Dehydrated fruit is one of my favorite all around snacks to take on outdoor adventures and to eat at home. It's sweet, tasty and packed with nutrition. Kids even love it! While there are a lot of dehydrated and freeze dried foods available to buy, I prefer to dehydrate my own, because, well, it just tastes better. It is lightweight, it doesn't need to be refrigerated and it has a long shelf (or backpack) life. It doesn't have added sugar or sulfur, it's less expensive and it's fun to make. If you've never dehydrated foods before, this quick guide will help you to get started.
Watch this fun video from Big T Production on how to make a dehydrated meal for backpacking and how to make pouch that becomes a bowl and food warmer!
Home dehydrators run between $30-300, depending on how fancy you want to get. Some are very basic; others have adjustable thermostats, timers, more trays, herb screens, and solid fruit leather trays. My mom bought me a dehydrator at a yard sale about 10 years ago for $5. It's a simple model, but I've been using it ever since. Yard sales and second hand stores are actually great places to find inexpensive dehydrators. We use two Excalibur dehydrators in our Wilderness Nutrition class at the University of Utah. You can also dehydrate your own food with an oven or toaster oven on a nonstick pan at its lowest temperature setting. Or you can use a homemade or store bought solar oven. Dehydrated foods maintain their nutrient composition, with the exception of Vitamin C, which is lost when foods are exposed to low heat. Most dehydrated foods can be kept for up to 2 months, though I've kept some for over a year.
Fruits, vegetables and meats can all be dehydrated. When available, I like to buy discounted bulk fruits and vegetables. This is best to do when the fruit or vegetable is at the end of its season. I've found bruised (but still good) fruits and vegetables from farmers, ripened bananas from the grocery store or my friends "extra" home grown produce that they don't know what to do with. You can dehydrate fresh, frozen or canned foods. You can even dehydrate fresh herbs for your pantry and flowers for making beautiful homemade lotions and soaps. When preparing your food to dehydrate, you want to cut similar size and thickness to allow for even dehydrating. Some foods need to be blanched first, where you boil the food in water for about three minutes, then submerge it immediately into cold water to stop the cooking process. Be sure to follow the directions that come with your dehydrator as cooking times and temperatures may vary. Dehydrated food should have a leathery feel when completed. Store dehydrated foods in a cool, dark place. I like to put mine in glass jars and display them on a (sunless) pantry shelf in my kitchen.
Most vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, onions, peppers, potatoes and sweet potatoes should be blanched prior to dehydrating and should be dehydrated at 130-140 degrees F. Canned or frozen corn and peas dehydrate nicely, as do canned beans such as black, pinto, garbanzo and red beans. Dehydrating onions, garlic and oregano will make your home smell like a pizza parlor. Salted chips from potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter or summer squash, mushrooms, beets and greens like kale, Swiss chard and beet greens have a great crunch and help replace sodium losses on the trail. Before dehydrating them, add cayenne, ginger, curry or other spices to spice it up a bit. Dehydrated (also called sun dried) tomatoes taste fantastic with pesto. Dehydrated vegetables can be a great addition to backpacking meals, but may take longer to rehydrate and cook than freeze dried vegetables. Be sure to allow adequate cooking time and/or put your dinner's veggies in a sealed container or water bottle with water to rehydrate while on the trail.
To keep fruit from browning, soak it in lemon juice or an ascorbic acid (vitamin C) dip such as Fresh Fruit. This is helpful, but not necessary, when dehydrating apples and pears, bananas and peaches or any food that tends to brown when exposed to air. I prefer to keep the skins on for the extra fiber, but skins can be peeled, if desired. Fruit should be sliced thin and even and dehydrated at 130-140 degrees F. Berries, fresh or frozen, such as strawberries, raspberries and huckleberries dehydrate into sweet treats. Canned pineapple is very sweet when dehydrated. The sugar in fruit is so concentrated that it tastes like candy. Cherries, grapes and plums make high fiber dried fruits. Be careful, however, in how much fruit you eat at a time, as it is easy to eat too much and may cause unpleasant bloating and gas. Dehydrate fruits separate from vegetables; you don't want raisins tasting like onions or carrots tasting like bananas. Puree your favorites and evenly smear onto a solid fruit leather tray for homemade fruit roll ups. Nonfat yogurt, salsa and tomato sauce can also be made into leathers. Dehydrated fruit cobblers and crisps are delicious gourmet desserts that can be made in the backcountry.
You can even make your own tasty jerky. Beef needs to be dehydrated at 145 degrees F for at least 6 hours. Cut off all visible fat. Use lean cuts like sirloin tips, chicken breast or turkey; the fattier cuts go rancid faster. For chewy jerky, slice meat with the grain. For a more brittle jerky, slice it across the grain. If you find it hard to slice evenly, ask your butcher to slice it for you. Meat can be marinated in BBQ, teriyaki or your favorite sauce, season or marinade. Chicken and turkey need to be cooked thoroughly before dehydrating to prevent foodborne illness. Pressure cooking it keeps it tender after dehydrating it. You can also dehydrate canned chicken or chicken packaged in a foil pouch. Do not dehydrate pork, except lean ham, as it is too high in fat. Lean deli meats can also be dehydrated. One year in our Wilderness Nutrition class, we dehydrated canned tuna in the foods lab. Unfortunately, a very concentrated fishy smell penetrated the entire building. It stunk so badly that we've decided to not dehydrate it in class anymore. But, that's not to say you shouldn't try it at home or outside on your porch. If you do choose to dehydrate tuna, choose tuna packed in water, not oil, as again, the fat can go rancid. Premade seasoned soups and stews can be dehydrated on a fruit leather tray and rehydrated in the backcountry for a warm, hearty meal.
I hope this encourages you to get out that old food dehydrator and dehydrate your favorite foods for your next outdoor excursion. Warning: Dehydrating It Yourself can be addicting.
Simple Soup Recipe using dehydrated foods:
5+ cups water
1½ cups dehydrated vegetables (onions, peppers, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, etc.)
2 Bouillon cubes or broth packets
2 Tbsp oil
1+ Tbsp total of assorted herbs and spices to taste– cumin, curry, ginger, chili powder, salt, pepper, basil, oregano and thyme, etc.
½ cup beef jerky or dehydrated chicken (or canned chicken or chicken in a pouch)
½ cup instant brown rice, whole wheat couscous, quinoa, bulgur, precooked pasta, or other whole grain
shredded cheese, optional
Add vegetables, bouillon, oil, herbs and spices to water and bring to a boil. Add meat and continue cooking. When vegetables and meat are almost fully rehydrated and cooked, add the rice or your choice of grain. Add more water, if needed. Continue boiling the soup until all ingredients are fully rehydrated. This may around 20 minutes total. Adjust spices and herbs to taste. Makes about 4-5 cups; enough for 2 hungry campers. Top with cheese or nuts, if desired.
Based on 2 servings. Nutrition analysis will vary depending on chosen foods; it does not include optional ingredients.
44 g carb
28 g protein
11 g fat
4 g fiber
1655 mg sodium