For many years I've been an avid sea kayaker who resisted the temptation to dehydrate my food before any given trip. Why? Simply because, as many among us, I was led to believe that it was a long, complex, difficult task that was messy, unsafe and, more importantly, did not yield palatable results. This was before I went on a 7-day kayak tour with a group of people off the Vancouver Island town of Nanaimo, in B.C., Canada. On the West Coast, paddlers are used to long trips in total autonomy and, for that reason, drying food is second nature.
Since that trip was organized to teach us new advanced expedition skills for longer kayak outings, knowing how to dehydrate, pack and prepare such food properly was a requirement for signing up. So I decided I would first learn the drill from a friend who was a seasoned paddler, not to mention an expert cook who knew how to dehydrate any type of food the right way. One week before taking off for my 7-day kayak expedition, I first learned from her to prepare tomato leather and to rehydrate it to make a decent spaghetti sauce by adding just the right amount of water. It worked pretty well. Secondly, I tried dehydrating veggies and fruits and to make delicious fruit leather that was also easy and tasty.
Meat is piece of cake Third step was to learn how to dehydrate meat such as hamburger steak or chicken. I ruined the first batch of ground beef because I didn't bother to remove excess fat thoroughly enough. Traumatized, I vowed to become vegetarian when I'd be on any kayak expedition in order to avoid such humiliating failure. After all, who needs meat on a paddling trip? Well, no one, but if you are among the vast majority of omnivores, you will certainly enjoy having some hearty goulash, chicken cacciatore or veal ragout from time to time after a long, strenuous day on the water. My teacher knew it and she insisted that I tried my luck again. The second trial was piece of cake: my ground beef was perfectly cooked and evenly dried, looking like little pebbles; which led me to try my luck with chicken jerky, salmon, breakfast links and eggs. With jerky, you must remove all excess fat and marinate the ingredient for a couple of hours before pat drying and dehydrating. I must admit that powdered egg yolks are not my cup of tea and will never be. But sausage and bacon are great and easy enough to dehydrate, which is lovely, since they give a punch of flavor to many dishes that cannot be found in any other ingredients.
Dehydrating: the learning curve
It took me five days of practicing on various food items before I felt confident and ready to leave on our paddling trip. Since that initiation, I feel I know enough to proceed on my own, and I still do today. My friends from B.C. worked with 2 homemade dehydrators made with a wooden frame, some trays, a light bulb and a fan. They would turn their trays from time to time because their equipment could not ventilate all the trays evenly. For someone like me and for the vast majority of people, who aren't interested in any form of handyman challenge, a commercial dehydrator works wonders and simplifies the drying process because you don't have to move the trays around until it's ready.
10 advantages of drying food for a paddling trip
- It reduces weight by as much as 50 % to 90 % (water content in food)
- It reduces bulk to a minimum and simplifies the packing process
- It keeps food for very long periods of time without spoiling (at least one year)
- It offers an amazing amount of variety for your meal planning
- It gives you a chance to enjoy seasonal foods at their peak
- It is cheap
- It simplifies camp meal planning
- It simplifies camp meal preparation
- It provides you with the pleasure of a good homemade-style dinner quickly
- It keeps up to 90 % of nutritional value of most ingredients you prepare
Saving money with a dehydrator
Dehydrating requires a good machine if you want to save time and money and to get excellent results. But I guarantee you that it's a tool that will pay for itself quickly if you commit to it. Just take a look at the price of dried fruit or veggies at your local supermarket and you will understand what I mean. Plus you can enjoy the bounty of the season to dehydrate corn, bell peppers, cherries and the like at a fraction of the cost at harvest time when abundant and without adding any sulfites like they do with commercial dehydrated fruits. You can find a good machine for anywhere from 80 to 300 dollars. The difference lies in the power, the silence of the fan (which is important because dehydrating takes several hours), size and number of trays.
Just make sure that it has a thermostat and a good quality fan. Also bear in mind that multiple trays are handy because it allows you to work more quickly with different types of ingredients. Some people maintain that a round shape allows for better air circulation, but I wouldn't bet on that. Many professional dehydrators are square shaped. Of course, you could dry food in your oven, but it's not cost effective, nor environmentally sound. Plus you would spend an awful lot of time moving trays around to ensure an even drying process. With your dehydrator you don't have to be around; the machine does the work for you.
What is worth drying for a paddling trip?
Actually, almost anything: if you like meat, it is a very handy way of carrying as much as you need safely. Beef ragout, spaghetti sauce, jerky, chicken fried rice can be assembled in no time. Canned items are bulky and heavy due to their high water content. So why not dry your favorite bottled tomato sauce into thin leather or condensed canned soup that will reconstitute nicely into a lovely wine sauce with some veal or fish? Refried beans will dry well as do chilies and salsa. Most fruits are very easy to dry and need just a bit of chopping: pineapple, apricots, bananas, kiwis, peaches are delicious dried, as are apples, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, cherries, papayas or mangoes. But since some fruits tend to become brownish when in contact with air due to oxidation you can treat them with salted water or lemon juice before pat drying with paper towels and dehydrating.
Vegetables: a case apart
When it comes to vegetables it's a different story: some of them dry just as easily as fruit, which is true with mushrooms, tomatoes and onions (read further about drying onions). But most will need steaming for 2 to 3 minutes or blanching in boiling water for 1 minute to prevent the action of enzymes that tend to spoil them. It is the case with green beans, carrots, beets, corn, broccoli and cauliflower, bell peppers or cabbage. Kale will do just fine without blanching and will turn into lovely chips, as will spinach. The drying process will vary between 3 to 10 hours depending of the food you dry (more on that in my next food column).
Meat, chicken, fish and dairy products are trickier to dry because of their higher percentage of fat. Fat tends to prevent meat from drying completely and to become rancid. So it needs a very thorough precooking, plus a careful rinsing and pat drying process before meat can be placed in a dehydrator safely. As for tofu, I find it unnecessary to dry it thanks to vacuum-packed tofu that's now widely available. It is not too bulky and keeps for up to three months in its original package. Eggs can be dried but I don't find it easy to prepare since the yolk is so high in fat. I suggest you buy it already in powdered form in outdoor stores or use egg substitute (made with soy, available at health food stores). As for cheese, it is not worth the trouble and doesn't lend to satisfying results; why not bring cheese varieties that keep well without refrigeration such as parmegiano reggiano, canned cheese or cheese wrapped in wax? Many options are available and will be delicious. You can also buy dried parmesan and cheddar if needed.
Another fantastic way to use a dehydrator is to be able to bring along whole grains, such as brown or wild rice, barley, wheat berries, steel cut oatmeal and the like. I hate processed grains because there are poor in fibers and nutrients and don't turn into good quality fuel for paddlers, but since they do cook much more quickly than their whole version most outdoor enthusiasts use them instead. But if you cook whole grains at home and dehydrate them, then you can enjoy it during your trip as much as you want without spoiling precious fuel in the cooking process. Same thing applies to legumes. Use canned ones if you want, rinse and pat dry before dehydrating chick peas, black beans, lentils or cannellini beans if you want to spare bulk and weight. As for potatoes, I like to buy dried potato flakes or regular potatoes (they keep long enough) and I usually don't bother to prepare dried onions because I can carry them onboard fresh for at least 2 to 3 weeks at a time. I prefer to use dried scallions, which don't keep for more than 3 days fresh. They are also much easier to dry than onions.
In my next food column, I will give you all the remaining technical information and some recipes that are particularly easy and good to prepare with a dehydrator. You will then be on your way to learning a new and exciting way of planning your next camp meals for the upcoming paddling season!