It's a question that vexes many a backpacker: How can you make a decent trail dinner without carrying the kitchen sink? And the freezer? And the Cuisinart? If you're anything like us, your primal desire for good eats doesn't evaporate when you head off on a backpacking trip–but there's no way you're hauling in filet mignon and molten chocolate cake. And, like us, you already know the guiding principles and procedures for ultralight cooking: Minimize fuel. Eliminate superfluous kitchen gear. Dehydrate. Add boiling water. Stir. Let sit. Eat. Unfortunately, you usually end up with a woeful variation on gloppy carbs.
So how can you follow the rules and still make a gourmet meal that doesn't weigh you down like too much foie gras? We've found the Holy Grail, and it comes in the form of a freezer bag–or, rather, on freezerbagcooking.com. The website, and its companion cookbook, Freezer Bag Cooking: Trail Food Made Simple, is the brainchild of Sarah Kirkconnel, an avid backpacker, cook, ultralighter, and frequent contributor to our online chat rooms (forums.backpacker.com). Her premise is simple: Pack single portions of dehydrated meals into quart size freezer bags. In camp, add boiling water, stir (with a spoon, to avoid fork punctures), insulate your baggie, let sit, then chow down.
Since you "cook" and eat right out of the bag, there's no dish duty (just add the baggies to your garbage) and no need to pack anything other than one boiling vessel. There's no simmering. No watched pots. Kirkconnel's technique, combined with the right gear and your favorite trail-adapted recipes, could slash your food weight by about half (depending on how you originally pack). All you need to know is how to dehydrate your grub (see The Method, right), what meals to put on your menu, and which ounces to count. In fact, in the following pages, we've laid out everything you need to know to do ultralight cooking right. Once you bag it, you'll never turn back.
This five-piece kitchen weighs only 13.3 ounces and cranks out gourmet eats.
Antigravity Gear Caldera Kitchen
This alcohol stove system has it all: utter simplicity. Wispy weight. An ingenious packing system. It's a tiny burner, made from a V-8 can nestled inside a Pepsi can, that burns denatured alcohol. But what makes the Caldera unique is the way the system is integrated: The aluminum windscreen forms a rigid cone, which holds the 3-cup non-stick aluminum pot perfectly suspended over the burner–and efficiently captures the alcohol's BTUs. (We used less than 16 ounces of fuel on a five-day trip for two.) Boil times averaged about 8 minutes, and the whole system packs away into an insulated 1-quart, lidded plastic container, which doubles as a bowl, coffee cup, and cooking cozy. As tested, it weighs a scant 10 ounces. $73; (910) 794-3308; antigravitygear.com.
FBC Fabric Cozies
These pouches, made from Mylar and polyester, weigh just 1.5 ounces, are sized perfectly for a quart-sized zipperlock bag, and act like a portable oven. Just add hot water to the bag and snuggle it into the cozy, which cooks a dehydrated meal in under 10 minutes. $14, freezerbagcooking.com.
Jetboil Jetset Spoon
There are lots of spoons and sporks out there, but this 0.4-ouncer is in a league of its own. The handle is long enough for eating out of a zip-top bag without getting gunked up, but it collapses into a neat 5 inches. $20 for the set of three, which includes fork and spatula. (888) 611-9905; jetboil.com.
Fozzil Thinkflat Bowl
This clever item–it packs flat, but morphs into a bowl with four corner snaps–pulled triple duty on a recent trip in Colorado's Holy Cross Wilderness. First, it provided a handy receptacle for our soft-sided bag cozies. Second, it made a great cutting board for slicing cheddar at lunchtime. And third, it became a functional butt pad on wet, cold logs. Just rinse before you eat (or sit). 1.3 oz. $5. Fozzils.com.
32-ounce Gatorade bottle
Skip the Nalgene bottle and reach into your recycle bin for one of these. One bottle weighs only 0.11 ounces empty–that's 2 ounces less than a regular Lexan Nalgene. Gatorade bottle are impressively strong: You'll get at least three months of use out of them, and then you can recycle them.
Because most food weight is water weight, it's impossible to really go ultralight gourmet without investing in a basic food dehydrator, which won't set you back more than 50 bucks. With these tips, you can transform your favorite at-home meals into featherweight, just-add-water trail delicacies.
Sucking all the moisture out of your food is the key to eating well and eating light.
