Tales from the Dehydrator: No.1 Chilli

It may seem odd to plunge straight in and attempt a whole meal rather than just drying out some fruit or whatnot, but there are good reasons for doing so. Firstly Chilli is the one meal I’ve found is consistently good across all brands of commerically dehydrated backpacking food I’ve tried. The dry product breaks up well which in turn aids its reconstitution, and the flavour’s not too shabby either. Maybe there’s a reason this one works well ? Secondly, this is the meal I save for the last night of a trip: it’s a sort of treat I leave dangling out there as a metaphorical carrot. All things considered it’s my favourite dehydrated meal. It seemed a natural choice to be the first full meal I attempted.

A few days before I got my dehydrator, I made a chilli, ate some (nom nom) and portioned a bit up to go into the freezer. This left me with a residue of about half a portion and I decided to give it a go. I spread the chilli out on a sheet of baking parchment on a baking tray, and put it in the oven on the lowest temperature number (50C, but my oven seems to run slightly warmer than the actual number on the dial). The door was left open to aid air circulation. 4 hours later I had a pretty dry looking product that looked done, so I fished it out and bagged it up in a freezer bag. I then casually discarded it at the back of the worktop for a few days.

Three or four days later, I made it up one lunchtime. I’d started with 210g of chilli and it had dehydrated to 60g, so I put it in a saucepan with 150ml of water (1ml of water weighing 1g as we all remember from school science). I left it to reconstitute a few minutes and then heated it up. I ended up with something that tasted exactly like the original meal, but was a bit runnier than I’d started out with. This would probably be ok if I was eating it with rice – it never hurts to have a bit more liquid on your rice to help it down.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures of the first attempt. You’ll just have to take my word for it that it worked with two caveats:

  • Firstly, the reading I’ve done since suggests that you need a minimum temperature of 155F (68C) for meat products for dehydrating to be safe. Clearly I survived the initial exercise, but it makes sense to follow the recommendation for future attempts.
  • Secondly, it’s become clear that I probably didn’t dry the chilli for long enough – certainly when I compare the results to what transpires below.

Certainly it worked well enough for me to take the plunge and invest in a proper dehydrator (it’s an Andrew James one off Amazon, cost about £40 + delivery), and while I was at it I got a vacuum sealer too.

The machine arrived and after running it for a few hours to let the smell of new plastic dissipate, it was ready to go in earnest. So I embarked on the experiment again, this time properly…

Recipe

  • 500g Lean Steak Mince (5% fat)
  • A couple of onions, peeled and roughly chopped (I like my chilli quite oniony) – about 225g once chopped
  • A 400g tin of chopped tomatoes
  • A 400g tin of red kidney beans in water (240g once drained)
  • 1 packet of Colmans Hot Chiil Con Carne mix (yeah ok, I cheated)
  • A bit of extra chilli powder as I like it even hotter, say about 5g
  • 125ml of beef stock

If you fancy using kidney beans in chilli sauce, as I have done when I’ve inadvertently bought the wrong ones, then omit the water in the stock and simply crumble the stock cube into the pan at the appropriate juncture.

Method

Brown the mince in a pan, along with the chopped onion. If you’re careful you can do this without adding any fat first. Remove from heat and pour off the excess fat, as fat is the enemy of dehydration.

Bung in the Colmans mix, along with any extra chilli and herbs required. I sometimes put a bit of mixed herbs in if I feel like it. Add stock, mix and stir. Return to heat.

Add tomatoes and drained kidney beans. Stir.

Bring to boil and simmer for 30 minutes (minimum). The longer you simmer it for, the better the flavour and the more water is driven out saving time when dehydrating. I typically simmer my chilli for about an hour.

When ready, lay sheets of dehydrator liner, or baking parchment in your dehydrator (or do the baking paper on baking sheet in the oven thing). Spread one portion per sheet making sure it is spread as thinly as possible to aid the dehydration process. In this experiment I went with about 400g of cooked product per portion. That’s on the large side, but it’s good for a trail appetite.

