I will never forget the first freeze dried meal I ate while on the trail more than a few years ago, it convinced me to head out, buy a dehydrator and begin packaging my own foods.
Yes, I know the quality of freeze dried products have improved over the years and that some people swear by them. But for me, I cannot justify spending the huge amount of cash it would take to support me on a five or six day backpacking or canoe trip. And more to the point, I like the foods I prepare much better than anything I have found in the stores.
On my solo canoe trip, I added a few things to the menu that I have not tried before, dried hamburger and shrimp. I know people have been dehydrating hamburger for a very long time, but for some reason it has always given me a bit of the creeps. Maybe it has something to do with all the stories I wrote as a reporter about contaminated hamburger. The fact is if you write enough of those stories and do as much research as I have regarding public health issues, it gets into a part of your brain and it is hard to shake.
But shake it I did and I wish I had done so a long time ago because drying hamburger is easy, safe and offers a huge number of options when it comes to meals on the trail. The same goes for shrimp which pick up a concentrated flavor that really perks up a campfire meal.
One of the points to drying foods such as hamburger is that of course to preserve it and in doing so it becomes much lighter. My last batch of ground beef went from 1-pound raw down to a cooked and dried weight of 4-ounces.
It is important to understand that it is the fats in meats that can go rancid and this is what you have to try and eliminate. So the mantra when drying hamburger is to get as lean a mix as possible and then remove as much of the fat as you can when cooking.
The last batch I dried was ground sirloin, which was listed as having a blend of 90 percent beef and 10 percent fat. This worked very well and dried up perfectly.
Step one is to cook the ground beef, breaking it up into smaller pieces as you go. I slowly fry mine on medium to medium low heat stirring it almost constantly. If there is an excess of fat being rendered off, I remove it as the beef cooks, but if the mix is lean, as the ground sirloin was, should not be a problem. If there is any concern that there is too much fat left there is a simple way to remove it. Add water to the pan and let the meat simmer for a few minutes and then drain the cooked meat in a colander. This process will remove a considerable amount of fat and guarantee that the meat is cooked through.
Once the meat is cooked and I am satisfied I have removed enough of the fat, I pour it onto a paper towel lined platter where it will cool and if there is any fat left, it will be absorbed.
Now all that is left is to place it on the dehydrator trays making sure to spread it out to allow good air circulation. Dry the meat at the setting suggested by the manufacturer of the dehydrator, in the case of my American Harvester dehydrator, the setting is 160 f. The length of time it will take to dry, which can range from four to 15 hours, depends upon the type of dehydrator, the humidity in the room where the dehydrator is located and the ambient temperature.
When the meat is dry, it will be incredibly hard and many have given dried hamburger the nick name of “gravel”, which fits perfectly. There should be no soft pieces at all, if there are let it continue drying.
I pack my dried hamburger zipper closed bags and store it in the freezer, where it will remain fresh until I need it. This is the only way I store any dried meat for the long term, never on an open shelf. For use on the trail, I have small heavy plastic bags that will hold one meals worth of dried hamburger. I fill the bags, press out as much air as possible, roll down the top and then tape it shut with clear packing tape.
I use the meat in meals such as beef stroganoff using a store bought noodle package or in homemade spaghetti sauce I also dry. In meals other than the spaghetti sauce, I put the hamburger in a pot with water, bringing it to a simmer, letting it cook for a bit before adding all the other ingredients. With the spaghetti sauce, I can add the water needed to rehydrate the tomato sauce leather and then toss in the hamburger, letting it cook for a while.
As I said above I also have been drying shrimp, which is easier than the hamburger as there is nothing to cook. Using cooked, frozen cocktail shrimp, I thaw them under cool running water for five minutes, pat the shrimp dry and then toss them into the dehydrator. Of course if the shrimp have the tails on, they must be removed, but last time my wife bought me a bag of the small salad shrimp and all I had to do was thaw and dry them.
I rehydrate shrimp by placing them in a pot with water to cover and let them sit, the longer the better. My son tried out the last batch I made with an alfredo broccoli pasta mix and he really liked it . The shrimp end up with a concentrated flavor that is very good.
By drying these items I can save a bit of money, create a wide variety of meals without a lot of additives and I have the satisfaction of knowing that I truly made the meal I am eating from start to finish.
For more information on dehydrating foods, one of the best sites I have found with authoritative information is the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Here you will find instructions on how to dry vegetables, fruit leathers and more. Another good place is at any of the dehydrator manufacture’s websites. Often times there are instruction manuals that can be downloaded showing how to dry foods. The NESCO website, maker of the American Harvester dehydrator I use has a great “How To” section that offers instructions on drying everything from crafts to cooked meat and tomatoes. It is a great resource and honestly the dehydrators they make are easy to use and very reliable.
Stay up-to-date when new stories are published by clicking the subscribe button!