The Secrets to Gourmet DIY Food Dehydration

One of the best parts of camping after a long day of climbing, hiking or paddling is dinnertime. On my childhood canoe trips we’d subsist on beans, hotdogs, hamburgers and Spam, or—when we got fancy—spaghetti and meat sauce. But now my evolving taste buds can’t conceive of going on my expeditions without tasty, less processed foods. Dehydration is the perfect way to make tasty, healthy meals light enough for a backcountry trip.

Why dehydration?

Two main reasons: weight and food conservation. The difference in weight can mean a trip of 15 days instead of three. You’re not carrying water in your food, and dehydrated food takes up much less room in your pack. Of course, you can buy dehydrated food, but it sure won’t taste as good as your own recipes, plus making your own saves serious bucks. Another perk of making your own is you know exactly what’s in your food, and can leave out any ingredients you want to avoid, like sulphites or additives.

How?

If it’s your first time at dehydration, a conventional, convection or a gas oven may be in order. You could also buy a dehydrator, or like my students, you could make your own dehydrating oven. Keep these items in mind if you want to make your own dehydrator;

- The space cannot be hermetic as the humidity needs a way to escape

- You’ll need a fan for the air to circulate

- A source of heat … a 100 watt bulb will do fine

- Shelves made with screens

- And if you’re very handy you can add a thermostat

When you dehydrate food, the temperature should be between 130 F and 150 F. You should also leave the door open about an inch to let out the steam that will be created. The food should be placed on a metal or glass plate covered with parchment paper.

What types of food can be dehydrated?

Before dehydrating, most foods, with the exception of onions, tomatoes, mushrooms and corn, will need to be blanched in boiling water for one to two minutes to destroy any bacteria which can reduce the freshness of vegetables. The vegetables should be cut up into small pieces of equal size so that the dehydration is uniform. The smaller the pieces, the faster the dehydration. With a good assortment of veggies, you’ll be able to add them to pasta, rice and couscous etc. You won’t go wrong with Italian tomatoes, zucchini and mushrooms. Fruits are also a big winner.

One of my most popular main courses has been spaghetti with meat sauce and chili. To prepare the sauce, spread it out about 1/4 inch thick on your plate on top of the parchment paper (not waxed paper, which will make your food taste like candles.)

Meat and Fish

Choose very lean meat and fish when dehydrating, as the fat in these foods cannot be dehydrated and the fat remaining will alter the taste considerably. One big hit with everyone is beef “jerky.” Marinate your beef for 24 hours prior to dehydrating (beef strips used in beef fondue works great), and make sure each thin strip lays flat on the dish and that all slices are dehydrated uniformly. The strips are ready when they have become flexible but slightly crispy to the touch. You must let them cool down in dry air so they don’t take on more humidity. Keep them far from your fingers, as they are hard to resist!

The easiest food from the sea are shrimp and scallops. Avoid fatty fish, especially salmon, as its flavor is too easily transfered.

Once dehydration is correctly done, it’s a good idea to keep shrimp and chicken in the fridge in hermetically sealed containers to keep out the humidity for up to five or six months. After that the colour starts to change, which is undesirable. Usually I make the food no more than a month before the trip.

Dehydrating is a bit of trial and error. Most errors come from waiting until the last minute. With a little practice, you’ll love your results. Just remember to say, as we do in Quebec, bon appetite!

TIPS and ADVICE

•    Always try your food before you leave on your trip. This will avoid unpleasant surprises, though well into the trip you may be ready to eat anything!

•    It is normal for the food to be darker in colour than in it’s natural state.

•    One cup of dehydrated spaghetti sauce when re-hydrated will produce three to four cups of sauce.

•    To re-hydrate, we use three times the volume in water and cook 10 minutes to kill any bacteria.

•    For your first experiment, try sliced apples. You can’t go wrong!

•    Pureed fruits and vegetables will take on a soft leather texture and taste great.

•    Veggies will usually become crispy when dehydrated.

•    It’s a mistake to increase the temperature when dehydrating. It forms a crust on the food that keeps the humidity inside, the opposite of what we want to achieve. The food will come out chewy and won’t last very long.

•    Avoid eggs and fatty meats.

•    Do not use aluminum foil, which will burn the food.