 

Dehydrate at 155F (70C) for 10-12 hours, flipping the partially dehydrated product over half way through (the top dries out faster than the bottom so flip it to ensure even treatment). It should have reduced significantly in volume and be brittle when ready.

Bag it up and store

4x 400g portions of Chilli, bagged in Mylar pouches of approx 100g net each.

I stuck two pouches in the freezer and two went straight in my backpacking food storage box. This was purely to see how well it kept.

Calories and Weights

chilli-dehydration-stats

The above figures are for just the chilli sauce. They don’t take into account anything lost in the cooking process so the final calories total will be a bit down on these figures. But it’s the best I can do. In this recipe I excluded rice, saving dehydrating that for a much later experiment (if ever). A pouch of this chilli will be served with a single portion pack of Uncle Ben’s Long Grain Rice which adds 130g of food (plus packaging), 183 calories and £0.83 to the total. So this meal comes out as a total of 244g, 597 kcal and £3.17. Clearly this would be a lot lower if I dehydrated the rice too, as I also wouldn’t buy the convenience rice, which would save about 70p a portion, and some weight too. Even so, this represents about a £3 saving on a commercial product. The commercial products also achieve a slightly better calories/weight ratio, but clearly at the expense of cost and that home-cooked taste.

I’ll update this post in due course with the outcome after the meals have been stored for a while and reconstituted. Assuming I survive eating them, of course….

Update

I took one of these on my recent trip to the Lakes and gave it to my friend, Cath, for dinner one night (while I had the pasta bolognese). Although prepared in a youth hostel kitchen with water boiled from a kettle, it was a reasonable test. There was no measuring jug available to gauge the amount of water exactly, so I did exactly what I do on a camp – I judged it by eye. The meal was given a thorough stir and placed in my pouch cosy for 10 minutes. The result was then tipped into a bowl to eat as we were in civilisation (in the field I’d just give it another stir and eat it from the pouch). It came out ok. The meal was accompanied by a one person pouch of Uncle Ben’s rice that just takes a minute in the microwave. In the field, I’d boil the water, stand the rice in it for a couple of minutes then pour the water into the meal pouch and stir. I’d put both pouches in my pouch cosy (I cunningly made it big enough for two). I’d then tip the rice into the chilli to eat.

I tried a spoonful of Cath’s meal, and it tasted fine. She reported that it was just how she likes it in terms of spice level. The fact that her comment focused on that suggests that the meal was a success in dehydration and reconstitution terms. Certainly, in the reconstitution process I got none of the issues with crispy bits that you sometimes get with commercial meals. All in all a success. But I knew this one would be, because of my tiny test at the outset and the fact that chilli always seems to be the most consistently successful one of the commercial meals.

 

5 thoughts on “Tales from the Dehydrator: No.1 Chilli

  1. I’ve been toying with the idea of dehydrating my own food to take camping for a while now. Reading this has convinced me to give it a try. I may well invest in a dehydrator on pay day. The problem I have is being vegetarian and the limited dried foods available in the shops and online. This should solve my problem. An enlightening read. Thank you!

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  2. I love a good spreadsheet. Particularly for consumables and yours is very informative.

    The great thing about dehydrating your own is that you can get what you want which, in my case, is low salt.

    On the other hand, fat is good for a backpacker at this time of year. Do you add any after the meal has been cooked?

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    • No, I tend to get my fat other ways, and if truth be told I’m carrying a bit of spare anyway. Ideally one would want the fattiest recipe possible, but fat inhibits the dehydration and risks the food spoiling sooner. So you’re left with adding it when you eat. I tend to eat what I want when backpacking and take advantage of fryups when I pass suitable places, so I don’t worry too much about these things. Oh that and eating a shed load of chocolate.

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      • Some backpackers carry a bottle of olive oil to add to their cooked carbs but I struggle even to keep Dr Bronners soap in its container so haven’t risked olive oil yet. Luckily, I love a good Cheddar. And nuts travel well.

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