- Precook and dry your pasta. You'll save substantial cooking time in camp, not to mention fuel and weight. Simply cook your pasta al dente at home, then spread it on dehydrator trays and let it go for a couple of hours until brittle. In camp, add boiling water, then cover and let sit for a few minutes.
- Feed your inner carnivore. Start with lean ground beef, turkey or chicken. Brown it along with any seasoning you like. Suggestions: Asian (curry, cumin, coriander) or Italian (oregano, basil, thyme). When the mixture is browned, rinse it under hot water to remove residual fat, then dehydrate until the nuggets are very hard (about five hours). Break the meat up into fine particles for easier rehydrating.
- Get saucy. Maybe it's your famous red pepper and Vidalia onion sauce. Or grandma's Bolognese. Whatever the condiment, you can probably dehydrate it. All you need are plastic tray liners and a dehydrator. Spread the sauce in a very thin layer and let it rip for 8-10 hours, until it becomes a featherweight leather. Add hot water, and eat.
Serves one: 5.5 oz.
Combine in a quart-size zipperlock:
1 package beef flavored Ramen (including seasoning packet)
1/4 cup dehydrated ground beef
1/4 cup mixed dehydrated veggies
1 teaspoon paprika
Dash of cayenne pepper
Individual packet of cream cheese (equal to about a tablespoon; grab one at your favorite bagel shop)
Salt and pepper to taste
Add about 1 1/2 cups boiling water to baggie. Squish it around and let it rest in a cozy for 10 minutes or so, until the burger is tender. Stir in cream cheese.
Spicy Curry Noodle Bowl
Serves one: 6 oz.
Combine in a quart size zipperlock:
1 serving of Asian cellophane noodles (They typically come in large bricks. Break off a 3- by 6-inch chunk.)
1/4 cup dehydrated meat of your choice (burger or chicken)
1/4 cup dehydrated mixed veggies
1 tablespoon curry
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon coriander
1 tablespoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
2 tablespoons coconut cream powder
2 tablespoons dry milk
Dash of cayenne
Salt and pepper to taste
Handful of cashews
Add about 1 1/2 cups boiling water to baggie. Squish it around and let it rest in a cozy for 10 minutes, or until everything is tender. Top with cashews.
American Chop Suey
Serves one: 4.5 oz.
Make a double batch of this at home. Have it for dinner with your family then dehydrate half for your next few backpacking trips.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 lb. lean ground beef
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 chopped onion
1 chopped bell pepper (any color)
2 tablespoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons dried basil
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
3/4 pound elbow noodles
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional: cubed cheese, any kind
Heat oil and gently sauté the onion and pepper until onion is translucent. Add the meat and brown thoroughly, breaking it up as you go with a wooden spoon. Drain off accumulated fat. Add the spices, then tomatoes, and simmer for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, cook the pasta till al dente and drain. Let the sauce cool, then spread it on the dehydrator trays. (If you don't have tray liners, cut wax paper to fit the shape of your trays.) Spread the cooled macaroni on separate trays, making sure it doesn't stick together (rinsing with cool water first helps). Dehydrate both components until they're brittle (about 6 hours or overnight). When done, combine 1 cup macaroni and 1 cup sauce in a 1-quart zipperlock.
Add about 2 cups boiling water to the bag, squish it around and let it rest in a cozy for about 10 minutes, or until everything is tender. Top with cubed cheese.
And the winner is...
Our online call for entries yielded some yummy results. The true champion? Karla Coreil of Port Allen, Louisiana, who came up with a lunch idea that has all the right ingredients: it's easy, fast, light–and big on flavor and nutrition.
Mom's Carlsbad Spread
- 16-oz. canned diced tomatoes, with juice
- 2 cups garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed (1 can)
- 1/2 cup lemon juice (about 2 to 3 large lemons)
- 5 garlic cloves
- 4 tablespoons chopped fresh basil (or use 1 tablespoon dried)
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 roasted sweet peppers
Combine all ingredients in a food processor and puree until smooth. Spread the mixture on dehydrator trays and dry for about 8 hours or until crumbly. Divide mixture into four zipperlocks and break down the pieces as much as you can by squeezing the bag (this will speed along the rehydrating process).
Add equal parts water (cold is fine) to each bag, stir, and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Serve on pita, tortillas, or bagels. Makes 4 servings.