It’s no secret that processed and packaged foods are laced with weird preservatives and pumped with way too much sodium. Camping food is no exception to the rule. Normally, so many calories are burned and nutrients depleted on a backpacking trip that the body can handle a couple of not-so-ideal ingredients. Unless, of course, you have food intolerances, and at least one item on that long list of packaged ingredients is guaranteed to set off your stomach.
This was the problem I contemplated when planning a recent backpacking trip through Glacier National Park. Fresh food wasn’t an option four days in, and if I was going to carry my food over fifty-something miles of trails, it had to be light. Most backpackers get by with little pouches of dehydrated meals, like Mountain House or Backpacker’s Pantry brands. It’s not that they aren’t tasty (though pretty much anything tastes good when it’s freezing and you just hiked 20 miles), but they are full of junk, the vegetables are skimpy, and the meat comes from an unknown source which is made doubly scary when the water is sucked out and it turns to a dry, pallid gravel.
There were two options, as far as I could see. A) Eat packets of tuna three meals a day for five days, constantly attracting hungry grizzly bears, or B) Skip the middleman, and make my meals at home with a food dehydrator.
The food dehydrator is an intimidating object. Mine turned out to be way bigger than I expected, taking up half the kitchen table in my small apartment. It resembles a UFO, and though there are no blades to cut yourself on, it looks like it could easily warp you into another dimension if you pressed the wrong button. Then of course, Google complicated things by showing me “about 232,000” different ways to use it. Could I dehydrate the meat and veggies at the same time? Should I turn them halfway? Would I ever use this ginormous appliance again after my vacation? Some web sites said yes, some said no.
Eventually, I ignored all directions, cooked five homemade meals that I felt would taste good as mush, threw them into the dehydrator at 160 degrees, and waited eight hours until they felt dry to the touch. Then I poured them into plastic bags and hoped to God they would work.
“What if they don’t rehydrate right?” my boyfriend asked. “Are you sure they won’t make you sick?” my mom asked. There are ways to ensure success, I told them: You weigh the food before and after dehydration, so you know how much boiling water to add. To kill off bacteria, meat has to reach at least 145 degrees for at least 20 minutes. Of course, I hadn’t actually checked either of these things, so there was only one way to test my meals: The night before my flight, I boiled up some water and made a sampling of each. Beetlebung Farm zucchini noodles with Black Water Farm ground beef and pasta sauce. The Good Farm chicken curry. Pulled barbecue shoulder roast from Grey Barn with sweet potatoes. FARM Institute eggs and bacon. I was bringing my local ingredients on the trail with me, and they tasted just as good as the day I got them at the farm stand. And no, Mom, they did not make me sick.
It was easy cooking on the trail. I brought along my trusty insulated canteen, boiled some water on a mini fold-out stove, mixed it with my meals, and gave it about 15 minutes to come back to life. The temps drop this time of year in Montana’s mountains — we even got a little snow — and I was glad to have a hot meal in place of cold tuna fish. Plus, there was something extremely satisfying about having done it all myself. I felt like a true pioneer, preserving my food from the harvest to take up into the mountains with me. Sure, the technology of my UFO dehydrator made it easy, but the skill set is one that can benefit any self-sufficient kitchen dweller.
Maybe you don’t backpack, but maybe you have a garden on Martha’s Vineyard, and it’s harvest time, and you are still drowning in tomato and zucchini and who knows what else. Dry the extras to use in recipes. Maybe you love kale chips — try making them in the dehydrator. Maybe you love potato chips, but your bag got a little soggy at the beach — pop them in the dehydrator and they will be good as new.
Jan Buhrman, caterer and food educator at the Kitchen Porch, says a dehydrator is an especially good tool on Martha’s Vineyard because “the air is too moist, you can’t dry anything.” She uses her dehydrator for drying herbs, raw foods like corn tortillas, and preserving tomatoes “because they taste so wonderful at the peak of the season.” She’s also a big fan of making fruit leathers (kind of like a healthy Fruit Roll-Up) in the dehydrator. Looks like I may be using my dehydrator again after all.
Jan Buhrman’s Fruit Leathers
Fresh fruit (quince, peaches, beach plums, berries, apples, pears, grapes)
Sugar (if needed)
Spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg (optional)
Rinse the fruit. If you are working with peaches, plums, etc., take out the pits and chop the fruit. If working with apples or pears, peel and core them, then chop. If working with grapes, remove the stems. You will need to adjust the sweetness based on your taste, so sample the fruit before proceeding. Note how sweet the fruit is; add sugar as needed.
In a large saucepan, add a cup of water for every eight cups of chopped fruit. Bring to a simmer, uncover, and let cook on a low heat for 30 to 45 minutes, or until the fruit is cooked through. Place the fruit in a food processor and pulse until smooth. Taste the fruit and add sugar in small amounts to desired level of sweetness. Add lemon juice one teaspoon at a time, along with a pinch or two of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, or allspice.
Continue to simmer and stir until any added sugar is completely dissolved and the fruit purée has thickened, another 5 or 10 minutes.
Put the purée through a food mill or chinois. Alternatively, purée it thoroughly in a blender or food processor. Taste again and adjust sugar/lemon/spices if necessary. The purée should be very smooth.
Pour the purée on dehydrator sheets and place in the dehydrator.
We usually keep it in the dehydrator for 12 to 24 hours. The fruit leather is ready when it is not sticky and has a smooth surface.
When the fruit leather is ready, you can peel it, roll it, and place in plastic wrap. Keep it in an airtight container and store in the refrigerator or freezer.
— Jan Buhrman