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Sierra Magazine
Food for Thought: Dry Run

The recipe is always the same: "Just add water."

by Paul Rauber

I once climbed Mt. Whitney with a guy who had licked the problem of what to eat in the wild by falling off a bicycle and losing all sense of taste. While the rest of us grappled with cans of anchovies, tomato sauce, and olives, and later subjected our good taste to the indignities of commercial freeze-dried cuisine, he was happy to subsist on energy bars. Given the 4,000-foot vertical climb, we almost envied him.

I have since been happy to learn that it isn't necessary to check your taste buds at the trailhead. You can eat nearly anything you like; you just have to dry it first. Dehydrating reduces the weight of most foods by at least half, simultaneously preserving them safely for the length of your backpacking expedition. Cheapskates will appreciate the contrast in price with commercially dried products; after an initial investment of about $70 for a good-quality dryer (i.e., one with a thermostat), your additional costs are only the pittance for the electricity. Real misers can build their own dryers, or even dry food in their ovens at a low setting with the door partly open.

But it's far more convenient to use a standard food dryer: basically a small heater and fan circulating air through a number of stacking circular trays. In the simplest case, you peel fruits and vegetables, slice them very thin, lay them out on the trays, and dry until they reach the desired texture. (Some items profit by a preliminary dip in lemon juice, others from blanching. See our list of reliable reference books.)

Don't be limited by the dried items you've seen for sale. You can dry almost anything except citrus fruits, and I have friends who swear you can do that. In addition to the quotidian apples, apricots, and bananas, try strawberries, pears, mangoes, kiwis, cherries. Dried pineapple tastes like candy, and melons are altogether wonderful: take away the water from a watermelon and all that's left is super-concentrated melon essence.

For your protein needs, make your own jerky. Consult a recipe book, or experiment with your own marinades. Just remember to trim off as much fat as possible before drying. Beef is the most common, but turkey and chicken can also be successfully jerked, as can fish. My favorite is salmon cut into thin strips, marinated briefly in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, and pepper, and dried until it is chewy but not brittle. Take care, however, if you are traveling in bear country; this salmon will smell even better to Bruin than it does to you.

And don't stop with finger food. Entire meals, including pre-cooked grains or beans, can be dried in advance. Sauces and stews are spread on solid trays to dry, then rolled up like fruit leather. You'll need an extra 15 minutes before dinner to rehydrate them, but your patience will be well rewarded.

Green Plate Special: Jerky Stew

Since the dried ingredients for this hearty backpacking stew weigh only 4 ounces, you can afford to bring along a fresh carrot for crunch.

4 cups water
1 cup dried tomato pieces (about 20 slices)
1 cup beef jerky pieces (in 1/2-inch chunks)
1 cup dried peeled potato slices
1 tablespoon dried bell pepper pieces
1 tablespoon dried onion pieces
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried garlic
salt and pepper to taste
1 fresh carrot, sliced (optional)
1 cup cooked and dried short-grain rice

In a large saucepan, combine 3 cups of the water and all ingredients except carrot and rice. Let sit for 30 minutes to rehydrate.

Place pan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Add carrot, if using. Simmer for 30 minutes to an hour, until jerky is tender. Meanwhile, combine rice with remaining water and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, cover, and let sit for 15 minutes to rehydrate. Return to boil, partially cover and simmer until rice is tender, about 15 to 30 minutes.

Serve hot stew over rice. Serves 2 to 4, depending on how far you hiked. —from Mary Bell's Complete Dehydrator Cookbook.

Reference Books

The food dryer's bible is Mary Bell's Complete Dehydrator Cookbook (William Morrow, 1994). The Lightweight Gourmet: Drying and Cooking Food for the Outdoor Life by Alan Kesselheim (Ragged Mountain Press, 1994), is full of recipes, menu planning tips, and even build-your-own dehydrator designs.

Most books on backcountry cookery have sections on food dehydration; see, for example, Good Food for Camp & Trail by Dorcas S. Miller (Pruett, 1993); Camper's Companion by Rick Greenspan and Hal Kahn (Foghorn Press, 1993), and The Well-Fed Backpacker by June Fleming (Vintage Books, 1985).


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