Explorer Kate always dehydrates her food at home to save weight and space on hikes. It’s the perfect way to make sure you’re still eating something delicious and nutritious food while camping and hiking.
When it comes to hiking food, we often imagine dehydrated space meals, loaded with preservatives, barely recognizable as an actual dish. It doesn’t have to be like this!
Imagine if you could pull up to camp, tired, weary and have a gourmet babagnoush with crackers as an entree, while pulled pork sliders bubble away on your pocket-sized hiking stove. Enter envious hiking friends, as they drool over your shepherd’s pie created solely over the flames of your campfire.
‘I bet carrying that all day weighed a ton!’ they’ll say, as they try to swallow a piece of chewy cardboard meat, described on the packet as ‘chicken stir-fry’.
‘It weighed 200grams and serves two people, how great’s a dehydrator?’ you’ll say, as their jaws drop to the floor, their taste-buds tingling at the smell. Time to get cooking!
What’s a dehydrator?
A dehydrator is a compact oven that removes the water in food by cooking on a low heat for an extended period of time. The result is a meal that’s half the weight and can be stored for twice as long. When ready to eat, re-introduce water to the food and the rehydrated product will taste exactly the same as before. In other words, it’s a hiker’s best friend!
Where can I buy a dehydrator?
Whilst it’s possible to dehydrate your food on a low setting in the oven for hours, a specific dehydrating appliance is a safer and more convenient option.
The first place to look for a dehydrator is in grandma’s cupboard or your nearest op-shop. In the 1970s they were all the rage to reduce waste and minimize storage space by dehydrating left-overs or pre-made meals.
Sadly, this trend faded during the ‘90s, but we’re here to make it trendy again; sustainable, money-conscious and flavour-savvy hikers at the ready!
If none are available second-hand, a new dehydrator can be purchased from stores like ALDI, Kmart or Target starting from $50, with top of the range, larger dehydrators going for around $200. A fairly big expense to get started, but the dehydrator will quickly pay for itself with the money saved from store-bought, freeze-dried hiking meals.
How do I use a dehydrator?
The options for dehydrating are endless, but try starting with something simple. Fresh fruit is one of the easiest hiking snacks to dehydrate and requires no added sugar or preservatives when created at home. Kiwifruit becomes a delicious sour burst, mango is a chewy sweet strap and berries add a pop of flavour to boring breakfast oats.
Step 1: To begin the dehydrating process, place baking paper over the trays to avoid food getting caught in the drying racks.
Step 2: Peel and slice up your fruit evenly, no bigger than 1cm thick, to reduce dehydrating time.
Step 3: Squeeze lemon juice over the fruit to stop edges from browning, and space out evenly on the trays, avoiding pieces from touching.
Step 4: Temperature and time for dehydrating varies depending on the type of fruit and how much there is; most dehydrators come with a user manual that may contain a chart to help with this. If you get stuck, 70 degrees celcius is a great place to start for most foods.
Step 5: Begin by dehydrating for eight hours, checking the fruit throughout. Flip the fruits over and rotate the trays roughly half-way through in order to evenly distribute the heat.
Step 6: If more time is required, simply add another 4 – 6 hours, until all the moisture is completely sucked out of the fruit and they resemble their store bought, dried counterpart.
What foods can I dehydrate?
Raw meats such as lean beef or kangaroo can be made into jerky with a tasty marinade and a bit of salt. Pre-made meat dishes such as pulled pork, curries and bolognese dehydrate really well, perfect for rehydrated camp dinners.
Dehydrate water-retaining vegetables such as mushrooms, peas, spinach, zucchini or capsicums to cook up a meal when you get to camp; think stir-fry noodles or ramen soup.
Yep you can make dehydrated dips! Using store-bought or homemade dips such as hummus or babaganoush, spread evenly on the lined trays, roughly 1cm thick. Dehydrate until all the moisture is gone and a hard wafer is left. Crumble up the dip into a food processor, blending into a powder. When it comes time to eat, simply combine the dip powder with a little water, stirring into a paste.
A healthy alternative to the supermarket, sugar-loaded fruit straps you may remember as a child. Experiment with all the flavours; apple cinnamon, mixed berry, tropical passionfruit, or anyone up for pina colada?
Blend fruits into a thick puree, adding a little maple syrup to sweeten if necessary. Spread evenly, again about 1cm thick, over lined trays, dehydrate until fruit puree becomes leather-like.
