of leaning back and watching the alpenglow?
So when someone gifted me a dehydrator recently, I couldn’t wait to put it to use. While dehydrators are somewhat limiting versus much more expensive freeze dryers (it’s difficult to dehydrate oily, fatty foods like cheese and avocado), they’re affordable, easy to use, and open up a new world of backcountry dining possibilities. So I took to the kitchen.
I could spend hours formulating ideal recipes for dehydration, taking into account optimal ingredients, nutrition, and calorie to weight ratios. But the bottom line is that I love to cook, and I had a strong enough grasp on the rules of dehydrating, so I decided to wing it. Over the course of a week, I’d be cooking up a handful of delicious meals anyway. Why not choose the ones that didn’t break any rules, and dry the leftovers? Here’s how it went.
Black Bean + Sweet Potato Taco Filling
This veggie-heavy dish was the star of some weeknight tacos, served up at home with corn tortillas, shredded cheese, and avocado slices. I knew those last two ingredients wouldn’t make it into the backcountry, but the filling itself had the makings for a good camp meal: protein-packed beans, poblano peppers, cilantro, and plenty of spice to keep it interesting.
The Process: I set my dehydrator to 135°F overnight (I dehydrated almost all of the following in a single batch), thinking 8 hours would be plenty of time. In the morning, the beans appeared dry, but the 1-inch sweet potato chunks still looked fresh. In the end, they took way longer to dry than expected—almost 24 hours! Tip: The sweet potatoes never hardened until fully cooled, so it was difficult to judge their doneness. Next time, I’ll pull some of the veggies out and let them cool to check earlier in the process.
The Verdict: Yum! Once rehydrated, the beans tasted fresh, and the spices and cilantro make it more flavorful than most store-bought backpacking meals. Every ingredient rehydrated well. While I missed the cheese and avocado, I’d pack a few tortillas and count this as a satisfying, flavorful camp meal.
I had one leftover apricot that was ripening fast, so I figured why not throw it in the dehydrator? I sliced it in half, removed the pit, and tossed it on the tray.
The Process: I thought this would dry fast, but like the sweet potatoes, it was very difficult to tell when it was done. Store-bought apricots retain some squish, but I was concerned that moisture would cause the fruit to spoil in storage. I ended up drying this until it was leathery but not hard.
The Verdict: Fail. In my attempt to fend off spoilage, I over-dried this one. I left it in for the better part of a day, and once cooled, it became tough and unpleasant for snacking—nothing like the dried apricots you buy in stores. While the taste was good, I wish I’d just eaten this one fresh.
Mushroom, Asparagus, and Pea Risotto
Risotto is my specialty, and I was optimistic it would make a successful dehydrated meal. Rice and other grains are staples for drying, but I wasn’t sure if the risotto would retain its signature creaminess.
The Process: The risotto dried faster than other dishes here. Once dehydrated, it made a very thin bark that doesn’t take up a lot of space in a backpack. It looked like a small serving while dry but filled me up once rehydrated.
The Verdict: I had high hopes for this one, and wasn’t disappointed. The arborio rice rehydrated almost to its original creamy, starchy consistency. I got a little overeager once I tasted the perfect rice and realized the veggies (especially the mushrooms) hadn’t rehydrated fully after ten minutes. A little more time and water would probably solve this, but after a long day of hiking, I don’t think I’d mind. I’ll definitely make this one again, but maybe with some shrimp or chicken next time. A warm bowl of veggie risotto fills me up at home, but it doesn’t pack the protein or calorie punch I need on the trail.
I only used half a carton of sliced mushrooms in my risotto, and the extras would normally get slimy in my fridge while I debated how to use them. But dehydrating isn’t just for full meals. This time, it was a no-brainer.
The Process: They were dry in a matter of hours, and it was easy to tell when they were done.
The Verdict: While they took a while to rehydrate (upward of 20 minutes), I’m so happy with this new solution for leftover produce. I added some of the mushrooms to pasta sauce a few days later, and I’m saving the rest to add to backcountry ramen.
Just like the apricot, I had a lonely banana over-ripening on my counter, so I sliced it up and tossed it in with the others. I soaked it in a solution of water and lemon juice to stave off browning, then arranged the slices in a dehydrator.
The Process: These took a surprisingly long time to dry and stuck to the tray. Next time, I’ll use parchment paper or nonstick liners so I don’t have to pry each piece off with my fingers.
The Verdict: These were tasty, but not at all what I expected. Rather than crisping up like the banana chips you can buy in stores, they remained soft and sticky. They’ve kept for about 3 weeks in a zip-top bag in the pantry, but I wonder if the moisture will make them spoil.
Sweet Potato Red Lentil Curry
I wanted a second shot at sweet potato after the first go-round, so I was excited when this recipe made a big batch of leftovers. With lentils, spinach, coconut milk, and rice, it had all the makings for a nutritious backpacking meal.
The Process: I cut the sweet potato chunks smaller this time, hoping they’d dehydrate more quickly. They still took longer than expected, but hardened up when I took some out to cool after about 8 hours.
The Verdict: This was another slam dunk. Curries are perfect backpacking food, and I’m adding this dish to my next overnight menu.
Overall, everything turned out way better than I expected. Next time I’ll level up and try dehydrating some meat, but these meals were all satisfying enough without it.