Dehydrating 101: Here’s What You Need
Does the thought of ramen every night and peanut better every morning not appeal to you? Are you an aspiring backcountry gourmet chef? Are you a foodie who worries that half a year on the Appalachian Trail will dull your palate to an unforgivable degree? Perhaps you’re considering doing your own meal prep for your thru-hike. If that’s the case, you’re in the right place!
Planning and preparing my own dinners and breakfasts for my hike was one of the most fulfilling and rewarding aspects of my hike, and there are many benefits to taking this approach. You’ll almost certainly eat tastier, more nutritious, and more varied meals than your fellow hikers. When others are struggling to find anything but peanut butter and chips in a small convenience store, you can fall back on delicious tacos and pasta dishes. Though you may not save much money (after postage and electric bills) by dehydrating and mail-dropping your food, with proper planning you could indeed shave a respectable amount of dollars off your budget. My hearty and filling dinners for two factored out to cost only $1.83 per person, per meal.
What follows is a list of items that are more or less essential to your venture if you choose to feed yourself this way during your hike.
1. A Dehydrator
This one is fairly self-explanatory. You’re not going to dry any of your food without one of these workhorses chugging away in your basement or kitchen night and day. There are dozens of manufacturers and models to choose from, but for my money, I would suggest you look at either Excalibur or Nesco. My beast was an Excalibur 2500, purchased used on Craigslist and put through the ringer for two months straight leading up to my thru-hike. Excalibur machines feature square trays, and Nesco circular ones. I noticed that I was able to fit more items and leave more space between them (which is key to even drying) on a square tray. I also noted — in my albeit limited research — that Excalibur machines tend to have a wider temperature range than Nesco machines at an equal price point.
Options to consider are number of trays, wattage, and temperature range. A wide temperature range is important if you want to dry a variety of foods. For my thru-hike meals I used my dehydrator to prepare meats (both fatty and lean), all manner of vegetables, fruits, sauces, and dairy, so I was glad to have a range from 85 to 155 degrees at my disposal. I got a used dehydrator with 5 trays at a pretty good price, and it serves my purposes admirably, but if I was going to buy a new one, I would definitely opt for 8 or 9 trays; as I soon realized just how labor-intensive six months of food prep was, I figured the more the better.
Also, it’s important to be prepared for a nasty spike in your electric bill if you head into this venture as full-on as I did!
2. Vacuum Sealer (Optional)
I’ve noted above that using a vacuum sealer is optional — many folks choose simply to store their meals in Ziploc bags. However, I was leery of doing so because this was 6 months and many hundreds of dollars of food I was preparing and it would not do to have half of it spoil, and because I included in many of my meals meat and dairy, which as we all know have a significantly shorter shelf-life than vegetables and fruit, even when dried. So, any extra effort to keep foods fresh was key. Popular brands for vacuum sealers include Cuisinart and FoodSaver. My model was a Cuisinart VS-100, sold as a kit with two rolls of vacuum seal bagging.
A vacuum sealer is remarkably easy to use. Simply cut your bags to size, heat-seal off a strip for the bottom, insert your goodies, and suck the air out and seal the top. Total time: about 90 seconds, on average. It’s also a worthwhile investment and a great tool to have in your kitchen. In addition to dried food storage, it’s great to be able to store fresh vegetables and fruit, vacuum sealed, in the freezer so you can enjoy them out of season, and keep your own cuts of meat from spoiling as fast.
Also necessary will be several rolls of vacuum seal bagging, usually sold to match your machine by its manufacturer. My Cuisinart came with two 20-foot rolls, and I ended up purchasing two more of each, and using between 50 and 60 feet of bagging for my six months of meals.
3. Parchment Paper
Parchment paper is required if you want to make yourself delicious sauces to go along with your meals (hint: you totally do). I won’t go into too much detail on the specifics — I’ll cover that in Dehydrating 102! — but you can turn almost any liquid or paste — pesto, salsa, tomato sauce, melted cheese, you name it — into a nice sauce leather or powder using this. I began my drying with wax paper, because it’s slightly cheaper, but soon switched back to the recommended parchment paper, because my sauces were sticking to the wax paper and making it difficult to peel off without getting bits of paper in my food.
4. Food Processor (Optional)
Unless the recipe you’re making specifically calls for it, your food processor will likely only be used for turning the aforementioned sauces into powder. After you completely dehydrate your stir fry sauce or your cheese sauce or whatever other liquid goodies you come up with, you will have a large circular piece of “sauce leather,” which you can then grind up in your food processor into a fine powder or larger chunks.
I didn’t have a food processor on hand during my dehydrating adventures, so I just ripped by hand the sauce leather into manageable strips which still melted and flavored well when re-hydrating, although having a powder certainly would have made it easier. If you’re going to use my rip-and-strip method, I suggest wrapping the strips in Saran Wrap to keep any excess moisture out of the rest of your meal and make it easier to get to when you’re ready to eat.
