Homemade dehydrated food is the ideal way to bring variety to multiday kayak trips. It reduces the bulk and the weight by roughly 70% and allows you to cook whatever you feel like (well, almost!). It is also easy and fun to do and will save you tons of money over the commercially prepared freeze-dried food. Not to mention that it is usually much better too and allows you to take advantage of seasonal ingredients when they are at their peak and can be bought in large amounts at a fraction of the cost.
Put your slow cooker to good use A friend of mine is the queen of the crockpot. So, during winter months, she just cooks her favorite veal ragout, beef chili, chicken in white sauce or goulash in big batches, say 16 to 20 portions. Then, she separates the finished product into two halves: one for her daily meals and the other one for her upcoming kayaking trips, which she spreads on some cooking sheets in individual portions and dries overnight in her home dehydrator. The next morning, she vacuum packs and identifies each meal destined to the camping trips and keeps them in the freezer for later. Since she does that, she has doubled the number of kayak-camping trips she takes with her family of four in the gorgeous islands of Eastern Maine and the Maritimes because meal planning is so much simplified.
The other thing to consider before getting equipped with a home dehydrator is to realize how easy it is to use. If you know how to chop, how to use a measuring cup and how to operate a thermostat (just like the one you find on an oven), then you know how to dehydrate food, at least for the easiest recipes. Many people who are not familiar with dehydrating food will certainly be amazed to realize that one can prepare spaghetti sauce, beef ragout or chicken parmigiana and bring it along on their next paddling trip thanks to this amazing preserving technique! First Nations were the first North Americans to dry their food, to prepare traveling rations of fish, beef, game, duck, berries and the likes that would keep for months and save them from starvation during the long and harsh winter months.
The Basics In order to know which ingredients yield the best results with a dehydrator, please read my previous food column: you will learn that some veggies and fruits need particular care because of an enzyme that will require them to be blanched before dried; that meat is easy to dry as long as you are careful to eliminate any excess fat if you don't want your precious cargo to turn rancid and that some food, such as tofu, eggs or cheese are not always worth the effort for various reasons. You will also read about my favorite choice for a domestic dehydrator and what to look for in terms of durability and proper functions. Now let's get to work!
What you need to know
1. The equipment Apart from your dehydrator, you will need a good cutting board, a pairing and a chopping knife, lots of paper towels to help pat dry the food (especially ingredients that contain some fat), some tongs to turn ingredients during the drying process and some plastic wrap. In some cases you can also chose parchment paper (for prepared meals).
2. The basics depends on the ingredients For the purpose of the discussion, let's assume that we all work with a commercial food dehydrator equipped with a thermostat and a good ventilating system instead of a homemade one or a conventional oven set at the lowest possible temperature, because these two need extra care and consideration. A rule of thumb is as follows:
a) The duration of the cooking process depends of the thickness of the food, its water content and the humidity of the ambient air. If it's been raining for three days and the temperature is hot and humid, the drying process will need a little more time.
b) Fruit and vegetables tend to need lower temperature to dry evenly (8 hours/more or less)
c) Meat, poultry, cheese and ragouts will dry at slightly higher temperatures (8 to 12 hours)
d) Ingredients containing some fat (meat, cheese) take more time. They also need to be placed on several layers of paper towels, which will need to be changed regularly. They will also have to be pat-dried on a regular basis in order to speed up the drying process. The more fat you remove beforehand, the leaner the meat cuts, the easier.
e) Items such as dried sausage (like breakfast links) or bacon dry well and they are a very nice item to bring on a kayak trip because they are packed with flavor. But don't expect them to dry totally or to become brittle like chicken or beef jerky, for instance. Due to their high fat content, expect 14 to 18 hours for those pieces of meat to be evenly dried. They are ready when there is no trace of grease on the paper towels placed underneath. These ingredients will keep for 3 to 4 weeks, not more.
f) Because of the 8-12 hour drying process for most ingredients, overnight drying is a convenient way to proceed.
g) If you dry most of your rations overnight, make sure you place the dehydrator in a room far enough from your bedroom because some ventilating systems tend to be noisy.
3. How to keep the food once dried
a) Once the food is properly dried, you will also need to place it in sealed containers because air tends to deteriorate the food. I like to use a domestic vacuum pack system that is sold in various stores for about 50 dollars. You can use whatever wrapping method that suits you. Just make sure that your food is carefully packed in air-tight containers and that it is not in contact with air at all.
b) Dried food that gets wet or just slightly humid during a paddling trip will spoil rapidly. So use extreme care in sealing the food you dry. It is worth the effort.
c) Don't forget to clearly identify each package with the date, the content, the number of portions and the amount of liquid that will be needed to rehydrate.
