Editor’s note: After a great deal of careful consideration, we are temporarily closing our 162 retail stores nationwide. Learn more about that decision here and review FAQs regarding REI’s recent store closures. Please consult the CDC or your state health department for advice related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including information on symptoms, testing and how to protect yourself and others during social distancing. This article was originally […]
Editor’s note: After a great deal of careful consideration, we are temporarily closing our 162 retail stores nationwide. Learn more about that decision here and review FAQs regarding REI’s recent store closures. Please consult the CDC or your state health department for advice related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including information on symptoms, testing and how to protect yourself and others during social distancing.
This article was originally published on Aug. 17, 2018 and was updated on April 16, 2020. Although plastic bags are shown below, consider opting for reusable storage bags.
Whether you’re looking to preserve your food, switch up your snack game or prepare for a future backpacking trip, dehydrating your own food is easy and rewarding. The drying process slowly removes moisture while retaining nutrients and flavor. Compared to prepackaged food, it can be cheaper and lighter too, which is important for backpackers trying to conserve space and cut down on weight.
Most dehydrated food recipes require a dehydrator, though there are some items, like fruit leather, you can prep using an oven on a low setting. A mandoline slicer (used with caution) and a pressure cooker can also speed the process up but aren’t necessary to make delicious dehydrated food. If you don’t have a mandoline slicer, good knife skills will come in handy.
Dehydrators typically cost anywhere from $30 to several hundred dollars, depending on the amount of tray space and number of features.
If you’re trying to make a lot of food, it’s worth investing in a dehydrator with more surface area due to the amount of time dehydrating takes (anywhere from 5 to 14 hours). Square trays hold more than round ones with cutouts in the middle. A timer lets you leave the house without worrying about overdrying, but it isn’t an essential feature. If you’re not sure what you need, start with a less expensive model, consider buying used or borrow one from a friend. Two key features to look for are a fan for even heat distribution and multiple temperature settings to properly dry different types of food.
Nonstick sheets or parchment paper are required for drying sauces, soups and fruit leather. Some manufacturers sell specific sheets that fit their dehydrator trays.
Most food can be dehydrated at home, with the general exclusion of dairy products and high-fat items. Unlike fruit, meat and most vegetables should be cooked first before dehydrating. Once you have a variety of dried ingredients, you can assemble them into meals. Some whole meals can be prepared and then dehydrated, like soup and risotto. This minimizes prep even further and allows flavors to meld.
For efficiency, consider dehydrating a variety of foods at the same time, so long as they require the same drying temperature.
Food shrinks significantly as it loses moisture, so keep that in mind when considering how much to make. For example, a pound of apples (before slicing) yields about a cup of dehydrated apple slices. Although thinly sliced foods promote even drying, don’t cut pieces too small or they can get lost in a meal when rehydrate.
The key to extending the life of your food is preventing oxidation.
Properly stored, dried fruit can last up to five years and vegetables up to 10. If you’re going to consume nonmeat items within a year, keep them in freezer bags or reusable storage bags with the air squeezed out. For long-term preservation, vacuum-sealing with an oxygen absorber is best. Store in a cool, dark place.
Meat and seafood can be stored in freezer bags and kept in a cool, dark place if consumed within a month; otherwise vacuum-sealing and freezing is best. Meat stored properly in the freezer can last for up to a year.
Use common sense—don’t consume food that looks or smells rancid.
Fruit can be dried a few different ways: sliced or blended. Sliced fruit makes a great snack on its own, or it can be mixed into oatmeal or granola. Blended, it dries into fruit leather that you can snack on or rehydrate into pudding—particularly if the blend includes bananas, which lend a creamy consistency.
Fruit, whether sliced or blended, should be dried at 135°F until leathery and pliable.
Recipe: Cinnamon Apples
1. Quarter and core 4 small-to-medium apples (peeling is optional). Using a knife or mandoline, cut into 1/8-in. slices. Halve large pieces.
2. Place the apples in a bowl or plastic bag and add 1 tsp. of lemon juice and 1–2 tsp. of cinnamon, depending on your taste. If your apples are tart, add 1 tsp. of sugar (optional).
3. Stir well or shake bag to coat the apple slices.
4. Place on dehydrator trays and dry at 135°F for 8–12 hours until leathery and pliable.
A general rule of thumb for dehydrating vegetables: If you can normally eat them raw, you don’t need to cook them before drying. Depending on your rehydrating method, though, you might want to cook all your vegetables first. If you plan to simply add boiling water to the food instead of boiling your meal for at least a minute, steaming vegetables before drying makes them rehydrate better (see How to Rehydrate Dried Food below for more details).
