Sunday, November 20, 2011

Dehydrating Potato Soup!

Nutrition is important to me.  Hiking through mainly small towns on a 5 month Pacific Crest Trail hike will require some nutritional trade-offs, but I plan on swinging the pendulum at least a little bit in my favor by pre-planning some nutritional meals and then dehydrating them, prepackaging them and shipping them to myself in several stops along my hike.  See my PCT Itinerary for my planned stops and shipping locations along the PCT.

I have never dehydrated anything in my life - so this will be interesting!  First off, I purchased a dehydrator at the local Bed Bath and Beyond.  There are basically two models offered, so to do my part to kick-start this economy via consumer spending, I went with the higher priced model; the Nesco American Harvest Snackmaster Encore Dehydrator and Jerky Maker.  For $60, it was a reasonable price for what is going to be a valuable piece of off-trail gear.

My resource for this foray into dehydrating is a book I found at the local public library called Backpacker Gourmet: Good hot grub you can make at home, dehydrate, and pack for quick, easy, and healthy eating on the trail.  (I also have learned of a resource online called One Pan Wonders that I intend to explore for additional recipes).

The first thing I dehydrated was bananna chips.  Simple - just slice bannanas about 1/4 inch thick and place on oiled trays for about 5 hours.  They came out reasonably well and I at them all, but next time I would add another hour or so.  I like my chips crunchy instead of leathery.

Next up:  Potato Soup Parmesan.  Here's where it gets interesting!  Another investment for making good soup, pasta and casserole dishes is a decent size soup pot or dutch oven.  With that on hand, I began cooking the soup.  The ingredients are basic:  baking potatoes, onions, chicken or beef stock, TVP (textured vegetable protein), evaporated milk, salt, pepper and parmesan cheese.  TVP is the only ingredient I am not familiar with.  A quick trip to the bulk foods market and I found TVP in a large bin sold by weight.  It reminds me of grape-nuts cereal.  According to Wikipedia, TVP is made from "defatted soy flour, a by-product of extracting soybean oil."  They say it has a protein content equal to that of meat.  We'll have to see how it tastes!

While the soup is cooking, the dehydrator trays are prepared with plastic wrap (be sure to use plastic wrap made with 100% polyethylene).  The soup is then spooned evenly over the trays one at a time.  I won't say what the chunky soup reminded me of but let's just say that it tastes better than it looks!  Now, just turn on the dehydrator to 145 degrees and dehydrate for approximately 6-7 hours.  One key that I've learned about dehydrating soups, or anything really, is that you need to monitor your food every couple of hours.

Once the soup is dry and can be handled (it begins to look like 3-day old Red Baron cheese pizza), you need to peel off the plastic wrap and break it into chunks so that the dry air can circulate and reach all parts of the food.  Eventually, the dried food will be hard enough that you can break it into even smaller pieces.  The larger chunks of food need to be broken down into smaller pieces periodically to aid in even drying, focusing on the moist chunks of food so that it all dries evenly.  The food is done when it is somewhat crunchy or brittle and when it is not moist to the touch.

 A final step that I have found helps in the rehydration process is to blend your food into almost a powder-like consistency.  This will help when you rehydrate as the water can be absorbed much more quickly.  After all, you are getting the same nutrition weather your soup is chunky or liquid, and it takes considerably more time and thus more fuel to rehydrate large chunks rather than small chunks of food on the trail.

After all this work, I have four neat serving size zip-lock bags of Potato Soup Parmesan ready to rehydrate on the trail.  The Backpacker Gourmet book recommends that you can store these dried meals in your refrigerator for up to two years, or in your freezer for up to three years.  They also recommend storing them in black plastic bags to protect from light.  The weight of each serving is approximately 4.5 oz's, or 125 grams.  So, for a little over 2 pounds, I could have enough dinners to last me 8 days on the trail!

I will continue to experiment with recipes and post a list of my favorites as the weeks and month roll-on toward my start-date in late April.  If you have read this far and have any suggestions, please leave a comment.  I would love to hear other hiker's experiences dehydrating food and especially their experience re-hydrating that food on the trail.  Did the food rehydrate quickly?  Was it tasty enough to eat for weeks at a time, or did you ditch all your well-planned meals in the hiker boxes and just trail mix and oatmeal because what tasted ok in your kitchen suddenly tasted like garbage on the trail?

Thanks and see you on the trail!



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PCT Northern Terminus

PCT Northern Terminus
On September 30, 2012 I reached the Northern Terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail. Thanks to everybody who supported and followed my journey. It was a life-changing experience!