4. How to reconstitute at meal time
a) Fruits and vegetables will reconstitute with an equal part of water for the dried ingredients. Tomato, mushrooms, onions, kale, spinach and bell peppers don't require any blanching, whereas carrots, peas, cauliflower, broccoli, green beans or corn do. Blanch for one minute, then drain and pat dry before putting on drying racks.
b) Fresh herbs can be dried quickly in 4 hours or so. Add to the dish you are cooking at the very last minute.
c) To reconstitute, I like to let the veggies soak in hot water while I prepare dinner. Then I add them to the dish (soup, sauté, ragout) to finish the cooking process. 1 cup water and 1 cup veggies will yield 2 cups of the rehydrated ingredient. Some might need a little more water or broth. Add it as needed.
d) Fruit and tomato leather are a very convenient way to carry those perishable items on board. For tomato leather, use your favorite tomato sauce and spread it evenly on a cookie sheet covered with plastic wrap like you would with pizza sauce on a pizza crust. Let dry for about eight hours and roll in plastic wrap. Or let cool and transform into powder in your blender. For fruit leather, put fresh fruit pieces in blender with a bit of fruit juice, just enough to get a paste consistency. Proceed like you would for tomato leather. 1 cup of fruit puree gives 1 portion of fruit leather and makes a fantastic snack.
e) For dried sausage, place in a frying pan with a few tablespoons of water and let the sausage absorb the liquid before adding more. The entire process takes about 15 minutes. Once the sausage is nice and juicy, you can fry it in the pan for a few minutes with a bit of oil.
f) For precooked meals such as goulash or spaghetti sauce, you must add as much liquid as the amount that has been removed in the rehydrating process. Usually it is 2 to 3 times the quantity of the dried meal. For best results, soak in two times more water than the ragout for 30 minutes. Then, add 1 more cup of liquid (broth, water, tomato juice) while you let the meal simmer for another 20 minutes or so. It's also a good idea to add dried veggies separately when you are ready to assemble and reheat the meal because veggies cook and dry differently than meat.
g) Dried whole grain cereals will need 3 times more water to rehydrate.
h) Dried beans and peas or lentils will need 3 to 4 times more water to rehydrate.
i) Canned foods also dry well, especially, refried beans or baked beans, as well as tomato sauce, cream-style corn or applesauce. Spread the canned food evenly like you would for your homemade one-pot dishes and let dry 8 to 12 hours. To reconstitute, add water and simmer until the food is moist and hot. Serve.
j) Other foods, such as olives or yogurt, dry well too and will add variety to your meals and snacks. For yogurt, choose a variety you like and sprinkle it by the teaspoon on parchment paper and dry for about 8 hours. They will turn into nice yogurt drops that make a lovely snack.
k) Cheese: although I prefer to bring fresh cheese on board, for trips longer than two weeks it can be tricky. Cheddar or Swiss cheese can be dried easily. But other varieties are more difficult to dry because they tend to be absorbed by the paper towels. Is it due to a higher water content? Hard to tell. What I can tell you, though, is that I haven't had good results with cheeses other than cheddar or Swiss. It takes 12 to 14 hours to dry. Proceed as you would with dried sausage.
Mexican Pork Stew (4 portions)
In a large pot, cook onion in olive oil over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add pork and bring the heat to high. Cook the meat for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until evenly browned on all sides. Add garlic, chili pepper flakes cumin and flour and cook 2 more minutes. Add salt, pepper and oregano. Stir in beef broth and cook, covered, for 3 hours. You can also cook it in a slow cooker for 8 hours. Just reduce broth content to 2 cups instead of 3. Remove from heat and let cool at room temperature.
Spread the pork ragout evenly on parchment paper in very thin layers. Dry for 10 to 12 hours, or until very tender. Put in 4 one-portion air-tight plastic bags and keep in the freezer until it's time to leave for your paddling trip.
To reconstitute: in 4 ½ cups of very hot water, add dried mushrooms, dried bell peppers, dried corn and the pork ragout and let reconstitute for 20 minutes. Cook, uncovered, for 20 to 25 minutes or until done. Serve with warm corn tortillas or over rice.
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