Introduction: How to Never Eat Crappy Freeze-dried Backpacking Meals Again (Or: How to Dehydrate Your Own Backpacking Food)
Hiking is my 'thing.' I love seeing amazing things that I couldn't possibly have seen from inside a car. Having a one-year-old to cart around hasn't stopped me yet either - so far our major trips have included the Tour du Mont Blanc (when she was eight weeks old) and most of the Dingle Way in Ireland when she was 10 months. Here she on a humid day on the Kalalau trail on Kauai at six months old.
I realized I was 'done' with conventional freeze-dried meals when I was backpacking with a friend in Haleakala about a decade ago now. We had traveled separately and each brought our own food. At the end of a long day of hiking we prepared our meals - a freeze-dried meal from a major manufacturer for me, and an MRE for him, as he was in the Marines at the time. MREs are not widely reknowned for their nuanced flavor palettes, but I kid you not - his meal was better than mine.
I started brainstorming potential solutions and realized I could dehydrate my own prepared meals. The main benefits are that I can control the flavorings (I like assertive flavor/spice, but not heat) and salt (most freeze-dried meals are almost inedibly salty). I can also easily include vegetables for nutritional value. Last but not least - they taste good!
11/2/15 Update: A belated thanks for voting for my Instructable in the Camping Food contest - I won a runner-up prize! If you're interested, the trip report for the Breckenridge to Aspen hike - for which I made these meals, is up on my blog. (Sadly Wordpress won't let me put them in chronological order, so start reading at the bottom...)
Step 1: Choose Your Recipe
A key lesson I learned early on is that chunks of meat do not dry very well; they get hard on the outside before they dry out in the middle. Best case scenario is that your meal tastes nasty; worst case is that you get salmonella or E. coli while you're on a backpacking trip, potentially days away from help. So pick a recipe that will be OK with ground meat, even if it's not conventionally served that way (example: chicken tikka masala). Any kind of meat (or textured vegetable protein, if you like) in sauce is a good bet. I tried tofu once a long time ago, and I think it didn't come out well. I seem to recall chewy pieces of tofu that didn't really rehydrate properly.
I like recipes that have a protein 'base' with a carb side or topping of some kind. If you're on a multi-day trip and all your base meals are ground meat in different kinds of sauce, it's nice to have more variety in toppings. I try to pick a selection of meals that go with rice, mashed potatoes, noodles, biscuits, etc.
I also add vegetables to the base even if the meal wouldn't normally have them there as a way to make sure I get enough fiber to keep things moving through the system. An alternate approach would be to use individually packed freeze-dried vegetables, although I think they're expensive and I haven't tried them so I can't vouch for the taste.
Step 2: Prepare the Base Meal
The base is the protein component. Here I'm cooking the base for the English classic Shepherd's Pie. There are lots of versions of this recipe; here is a good one: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/sh...
A key step in every recipe you make occurs after you brown the meat: you must then drain the fat. Excess fat in a dehydrated meal will go rancid. I pour the whole lot into a colander (over a bowl, the contents of which are then thrown in the trash - you don't want all that fat solidifying in your drains), and press down on it to extract more fat. After putting it back in the pan, I "wipe" the food and the base of the pan with 2-3 paper towels to absorb as much fat as possible.
If your recipe does not start by browning aromatics and then meat you'll need to reorganize it so it does, or plan to drain the meat at some other point in the process before you start adding flavorings and spices.
Once you think the dish is ready, taste it in the pan and add salt/pepper/more seasonings as needed. In general you want the food to be slightly over-seasoned as it seems to lose a bit of flavor in the dehydrating process. Make sure it tastes good. If you don't like it now, you won't like it when it's been dehydrated and rehydrated.
Step 3: Blend
Put 1/3 to 1/2 of the food in a blender. When I prepared these photos some years back for a little tutorial (pre-Instructables!) for a friend we had a crappy old blender so I could only blend small quantities at a time. Now we have a Vitamix that could technically do the whole lot at once but I still only do half batches. The key here is that you want the pieces of meat and vegetables to be evenly sized so they dry at the same rate, but not so small that they essentially become a slurry (which is not good to eat...I know from experience). Packing the whole meal into the Vitamix at once would yield pieces at the bottom that were too small while the stuff floating on top wouldn't be small enough. You can add quite a lot of water if your meal is dry to help things move in the blender - maybe a cup or more per batch.
