Dehydrating meals for meal prep, snacks, tenting, and cyclones

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When you’re planning a camping trip or preparing your emergency gear for the big weather season (like cyclones in the Northern Territory), dehydration can be key to preventing canned food fatigue.

A cyclone kit should last you 72 hours and is useful when you want to go on some of Australia’s best hikes, which can be days or weeks.

Instant noodles, canned beans, and tuna bought in panic may have lost their novelty by the third morning.

Enter the age old art of dehydration.

Dehydrated food is a common staple in the pantry. Perhaps you’ve chewed dried mangoes or bananas in the market, or eaten a shelf full of dried herbs and spices at home, or a packet of soup with dried vegetables.

It’s also an efficient and easy way to save family meals for a rainy (or windy) day, a camping trip, or a lazy night.

Chef and chemical engineer Minoli De Silva isn’t afraid to dehydrate curries, risottos, spaghetti bolognese and pasta.

“In general, once you’ve gotten rid of the moisture, eating should be months, maybe years, depending on how well you can dehydrate it,” she told ABC Radio Darwin.

“But if you just want it to survive the cyclone season, easy.”

Food that is dehydrating can concentrate the flavors.ABC Everyday: Matt Garrow)

Light and dry

Minoli uses a stackable dehydrator that uses a heating element and fan to dry food and remove moisture.

To restore dehydrated food to its former glory, cover the food with water and reheat it.

The first time Minoli tried dehydration was while she was preparing for a five-day camping trip with friends.

“I didn’t want to carry heavy food,” she said.

“You can make a thick sauce, put it on a layer like a baking sheet, put it in a dehydrator and come back the next morning and just put it in a sealable plastic bag.”

“When I did that, I thought, ‘I should do this for the days when I’m actually lazy in the kitchen’.”
A household dehydrator uses an electric fan and heat to remove moisture from food. (ABC Everyday: Matt Garrow)

I feed the future

Dehydration is also a leftover savior.

“I put some dal in yesterday because I didn’t want to throw it away,” says Minoli.

She said there is no need to change cooking methods other than trying to reduce the liquid a little more than usual, mainly to avoid a mess in the dehydrator.

“I generally put parchment paper on when I make something liquid like sauce,” she says.

“I actually put yogurt in a dehydrator and it dries out really well.

“I take a spoon and spread it out and you want it to be pretty thin because the thinner it is, the faster it will dehydrate.

“You can leave it overnight and come back tomorrow morning.”

Set, but don’t forget

Minoli says a convection oven does the same job.

“Test it out. Maybe set it to about 50 degrees [Celsius]. That’s fine for most things in general, “she says.

Food can take some time to dry out. Food can take anywhere from two and a half to 16 hours to dehydrate, depending on its moisture content.

Cathy Moir, a research microbiologist, says that once the moisture is safely removed, food should be kept indefinitely.

“Once it’s dehydrated it’s pretty much safe as long as you don’t add water,” she says.

“But make sure you do it quickly.

“The whole purpose of dehydration is to remove water so microbes don’t grow.”

Spacebar to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrow keys to search, up and down arrow keys to volume.listenDuration: 7 minutes 39 seconds7m Play audio.  Duration: 7 minutes 39 seconds How to Dehydrate Gourmet Meals for Camping, the Cyclone Kit, and More!Download 3.5 MB

Ms. Moir says the “two hour / four hour rule” is critical.

“Food pathogens like to grow at room temperatures between 10 and 30 degrees,” she says.

“If food hasn’t stood for two hours, put it back in the refrigerator or eat it. But longer than four hours, throw them away. “

She says there is an “element of risk” associated with meat drying out as it falls into the “potentially dangerous food” category.

“If the food gets dry between two and four hours, that’s fine,” says Ms. Moir.

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Fresh products are still ideal

Rebecca Ciaramidaro, an appliance tester with the consumer protection group Choice, who also has a degree in nutrition and groceries, has put many dehydrators through their paces.

“When in doubt, it’s always better to dry too much than too dry,” she says.

Their advice is to squeeze or tear food in search of moisture; look for droplets of moisture in a sealable bag; and make sure the containers are sterile and tightly closed.

“The presence of heat and air during dehydration can destroy certain vitamins like vitamins A and C,” she said.

“By removing the moisture … the calorie and sugar content of food is also concentrated.”

Ms. Ciaramidaro said dehydrated fruits and vegetables are snacks and should not replace fresh produce.

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