Alimentary, My Dear
Dry It On! Wringing the Water Out of Your Favorite Foods
By Tamia Nelson
December 18, 2007
Provisioning for paddling trips is always a tug-of-war between your stomach and your back, but it doesn't pay to skimp on meals. You're the engine in your boat, after all, and paddling is hard work. You have to put fuel in your tank if you want to keep going. Unless you're trying to lose weight and a backcountry trip is no place to start a crash diet you'll probably need to eat a thousand extra calories a day. Or more. And that adds up to a lot of food. This isn't a problem on typical day trips or weekend adventures, obviously. Most tandem canoes have room for an extra cooler or a sack of canned goods. But what about solo paddlers in skinny boats, or groups on long expeditions? In either case, bulk and weight loom large.
What's the solution? Easy. Get the water out! After all, it doesn't make sense to lug water around in your food pack when you're floating in the stuff, does it? Of course, it's not hard to find exceptions to this rule. If the water under your keel is salt water, or if it's polluted with chemical toxins, you've got no choice. You'll have to carry all your water with you. But freshwater boaters in places where the water's still fit to drink with appropriate disinfection, that is are in luck. Dried and dehydrated foods make it possible to eat well for less. (OK. Less weight and bulk, anyway. We'll come to cost in a minute.) Even paddlers who hate to cook will find a wide range of boxed and bagged meals on the shelves of their local HyperMart, some of which require little more preparation than heating water to a boil. On the other hand, maybe you're one of the many canoeists and kayakers who don't mind spending time hovering over a stove. Then you'll have even more to choose from. Low-water-content staples like pasta and rice are just the point of departure for ambitious backcountry chefs, who can ring the changes with dried vegetables, fruits, and meats.
In short, the range of possibilities is enormous, but there's one snag: finding individual dried ingredients isn't always easy. HyperMarts cater to home cooks looking for quick and easy meals, not to paddling gourmets. And while outfitters, ethnic markets, and food co-ops often provide a wider selection of dried and dehydrated foods than HyperMarts, these specialty items don't come cheap. What's the bottom line? Do you have to choose between cost and convenience? No! There's a third way. If the combination of unlimited choice, high quality, and back-to-basics economy sounds as good to you as it does to me, you may want to
Dry It Yourself
Drying is one of the oldest methods of food preservation, but it's something of a lost art today. The fussiness factor is one reason, as is the widespread belief that you need a specialized dehydrator. But don't give up yet. Drying food is no fussier than everyday cooking, and the only tool you'll need to get started is your kitchen oven. So what's stopping you? You can test the waters by air-drying fresh herbs. I routinely dry sage and thyme by tying them up in small bundles and then hanging them in a shaded corner of my kitchen, out of the way of steaming pots and kettles. This is home-drying at its simplest. Be warned, however: you can't be in a hurry. It takes days to get the water out. Still, your patience will be rewarded in the end. And there's more good news to come. In arid climates it's almost as easy to dry vegetables as it is to dry herbs. You can even make your own sun-dried tomatoes. Now for the bad news. Those of us who live in more humid regions will need to give nature a little boost. Luckily, this isn't difficult. Although purpose-built dehydrators are both efficient and economical particularly if you'll be drying food in quantity you can do a lot with just an oven and a cookie sheet.
And that's how I got started, spurred on by letters from readers who'd been drying food for camp and trail for many years and liking it. I decided to begin with sweet bell peppers, both red and green, as well as onions, mushrooms, and tomatoes. Each of these is an essential ingredient in one or more of our favorite meals, including a pasta sauce with Italian seasoning, quesadillas, a hearty rice and vegetable dish with peanut sauce, and stove-top pizza. The results? They were just as our readers had predicted tasty and easy to prepare.
What about you? Are you keen to dry it for yourself? Then here's how:
First things first
Drying meat isn't for beginners. Stick to fruits and vegetables until you've got the hang of it. Cleanliness is important, too, as is the quality of your ingredients. So keep your work space spotless and select ripe (but still firm) vegetables. Then slice them thin. And be patient. Oven-drying food takes time anywhere from hours to more than a day. It can't be hurried. Raising the oven temperature in an attempt to speed things along just cooks your food without drying it. The moisture is then sealed inside.
