Comprehensive Guide to Dehydrating Food for Backpacking & Home Storage.
Learn how to dehydrate
food safely and efficiently. Make delicious dehydrated meals with the skills and recipes presented here.
You will find examples of these
dehydrating food tips on every page of this website and in Chef Glenn's
books about dehydrating food for backpacking, and emergencies.
Since the fan and heating element inside a food dehydrator are in fixed
locations, the air and heat flow may dry food on trays in some
locations faster than others: top, middle, or bottom; left or right; and
front or back. With square or rectangular dehydrators, rotating trays a
quarter-turn or half-turn every few hours, as well as changing the
position of trays from top to bottom, will even out and speed up drying.
Rotating trays top to bottom is also helpful with round dehydrators.
Rearrange the Food: When a whole meal like chili or stew is substantially dry, pull the meal apart and redistribute it on the trays to expose more parts of the meal to airflow. Likewise, pull apart and redistribute rice, grated potatoes, and any food that sticks together.
Dry Extra Vegetables: When vegetables are cooked in a stew, they lose some of their color and texture. Include vegetables in the stew when you cook and dry it, but dry extra vegetables separately, and add them to the dried meal when you pack it for the trail. Steaming carrots for 6 minutes before drying them turns them dark orange, whereas carrots dried raw turn pale. Broccoli, green beans, peas, and corn also hold their colors better if steamed before drying.
Cut Food Uniformly and Not Too Big: You don’t have to be precise when cutting fruits and vegetables, but if the pieces of food are similar in size, they will finish drying at the same time. After several hours of drying, tear any larger pieces of food in half. Fruit will dry faster, without risk of hidden moisture, if cut no more than a ¼-inch thick (½ cm). For foods you might dry in cubes, like baked sweet potatoes or butternut squash, shoot for cubes about ⅜- to ½-inch thick (1 cm).
Don’t Overload Trays: Spread food on dehydrator trays in a single
layer. Too much food on trays will greatly increase the drying time.
Spread blended foods like sauces as thinly as possible. For Excalibur
Dehydrator trays, which have the highest capacity per tray compared to
other dehydrators, 1 cup, or a little more, of blended food is the ideal
quantity to spread on nonstick sheets. For meals like chili or stew,
you can dry up to 2 cups on an Excalibur Dehydrator tray. As the food
dries and shrinks, stir it around a few times.
Make Soup Thicker: If your soup has a lot of broth, remove some of the soup solids and run them through a blender. Then add them back to the soup. Cooked potatoes are especially useful for thickening soups.
Invest in Nonstick Sheets: Although expensive on the front end, nonstick dehydrator sheets last for years, and it’s much easier to spread blended foods on them than on single-use parchment paper. Foods like mashed potatoes, soups, and fruit purees will stay flat on nonstick sheets, but with parchment paper, they may draw up the paper as they dry. Once blended foods are dry, or almost dry, they can be easily removed from nonstick sheets, whereas food may not let go of parchment paper as well.
Flip & Peel: When blended foods like sweet potato bark, fruit
leather, and tomato sauce are almost dry on nonstick sheets, flip them
upside down and peel off the nonstick sheets. With the nonstick sheets
removed, the increased airflow over the bottom side of the bark or
leather will speed up drying.
Fruit Leather Packing: Fruit leather sticks to itself, especially when vacuum sealed. To avoid the difficulty of trying to pull it apart on the trail, fold up a single sheet of fruit leather in parchment paper.
Keep a Notebook: Write down notes while you are dehydrating food, such as the preparation steps, ingredients, temperature setting, and the amount of time it takes for the food to dry. You may wish to record the volume and weight of the food before and after drying. It’s also important to make notes about mistakes—so you don’t repeat them, and to write down ideas for improving your results.
Having a record of your dehydrating food projects will save you time and ensure good results the next time you dry food for an adventure.
Although it might seem old-fashioned in the digital age, organizing your project sheets by category in a 3-ring notebook will serve you well in the kitchen. It’s like having your own custom-made dehydrating food cookbook.
The free printable project sheet below is what I use every time I dehydrate food. Click the link below to print as many as you need.
Recipes for Adventure and Recipes for Adventure II show how to safely dehydrate food. You may find information sources that say it’s all right to dry some of the following foods, but why take the risk when you have so many safe and delicious options?
Due to the potential for spoilage during and after dehydration, dairy products—including milk, butter, cream, sour cream, cheese, cream cheese, and kefir—should not be dehydrated in meals. It is possible to dehydrate yogurt, but experience has shown that it can have a concentrated sour taste when rehydrated. Yogurt resists rehydration; it only absorbs about half the amount of water it contained before it was dried.
Dehydrated meals containing cream, cheese, or cheese sauces may end up with residual greasiness. Grease can obscure water moisture, which can lead to mold growth. If you take the risk of including dairy in dehydrated meals, store those meals in the freezer until you leave for your trip, and eat them the first night out on the trail.
Most dairy products are available commercially in powdered form. Add them to meals when you rehydrate the meals on the trail. If you don’t mind carrying a little extra weight, a small block of hard cheese will last a few days in moderate temperatures.
