Before I took to small-boat cruising in 1980, I did a lot of backpacking and was acutely aware of the weight of everything I had to carry. The longer I planned to stay out on the trail, the more food I needed to pack and the lighter it had to be. Ready-made backpacking meals in the ’70s were expensive and not very interesting, which is putting it mildly for TVP (textured vegetable protein), then a popular camp staple.
Fortunately, I could instead carry real food, thanks to the dehydrator my mother used to preserve some of the fruit and vegetables we grew in our backyard garden. For backpacking, I dried a lot of fruit, especially bananas, and my mother’s black-bean soup, which instantly came back to life with a bit of hot water.
For cruising, the boat takes the load off my back, so I’m not concerned about the weight of the food I carry aboard, but there are many soft foods such as tomatoes, bananas, and strawberries, that don’t travel well even when packed in rigid containers to protect them. Those containers take up a lot of space, even when they’re empty, while resealable plastic bags filled with dehydrated food require minimal space and take up progressively less room as the contents are consumed.
To dry foods that are largely liquid—soups, salsa, and pasta sauce—spread them on a sheet of parchment baking paper placed on the dehydrator’s racks. Metal cans and glass jars can be left at home and the dried contents consumed over the course of several days without requiring refrigeration. For the sake of the environment, use compostable unbleached parchment paper. The paper can be used repeatedly, so one roll will last for a long time. It doesn’t transfer flavors from one drying to the next, so you don’t need to keep track of what each sheet was used for.
Parchment paper works for rice and quinoa, too. When those grains have been cooked and dehydrated at home, they require shorter cooking times and use less camp stove fuel when reconstituted during a cruise. To rehydrate rice, for example, bring 1 cup of water to a boil, add 2/3 cup dehydrated rice, turn the stove off, and let the pot sit, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes while the rice absorbs the water. You can turn the stove on for a short while before eating to heat the rice to your preference.
Some foods can be quite sticky and difficult to remove from the dehydrator’s trays. Watermelon, which becomes a delicious taffy-like candy when dehydrated, adheres to steel racks. A stiff-bristled fingernail brush (never used for fingernails) can push food off from the back side of the rack. Parchment paper can slow the drying a bit, but it makes it easier to remove sticky food.
Dehydrators can also be used for meat—whether beef, chicken or fish—but in the form of jerky. I haven’t yet explored that possibility. There are many books devoted to dehydrating, with instructions and recipes for making different kinds of jerky and drying foods of all kinds.
There are many makes and models of food dehydrators on the market with prices starting as low as $35. The less expensive ones are made of plastic, with many using BPA-free materials for the food trays. I prefer a stainless-steel type for durability and to minimize my use of plastics. The Cosori 267 I bought has a digital control panel for setting the temperature from 95 to 165 degrees F, and the time up to 48 hours. It has an automatic shut-off to prevent the unit from overheating.
A bonus to dehydrating foods during the cooler months: the dehydrator produces heat, and rather than let that go to waste, I keep it in my study rather than in the kitchen. When I’m at work at my desk, the dehydrator can take the chill off the room, and I don’t need to use a space heater. The only sound is the rush of air moving through the unit, a pleasant whisper of white noise that is not at all distracting.
Dehydrating food will add some time to your preparations for a cruise, but it’s well worth the effort. Some foods, like black-bean soup, are every bit as good when reconstituted and others, like watermelon, are transformed and intensified by dehydrating. And you can save food that might otherwise go to waste languishing in the kitchen.
Drying food has a long history, and the possibilities are virtually endless. Turning banana bread into biscotti was a delightful discovery; I’ll do that often, whether I take the biscotti cruising or enjoy it at home.
Christopher Cunningham is the editor of Small Boats Monthly.
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