For my part, I began by picking firm, ripe plum tomatoes and red and green bell peppers with no blemishes or soft spots. A firm onion with a tight skin came next, followed by a handful of plump button mushrooms with tight caps. I washed the tomatoes, peppers, and mushrooms in fresh water, then wiped off the excess moisture with a soft, clean towel. (Not all cooks agree that washing mushrooms is a good idea, but I persist.) Once that chore was done, I quartered the peppers, tomatoes, and onion, slicing them lengthwise and cutting out the seeds and white membranes from the peppers. I also scooped the seeds from the tomatoes with a spoon. (These went into a tomato sauce I was preparing for supper.) Now I cut the quartered peppers and onion into one-eighth-inch-thick slices. I did the same with the whole mushrooms, and finished off by slicing each quarter-section of plum tomato in half again, making a total of eight slices per tomato.
With the sectioning and slicing behind me, I was ready to lay my vegetables out for drying. In order to elevate the sliced veggies and facilitate air circulation, I put a wire roasting rack on a cookie sheet. Then I carefully placed each slice on the rack so as not to overlap its neighbors. Finally, I positioned the cookie sheet in the center of the oven, turned the thermostat to the lowest setting, and closed the oven door. (I used an electric oven. Owners of old-style gas stoves may find that the pilot light alone provides all the heat they need.) From time to time over the next few hours, I checked the temperature with an oven thermometer it remained between 100 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit and eyeballed my veggies to be sure that things were going well.
They were. The vegetables weren't all ready at the same time, however. The mushrooms were the first to give up their water. I took them out of the oven after just six hours. The peppers and onions were next. They were ready in 12 hours. But the tomatoes needed an entire day. How did I know when each was done? By eye alone. It's easy. Take a look at the photo above. Each dried vegetable is paired with its fresh counterpart. There's no doubt about which is which, is there?
I knew you'd agree! As the sliced vegetables dried, I removed them from the oven and let them cool completely, then packed them in a tightly sealed plastic bag from which I'd expelled all the air. So far, so good. The final proof would only come in the eating, though. So I used my home-dried veggies to garnish a stove-top pizza with excellent results. Of course, when you cook with dried vegetables, you have to put back the water you removed. This is easy if you're adding them to a pot of soup or a brothy stew. Just add extra water. In the case of my pizza, however, I rehydrated the vegetables in a cup of boiling water left over from making tea. I covered the cup and let the veggies "take up" while I busied myself assembling the other components of the meal. Once my preparations were done, I drank off the excess fluid the cook's prerogative! put the rehydrated toppings in place, and baked the pizza on the stove. Delicious!
With this success behind me, I was emboldened to
Dry It Again
And I did. I dried apple and banana slices, cabbage and zucchini, and potatoes. Each required a slightly different approach, but the principles remained the same. Thinner slices make for faster drying, but you can overdo it. If you cut things too fine the slices will turn to dust in your pack. One-eighth of an inch is about right for most fruits and vegetables, though cherry and grape tomatoes can just be halved (and the seeds left in place). Fruits like apples and pears should be cored, and you'll want to remove the pits from peaches and plums, as well. Whether you peel your fruit and veg before drying depends largely on taste. If you normally eat the peel, leave it on. If not, take it off. Experiment. Keep notes. Before long, you'll have a pantry full of home-dried fruits and vegetables. To get the most out of your new larder, however, keep dried foods in a cool, dark, dry place, in air-tight bags or jars, and be sure to rotate your stock. First in, first out is the best rule.
Have I convinced you to dry it on? I hope so. Home-dried foods can add welcome variety to your camp menus, and they're a great way to reduce the weight and bulk of your food pack. They're not perfect, however. Some vitamins notably A and C are destroyed by even the low heat of oven-drying. If you'll be paddling for months at a time and living largely on dried foods, a daily multi-vitamin might be a good idea. Ask your doctor. And one more thing: Are you planning to dry food in quantity? Then oven-drying probably isn't for you. As I noted earlier, purpose-built dehydrators offer real advantages in both convenience and efficiency. I think I see one in my future. How about you?
People have been drying food for a long time, and you don't have to buy a fancy dehydrator to get started. Your kitchen oven and a cookie sheet are all you need. Oven-drying fruits and vegetables takes a little work, to be sure, and you'll have to be patient but so what? Good things are worth waiting for. You want tasty, satisfying meals to be more than a memory once you leave the put-in behind, right? Of course you do! Then just dry it on with your favorite foods. Choice, quality, and economy how can you go wrong?
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