A small amount of cooking oil is tolerable; keep it under 1 tablespoon in recipes that will be divided into several meals, or leave it out. Storing dried food in airtight containers minimizes the risk of oils turning rancid over time. Check labels to ensure that store-bought sauces that you intend to dehydrate don’t contain a lot of oil. Many backpackers carry a small bottle of olive oil on the trail to add to meals for extra fat.
Coconut milk will leave a greasy residue in dehydrated meals and should not be used.
Like vegetable oil, animal fat can turn rancid over time. The safe practice is to minimize fat when dehydrating food, and to store dried meat in airtight containers. Only lean meat with fat content not exceeding 10 percent should be dried. Ground beef suitable for drying should be labeled 90/10, which designates the protein/fat content. Avoid ground beef sold as “hamburger,” which contains 20–30 percent fat. Ground chicken and turkey are usually low fat, but check the labels just to make sure. Pork is too high in fat to safely dehydrate and store, but precooked ham or Canadian bacon are usually lean enough for drying.
To kill any potential pathogens that might be present in raw meat, beef should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 160°F (70°C) before dehydrating and poultry to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F (74°C). The temperature of most dehydrators will go up to 165°F (74°C), but the temperature of the food may be lower, due to the cooling effect of evaporation. Be safe and cook meat on the stove or in the oven before drying it.
Article from the USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service: Jerky and Food Safety.
What about Eggs?
Despite having a high fat content, properly cooked and dehydrated eggs, such as the Omelet Bites featured in Recipes for Adventure II, will remain in good condition for months if stored in airtight containers. To be on the safe side, use dried eggs within 3 months.
Photo: Sausage-seasoned ground beef omelet bites on left, and tomato and baked bean omelet bites on right.
Despite your best efforts, dehydrated food will not last nearly as long as freeze-dried food. A leading freeze-drying company states that their unopened products have a shelf life of 30 years. Freeze-drying removes close to 98 percent of the water in the food, which prevents oxidation and/or enzymatic activity from taking place. Dehydration, on the other hand, removes between 80 and 95 percent of the water, depending on the food. While that’s dry enough to inhibit mold from growing—if the dried food is stored in airtight containers—oxidation and/or enzymatic processes will slowly proceed using the minuscule amounts of moisture or oxygen in the food or container.
In Chef Glenn's experience, dehydrated food—when properly dried and stored—remains in very good condition for at least a year. Beyond one year in storage, a gradual decline in the food’s quality may be noticed. Some dried vegetables may get darker, while others may get lighter. Steam blanching certain vegetables, before drying them, deactivates enzymes—which helps protect their appearance and taste during storage. Carrots, green beans, broccoli, and corn will all store better if steamed. Fruits with light flesh, like apples, pears, and bananas, may turn slightly brown due to oxidation. Dipping fruit in a solution of ascorbic acid (or lemon juice) and cold water reduces oxidation, though this step may be regarded as optional, since a slight browning of fruit doesn’t significantly affect its sweet taste and nutritional value. Oxidation may turn oils and fats rancid over time; that’s why we use only lean meats and minimal amounts of oil in dehydrated meals.
The best practice is to dry your meals as close to your trips as time allows. With the added protective measures of using oxygen absorbers and vacuum sealing, plus storing dried food away from light and heat, you can be confident that the meals you carry on your adventures will safely provide the best taste, appearance, and nutrition.
Photo: Dehydrated backpacking meals assembled in food storage bags. For longer trips, it's best to vacuum seal the meals.
More Veggies, Please!
Freeze-dried backpacking meals are always light on vegetables and heavy on starches. We need starches for energy, but hefty amounts of vegetables make dehydrated backpacking meals more colorful and nutritious. See Best Vegetables for Dehydrating.
Delicious, Homemade Taste.
Amaze yourself and your hiking friends when you dehydrate meals like chili, ham & cheese macaroni, and unstuffed peppers. See Backpacking Recipes using Dehydrated Food.
Keep Out Unwanted Ingredients.
Freeze-dried meals and flavored rice and noodle products from the grocery store often contain MSG, excessive salt, unhealthy oils, preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, and other ingredients that would be easier to pronounce if you had paid attention during chemistry class. Even instant oatmeal contains fake fruit made to look like strawberries and blueberries with Red 40 and Blue 2.
Dehydrating Food Saves Money.
Freeze-dried meals can easily cost $8 to $12 each. Make your own dehydrated meals for $2 to $3 each. The longer your backpacking trip, the more you save.
Save Space and Weight in Your Backpack.
Home-dehydrated meals takes up less space than freeze-dried meals, and they weigh about 85% less than meals made with fresh food. A day's supply of dehydrated food can weigh as little as twenty-four ounces.
Dehydrated Backpacking Meals Keep Well.
Fresh food may spoil in a few days, but dehydrated meals can remain in good condition for a year or more. Follow the Backpacking Chef Dehydrating Food guidelines and see this page about storing and vacuum-sealing dehydrated food.
Be Prepared for Emergencies.
The same meals that you dehydrate for backpacking trips, work lunches, and travel, are also valuable during power outages or when food supplies are interrupted by pandemics. Having a supply of dehydrated meals on hand means your family is always prepared for emergencies.
The Action Guide provides step-by-step instructions for how to dehydrate food and assemble it into thirty-one meals.
The Ultimate Guide to Dehydrating Food for the Trail
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