"Freeze-dried food... you mean like ramen?” is the question I'm often met with when I tell friends, family, and strangers that I make ready to eat dried meals and snacks. Who wouldn't want an instant, healthy meal by just adding water?? To me, freeze-drying single ingredients or whole meals is simply a different form of bulk food prepping. I've been bulk prepping meals for years; as a busy professional with way too many hobbies, I often don't have the time to prepare a unique dinner each night, and instead I make one to two massive dinners on Sunday night that will last me the entire week. So instead of getting home and either frantically trying to make food as my stomach screams in protest or giving in to immediate gratification and sacrificing healthy for convenience by ordering another Uber eats takeout, I can instead portion out a single serving, pop into the microwave or heat on the stovetop, and then have a meal ready to eat in five minutes or less.
Freeze-drying allows me to have shelf stable ingredients on hand at all times, resulting in more variety when I meal prep each week and allowing me to take full advantage of sales at the grocery store. 25lbs of carrot on sale? Yes please! Buy one get one for mushroom cartons? Oh yeah portabellas, come home with me! Normally, I'd pass on sales like this as unless you're a bunny (or my dog, who thinks carrots are orange bones!) it's not enjoyable to power eat that many carrots before they start going bad. Freeze-drying all these carrots, on the other hand, allows me to store these fresh carrots in my pantry for years without sacrificing freshness or nutrition content! Yes. You read that right. Years.
So when people ask me, “Oh, it's like ramen”, I usually reply with “well, yes... but also no.”
Let's look at that in more detail.
First, let's examine what people really mean when they are making likening freeze-dried food to ramen. Over the past few months, I've formed a picture of what the ramen comparison represents. People invoke ramen in the same manner as people invoke words like “Windex”, “Ziploc”, and “Kleenex”. If you tell someone to buy more Ziploc bags, in reality you are saying buy more plastic bags that reseal with a zipper. Unless you have strong brand loyalty, you don't truly mean buy Ziploc brand and don't you dare come back with some other bag - you're referring to the product category and not the specific brand of product. Same with Windex and Kleenex. Aha moment! In reality, ramen is really referring to ready to go, add hot water soups. This is exactly like dried meals!!!
But wait... that covers only half of my response.
Next, let's examine what pre-existing conceptions exist around “ready to eat”, “just add water” meals. I'll cover all of these reasons and how they don't apply to my freeze-dried meals in subsequent, dedicated blogs. For now, I'm going to cover these reasons in bite size chunks.
Salt!! Preservatives!! MSG!!
Yeah... This is the biggie as it's the most obvious one because food spoils rather quickly, yet many of the ready to eat meals have best by and expiration dates that are years in the future. Scan the ingredients list of many shelf stable products and you'll quickly find ridiculously high sodium levels or unpronounceable additives. BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are two common antioxidant additives for food preservation. Sulfites and sulfur dioxide, nitrates, nitrites, and sorbic acid are common antimicrobial additives. Now, don't get me wrong, I am not 100% against preservatives as we would not have the global supply chain today without it, and I very much like being able to eat blueberries and strawberries in the middle of winter. Nor do I want to see a resurgence of botulism. However, I DO support the use of natural preservatives and natural preservation processes when possible. Freeze-drying food is a natural preservation process because this process removes moisture. With proper storage practices that reduce or eliminate oxygen, moisture, micro organisms and pests or by utilizing modern appliances such as vacuum sealers, oxygen absorbers, or your freezer, food can be safely preserved without any chemical additives. This is a BIG differentiator between ramen and Bushka meals and snacks.
Not real food, not healthy, low in nutrition
I'm not going to go into too much detail here on this one. There's a general attitude here that not all “fast food” is “real food”, especially when it comes to meat. I don't have any facts to support that there's fake food amongst us, but I can't deny that the attitude exists. Fresh produce is expensive, so it's sometimes hard to reconcile the absurdly cheap prices to what the fresh counterpart costs. All ingredients in my meals and snacks are “real” food.
Each carrot piece comes from a carrot that I peeled, diced, blanched, and dried. Each fruit leather comes from fresh strawberries, apples, and other favorites that were hand selected, washed, pureed, and again dried. No funny business. Just food.
Doesn't taste that great / all taste the same
I hate buying meals that don't have much flavor or that taste nearly identical to a very different meal. I find this happens a lot with backpacking food, and this was one of the biggest motivators for switching from commercially prepared meals to making my own camping food which led me to starting Bushka's Kitchen. I don't understand what sorcery some companies apply that can make beef stew taste pretty darn similar to chili to pretty darn similar to fajitas. I attribute this to lack of seasoning variation (c'mon guys, not every meal needs cumin!) and using unripe produce to meet the supply and demand of large retailers. Drying fruits and vegetables at the peak of ripeness results in a deeper, richer flavor. Producing small batch meals means I can select fruits and vegetables that are perfectly ripe and freeze-dry them at this peak period to get the best possible flavor. Quality going into the dryer directly correlates to quality coming out of the dryer in the finished product.
“Second” hunger pain
We've all been here. You dropped 10 bucks on lunch and within 2 hours you're starving again. Now, not only are you hungry again, you're also 10 bucks down and need to go shell out some more cash. Why does this happen?
Outside has a great article on the different food types for different activity and exertion levels. The concepts are pretty translatable to everyday life too.
It's important to know what foods will be quickly absorbed by your body, leaving you hungry rather than satisfied for the long haul. It's also important to make sure you consume food high in fiber if you're eating a meal rather than a snack. By having shelf stable ingredients, you can mix and match vegetables and fruit to increase or decrease certain aspects of a meal's nutrition profile. So I know when I'm going backpacking, I'm going to use different ingredients vs the snacks that I keep in the pantry. Freeze-drying gives me that flexibility.
So yeah, dried food is kinda like ramen, but it's kinda not like ramen too. Stocking your pantry with freeze-dried meals affords you a wider variety of food than you would normally have in the fridge. Mixing and matching your ingredients also facilitates producing highly nutritious, very delicious, uber filling meals without spending all day in the kitchen. Personally, I LOVE incorporating freeze-dried ingredients into my meal prep. And maybe one of these days I will make ramen from “freeze-dried" scratch! Win win, right?
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For many, food is the largest source of anxiety when planning a long-distance backpacking trip. Read our resupply guide for more information on successfully planning your food for the PCT.