Cuisinart is one of the kings of the food processor world, but if you don’t want to shell out that kind of cash, a Magic Bullet or even a coffee grinder will serve your purposes here.
5. A Storage & Organization Method
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably already imagined the copious amounts of desiccated deliciousness that await you. But where to put it all? Everyone has their own systems for organization, and methods to their own madness, but I’m here to tell you that you’re definitely going to need some sort of system.
When I first began dehydrating, I naively thought that I could just prepare a whole meal as if I were cooking it for dinner, throw the whole thing in the Excalibur for a few hours, and shove it all in a Ziploc bag. How wrong I was! I re-hydrated my first spaghetti dinner that I had prepared this way and it was, with all due respect to myself, disgusting. After humbling myself a little more and researching a lot more, I came to realize that the only way to approach meal prep of such magnitude was to dehydrate large amounts of ingredients at a time and combine them all into one meal once they were all available. To that end, storage and organization was paramount.
I ended up just keeping all my ingredients in large Ziploc bags, but mason jars work very well also, and make organization a bit easier. As a protip, start collecting packets of silica gel — those are the little packets labeled “DO NOT EAT” that you’ll find in clothes or other packaged items at the store to absorb moisture. Don’t worry, they’re not toxic, and they’ll keep any excess moisture from creeping into your carefully dried foods if you’re storing them in a damp basement, as I was.
Invest in a fair few permanent markers as well. Not only can you use them to keep all your ingredients sorted and separated, but you’re going to want to write the name of the meal and cooking instructions (how many cups of water, how long to boil, etc.) on your bags. You may think you will remember, but six months is a long time, and an extra cup of water can accidentally turn that delicious stir fry into a bowl of soggy mush.
6. A Willing and Able Quartermaster
Now you’ve got six months and 2,000 miles worth of food stashed away somewhere. Wonderful! But how do you get it while you’re on the trail? You will of course need a trusted friend or family member who will post you a box with your food and supplies every time you need a maildrop in town. Some people choose to box up all their food ahead of time and mail it all out, to be held at local post offices, before they take their first steps on the trail. I’m here to advise against that. You may think you know how much you will eat, and how many miles you will do each day, and what you will want to eat, but trust me, your plans, your caloric needs, and your appetite will change quickly and without warning. You will either end up sending yourself too much food or not enough. And worst of all, I guarantee you sometime in southern Virginia you will open a box that you packed up three months previous, cry a long and lonely cry, and think to yourself: “I swear, if I have to eat oatmeal one. more. damn. time…”
Avoid all these perils by choosing someone to assist you in your journey in a way that will make them not only feel helpful, but also will let them be a part of your A.T. experience. For my thru-hike, my long-suffering mother was in charge of all of our meals, snacks, dog food, and supplies. Six months of stuff was organized and stored in her basement, along with boxes, tape, markers, addresses of post offices and outfitters, and a map of the A.T. That way she could watch our progress in real time and respond ably and quickly to the changing whims that dictated what we wanted to eat from one week to the next. We were able to plan a week in advance, so we could receive a maildrop in town, and then call or email the request for the next box on the same day, to be delivered a week and several hundred miles down the trail (more on logistics and organization tips in a future post).
When choosing a quartermaster, make sure you have in mind someone who is patient, organized, and most of all, willing; somone who wouldn’t mind driving to the post office before work at a day’s notice with a box full of food, just so you don’t have to take an extra zero waiting for your box in town. Besides, you don’t want to trust just anyone with your 100 pounds of trail mix.
Last but not least, if you want to dive headfirst into the world of dehydrated trail meals, you’d better be prepared for a serious layout of your labor and your free time. For me, it took a lot longer to chop the hundreds of vegetables and brown the dozens of pounds of meat and portion out the thousands of kernels of rice that fueled my journey. Also, I noticed quickly that the estimates provided in my dehydrator’s manual were too generous by half, and I often had to commit a tray full of peppers to two or more three hours than I had planned.
Don’t let this scare you off, though! I worked a full-time job during my pre-hike winter, and I still had time on top of my food prep to go out on a few shakedown hikes, get myself into shape, and do everything else necessary to prepare for some of the best months of my life. The investment of time and labor is significant — and there are few things more frustrating than having the time to devote to preparation but having to wait another 5 hours for your onions to dry — but it is well worth it! As my brother and I sat around a campfire at a shelter, taking in the other hiker dinners around us (ramen, peanut butter and Nutella on tortillas, oatmeal, more ramen, the ubiquitous Pasta Sides), I could never help a smug smirk of satisfaction and a mental pat on the back as I dug into the warm cheesy goodness of my homemade chicken tetrazzini.
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