A sweet treat for when a sugar hit’s needed to conquer that final ascent! Use the smaller marshmallows available in the cooking section to save time on dehydrating or larger marshmallows for a chewier texture. Spread evenly onto trays and try to resist eating them until they’re completely dehydrated. They become a delicious hiking candy.
Camp breakfast doesn’t have to be dull, now the secret of dehydrated yoghurt is out. Follow the above instructions for dips, using your favourite yoghurt. Serve over granola in the morning or create overnight bircher muesli by mixing rehydrated yoghurt and muesli before curling up in your sleeping bag the night before. Delightful!
FAQs about dehydrating pre-cooked meals at home
Q: What food doesn’t dehydrate well?
Avoid using oils/cheese/fatty meats. Fats do not dehydrate well, avoid using oils and cheese in pre-made meals, and choose a leaner cut of meat.
Stir-fries just don’t work – Speaking from personal experience, I’m yet to successfully rehydrate a stir-fry and not have it result in a mush of Asian inspired flavours. Feel free to prove me wrong, but you’ve been warned.
Q: Can I dehydrate everything together?
Dehydrate like-foods together.
Dehydrating curries with apples will result in curry flavoured apples. Avoid dehydrating strong smelling dishes with other foods, matching similar flavours together when dehydrating. For example, marshmallows and yoghurt both smell sweet when dehydrating, and can be dehydrated on separate trays, but in the same batch.
Q: How much water should I add to rehydrate my meal?
Weigh your meals pre and post dehydrating.
If you have kitchen scales available, it helps to weigh one serve prior to dehydrating, then weigh the same serving after dehydrating. The difference is exactly how much water has evaporated, therefore is the exact amount of water that should be added to rehydrate the meal when you arrive at camp.
If you forget this step, just add enough cold water to completely cover your meal when you’re ready to rehydrate (see rehydration tips below).
Q: How much food should I dehydrate on each tray?
Measure out one serving per tray. Prior to dehydrating, spoon out a single serve into a bowl, spread that same portion onto a single tray, and store as a single serve.
Meals dehydrate to more than half their size and your eyes can often be larger than your stomach when looking at dehydrated meal. This’ll avoid food wastage when at camp – having to carry out left-overs on a hike can often result in a very smelly backpack.
Q: What are the best techniques for dehydrating?
Move the top trays to the bottom and bottom trays to the top, for any snack or meal dehydrating, to spread heat evenly throughout the cooker. If dehydrating a snack, such as fruit or jerky, make sure to flip each piece roughly halfway through to even out the heat even further.
As for meals, ensure to stir roughly on the tray, to break up and avoid a brittle biscuit from forming, a crumbly mixture is quicker and easier to rehydrate.
Q: Anything else I should know about dehydrating food?
Label your meals.
When everything’s dehydrated and sealed, a red curry may look like bolognaise. Mexican rice will resemble risotto. If you want to know what you’re eating at camp, and what added components might need to be carried to enhance your meal, label your meals, how many serves there are and how much water should be added.
How long does dehydrated food last and how do I store it?
The most important part of the dehydrating process is storage. Ensure all the moisture is evaporated before you stop the dehydrator. The food must be completely cooled before packing, to avoid condensation from forming in the bag and adding moisture back into it.
Store in a vacuum sealed, ‘Ziplock’ or preferably reusable ‘Stasher’ bag. Keep it in a dry, dark spot or in the freezer. The food still contains some natural bacteria, so use the dehydrated food within three months.
How do I rehydrate my meal?
When it comes time to eat your dehydrated meal, start the rehydration process as soon as you get to camp, this’ll decrease cooking time at dinner and use up less gas.
Pop your dehydrated food into a camp cooker or bowl, pouring over the amount of water that was removed during the dehydration process, or enough water to completely cover the dried pieces. Cold or hot water can be used, however hot water will speed up the process. At dinner time, put your semi-rehydrated meal on the stove, bringing to a boil, then simmering until ready.
Are there other dehydrated food options?
If all of this sounds like a little too much work, or an impromptu trip pops up and you’ve run out of premade supplies, there are a few brands that sell ‘freeze dried’ meals with no additives or preservatives. Read the labels, as the less added preservatives and thickeners in your meal, the tastier it’ll be!