Making your own individually packaged dry meals can be a great way to get the most out of your garden and save a few bucks in the process. Companies like Wise Foods and Legacy make delicious instant meals, but they can be costly if you have a family to feed. Making your own DIY instant meals is a good alternative, especially if you take advantage of seasonal vegetables, the backyard garden, and grocery store sales.
Dried vs Freeze Dried
Freeze drying works by a process called sublimation, which involves converting the water inside of the food from solid ice directly to a gas. Since this is carried out under a vacuum, which lowers the boiling point of water dramatically, thereâ€™s no need for heat in the freeze drying process. That means freeze dried food keeps more nutrition and flavor when compared to traditional drying. Unfortunately, it also means that freeze drying is an expensive industrial process, one which is too difficult or expensive for many home cooks.
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Traditional drying is a long process, and depending on whether your dehydrator speeds things along with a heating element in addition to a circulation fan, itâ€™s one that can affect the flavor and texture of food. Most foods taste best when theyâ€™re dried on a relatively low temperature, between 90F and 110F, until theyâ€™re dry enough that they will snap in two rather than bend.
Save Money and Make Your Own Instant Meals
In order to make drying your own food an option, it needs to make good financial sense. Fortunately, the supplies youâ€™ll need tend to be affordable and last for a long time. A basic setup can be as straightforward as a piece of screen mounted on a wooden frame, with the food youâ€™re drying sliced thin and left in the sun. The dried food can then be packed into freezer bags along with some dry rice to act as a moisture absorber and kept on the shelf for months.
There are a few things that you can do in order to extend the shelf life of your dried foods. One of the most important is proper sealing. Mylar bags work best to keep out moisture, air, and light in order to ensure that your food wonâ€™t grow mold or spoil.
Getting The Right Gear
Taking a more advanced approach can extend the shelf life of your meals, help them to taste better, and preserve the nutrient contents of your fruits, vegetables, and meat. In order to get the best results, you need to have the right equipment.
- Dehydrator Look for a dehydrator with adjustable heat levels and a circulation fan. Most people will need at least 4 trays to make the most of each drying session. Nesco makes a great entry-level dehydrator. http://www.amazon.com/Food-Dehaydrators
- Mylar Bags Mylar bags are the single best way to seal up your instant meals. You can buy the material in bulk for an affordable price online and reuse them again and again. The only drawback to mylar is that you need to use it with a quality vacuum sealer. http://www.amazon.com/Mylar-Bags
- Vacuum Sealer Seal-A-Meal makes a great low-cost vacuum sealer that work perfectly with the quart-sized mylar bags that youâ€™ll want to use. Itâ€™s reliable, uses a one-touch operation thatâ€™s completely foolproof, and works well with mylar. http://www.amazon.com/Vacuum-Sealer
- Desiccant Youâ€™ll want to use a desiccant if you plan on storing your dried meals long-term. Silica gel is nontoxic, although the best option is an oxygen absorber that does double duty by keeping your food fresh as well as dry. The mylar bags we recommended above come with a free package of these oxygen absorbers. http://www.amazon.com/Absorbers
What Can I Dry?
In short, you can dry nearly anything. Some foods arenâ€™t as straightforward as others, but there are techniques that make a surprising number of foods possible to dry. In general, try to cut your food into thin, uniform slices and donâ€™t pile them up on the tray. Some foods, like potato, beet, and carrot, dry just as well after theyâ€™ve been cooked as they do raw. Drying cooked food is one of the secrets to making instant meals.
Refried beans, hummus, greek yogurt, mashed potatoes, and other thick, pasty foods can be dried in the same way that some people make fruit leather. Spread out squares of parchment paper on your dehydrator trays and put a dollop in the center of each. Spread them out using the back of a spoon. For large batches, you can use a very low oven, although a dehydrator works much faster.
Some foods, like tomatoes, carrots, celery, and bell peppers can be powdered after theyâ€™ve been dehydrated. Dried, powdered vegetables make excellent soup and sauce bases, and can really add a lot of flavor to a recipe.
You can see, that with a little bit of creativity, itâ€™s possible to do a lot more than just make the apple and banana chips that most of us are familiar with. Although more people are familiar with canning, drying your fruits and vegetables can be an excellent way to preserve your harvest and turn bushels of fresh produce into hundreds of convenient, fast meals.
A Few Great Meal Ideas
All of these meals rehydrate in minutes with boiling water. All you need to do is empty the pre-measured mylar pouches into your canteen cup of boiling water, stir, and wait for your food to rehydrate.
- Instant Tomato Soup You can use powdered tomato to make a delicious soup base. Optional ingredients like bell pepper, spices, and powdered milk can be added to the mix. Instant tomato soup is a great campfire lunch for people with kids.
- Thai Noodles If you grow hot peppers in your garden, try making a dish of Thai-inspired instant noodles. Small pieces of dehydrated pepper, along with a beef bouillon cube, brown sugar, and beef jerky go great with rice noodles. Since the rice noodles are so thin, they donâ€™t need to be boiled in the water and will rehydrate in just a few minutes. You can build a lot of different ramen-style dishes using rice noodles and dried vegetables.
- Beef Stroganoff If you decide to try drying greek yogurt, or pick up a little buttermilk powder online, then beef stroganoff is an excellent meal. Boil water in your canteen cup along with a handful of egg noodles, then add beef jerky pieces, yogurt or buttermilk powder, and dehydrated garlic and onion powder. Get The Recipe Here
- Vegetable Rice Instant rice makes this delicious side dish incredibly easy. Dried fresh peas, green bean pieces, cooked carrot slices, and just about anything else can be added to instant boiling hot instant rice thatâ€™s been made slightly wet. In minutes youâ€™ll have the perfect accompaniment to freshly caught fish.
- Beef Stew Try this version of instant beef stew and you might never go back to canned. Slices of cooked and dried carrot and potato along with beef jerky, onion and garlic powder, spices, and a beef bouillon make an excellent instant campfire stew. This is another great recipe thatâ€™s easy to customize with whatever you have on hand, from dried peas and bell peppers to mushrooms and tomato.
Is It Worth the Work?
Considering that companies like Wise Foods and Legacy can offer high quality, affordable meals with a long shelf life, DIY dried foods might not be for everyone. If youâ€™re a gardener, or you already happen to own your own dehydrator, then making your own instant meals can be a money-saving measure.
On the other hand, if you arenâ€™t willing to put in the time, effort, and initial investment that it takes in order to get up and running, then you might find that the best option is buying an off-the-shelf meal. Pre-packaged freeze dried foods have a longer shelf life, sometimes lasting years longer than a DIY meal. They also come with the all of the research, development, and testing that major brands do in order to make sure that their meals rehydrate well and taste great.
Whether youâ€™re making your own or picking up a pouch from a major manufacturer, itâ€™s hard to beat the convenience and flavor of instant food when youâ€™re out on the trail. Rather than carrying heavy cooking gear and a cooler full of ingredients, try adding a few instant meals to your pack. With a little creativity, some affordable appliances, and a bit of trial and error, youâ€™ll be making your own long-lasting instant food straight from your backyard garden.