To save time, opt for frozen vegetables, which don’t need to be thawed before going in your dehydrator. Canned vegetables are generally too saturated to dry well, with the exception of beets.
Pro tip: Don’t dehydrate onions—they make your whole house smell. Dried onions are relatively inexpensive, and you can often find them in the spice section of your grocery store.
Most vegetables can be dried at 125°F until dry. Some with higher moisture content, like zucchini and cucumber, can be dried at 135°F.
Example Times and Yields
Meat and seafood are a little trickier than fruits and vegetables, as they need to be heated the right amount to kill bacteria and occasionally require some help to rehydrate properly. You should only use lean meats, as fats and oils can go rancid and ruin your food. All types of meat should be dried at 145°F until hard and dry.
Meat and seafood to consider:
Recipe: Ground Beef
Choose lean or extra-lean meat only, as extra fat can lead to spoilage. Ground beef doesn’t rehydrate well on its own; however, adding bread crumbs helps it absorb enough moisture and provides seasoning. Add 1/2 cup bread crumbs for every 1 lb. of meat. This will yield 2 cups of dry ground beef.
1. Put raw ground beef in a bowl and add bread crumbs. Add salt and pepper to taste. Mix with your hands until the crumbs are evenly distributed.
2. Cook beef in a pan over medium-high heat until lightly browned and fully cooked, breaking up any large clumps.
3. Place meat on a plate with paper towels and blot away any fat and excess moisture.
4. Place nonstick sheets or parchment paper on trays to prevent losing small bits of beef. Spread the meat in a thin, even layer.
5. Dry at 145°F for about 6 hours until meat is dark and dry, blotting any fat with paper towels and breaking up clumps a few times during the drying process.
6. Break open a few pieces to make sure they are dry all the way through.
Home-cooked chicken will not rehydrate—it must be canned, or pressure cooked. White meat is better for drying, as it has a lower fat content than dark meat. In addition to adding chicken to meals, you can cold soak (add cold water to the bag) dehydrated chicken for a few hours, drain the excess liquid once it’s rehydrated, and add mayonnaise and relish packets to make chicken salad. A 12.5-oz. can will yield about 3/4 cup of dry chicken.1. Spread canned chicken evenly onto trays lined with nonstick sheets or parchment paper, breaking up any clumps. Blot away any fat.
2. Dry at 145°F for about 8 hours until dry and brittle.
Choose medium-sized shrimp—small shrimp dry too small and larger shrimp can take a long time to dry. Precooked, frozen shrimp should be thawed before drying. One lb. of shrimp yields 2 cups of dry shrimp.
Shrimp takes a longer time to rehydrate than most food, so let it presoak for a little while longer before cooking.
Rice, quinoa, pasta and beans can all be dried ahead of time and then incorporated into tasty meals like chicken and veggie quinoa, bean soup, and spaghetti with meat sauce. Dried pasta also has the added benefit of not needing to be drained once cooked, as you can add sauce and/or extra dried ingredients to soak up the excess water.
Cooking Tips: Grains, Pasta and Legumes
You can also marinate noodles in soy sauce and other seasonings after cooking, and then dehydrate them for a delicious Asian noodle salad with vegetables and shrimp. This can be cold-soaked for lunch—simply add a bit of cold water in the morning, store the bag in a leakproof spot, and by lunch your food will be ready to eat.
Some meals can be prepared to completion before being dehydrated. Dishes like stews, chili and risotto all lend themselves well to drying.
Dehydrated Meal-Prep Tips:
The same goes for sauces. Jarred or homemade tomato sauce can be spread onto nonstick sheets or parchment paper and made into tomato leather that will reconstitute with the addition of hot water.
Recipe: Tomato Sauce
1. Choose a sauce that doesn’t have large chunks of tomatoes or use a blender to puree. Avoid cheesy or creamy sauces. Spread in a thin, even layer on nonstick sheets or parchment paper.
2. Dry at 135°F for 6–8 hours, flipping at about 5 hours when you can easily peel the leather off. (This is optional to make the drying process go faster, but the sauce will dry without flipping.)
3. The leather should be pliable and not sticky. Tear into small pieces for easier reconstituting.
Now comes the fun part—putting together your meals. Get creative and try different flavor combinations.
Check out our collection of recipes for inspiration.
Dehydrated meals generally require equal parts water to food and about 15–25 minutes to reconstitute. If you have one, a pot cozy (an insulated sleeve for your pot) helps retain heat while your food soaks.
Follow these steps to cook your meal:
Backpacking pro tip: Take a small salt and pepper shaker designed for travel with you to adjust seasonings on the trail.
Recipe: Spaghetti and Meat Sauce
Recipe: Shepherd’s Pie
Layer potatoes on top of meat and vegetables, adding cheddar cheese on top.