PULSE for just a second, stop and evaluate, and pulse again as needed. I can't over-state how little you will likely need to process the food. I usually do 2-3 one-second pulses.
Step 4: Dehydrate
You could probably do this step in the oven, but I haven't tried it.
I have an American Harvest FD-50 dehydrator, which I like, but other brands/models will do the job just as well. I got a couple of extra trays for it (the four trays it comes with may not be enough for a full meal) and you will also need one fruit roll sheet per tray.
Place a fruit roll sheet onto each tray, and divide the meal evenly among the sheets. Spread it so it just covers the fruit roll sheet; if you spread it too thick it won't dry properly.
Turn the dial to the appropriate temperature setting for meat. Mine is pictured in the laundry room so I can close the door because I find the fan annoying.
Step 5: Come Back in 12 Hours
(Go and watch a season of Game of Thrones or something.)
Step 6: Remove the Meal From the Dehydrator Trays
Prise the meal off the trays with your fingers and put the pieces in a bowl. It's important to use your fingers as this allows you to feel and check that the food is properly dehydrated. It should feel and sound crispy. If it feels damp at all, remove any crispy pieces and spread out the damp pieces on the tray, turning them over so the damp sides face up. Dehydrate for several more hours, until everything coming out of the dehydrator feels and sounds crispy.
Step 7: Package
Break up the pieces in a bowl - I sometimes use a large mortar and pestle for this. The crispy pieces are quite pointy and they really do a number on zip lock bags - resulting in pieces of dinner floating around in your backpack. I prefer to put them in vacuum sealed bags, which also saves space in your pack. I do all my sealing at once, so I do put the meal I just made in a zip lock while I prepare and dehydrate the next one. Make sure you label the bags as you go; it's shocking how similar Shepherds Pie and Chicken Tikka Masala look once they're dehydrated.
Weigh into individual servings if you're traveling alone (I use about 3oz per meal for a 135lb woman) or if you made a full meal for a group, just package it all together.
Also package your side dish (separately from the base) - instant mashed potatoes, in this case. Over-estimate the serving size from what's listed on the mashed potato box (i.e. perhaps double) as you'll have burned a lot of calories when you sit down to eat this.
Package the food with rehydration instructions, and make them especially clear if you're traveling with a group. That way anyone can prepare dinner each night without detailed input from you. In general my instruction is to cover the base component with sufficient water to cover and then simmer until rehydrated, adding more water as necessary to achieve the desired consistency. If you're trying to save fuel, the fastest fuel-saving way to get to dinner is to heat the dinner in the water until hot, and then turn off the stove and let it sit for a while before heating again. If you have time, you can also give it a head start by soaking the meal in cold water before you start heating.
Also include instructions for the side dish, including how much measured liquid to add. I like to print these (for readability) and slip them inside the pouches before vacuum sealing, so there's no way they can get lost. I title each one "Shepherds Pie - Bag 1 of 2" so the camp cook knows they're working with all of the components.
Step 8: Go on Your Trip!
Here are a week's worth of dinners for a backpacking trip I'm doing with my one year-old daughter and two friends in two weeks - we plan to hike from Breckenridge to Aspen, staying in the 10th Mountain Division huts. I took this photo to show my friends, which is why it also shows the compostable diapers we will carry - the meals have since been shipped to various points along the trail so we don't have to carry them all. Each meal for 3 1/2 people weighs about 1 1/2 lbs. You can also see the instant soup I like to bring as a pre-meal snack.
Our full menu includes:
1. Shepherd's pie and (instant) mashed potatoes
3. Chicken Pot Pie with a Bisquick topping (recipe from Lipsmackin' Backpackin' by Tim and Christine Connors)
5. Tamale Pie (a bit like chili but with different spices and a topping that's a cross between polenta and biscuit) (Recipe from Lipsmackin' Backpackin')
6. Bolognese with angel hair pasta - I use the Weeknight Pasta Bolognese behind Cooks Illustrated's pay-wall
7. Beef Stroganoff with egg noodles (again, don't add the cream - take powdered cream with you)
I hope this is helpful! It's my first I'ble so let me know if anything isn't clear and I will try to clarify...