How to Make Dehydrated Ground Beef That Actually Tastes Good
We travel without refrigeration, so having meats and fresh foods isn't really an option this time of year. We have a small cooler which, in the winter, allows us to keep staples such as butter, eggs, veges, cheese, even meat sometimes, for several days without using ice packs or getting it all water-logged with ice. Now that it's warmer, if we start out with some frozen items, a day is about all we can count on. We could get a really good cooler and have 4 or 5 days of fresh stuff. We're often out longer than that, however, so then we'd be lugging around a useless cooler, or we'd have to constantly buy ice and try to keep food from getting soaked. The best, and of course the most expensive, way to go is to invest in a refrigerator (good ones are about $800) and power sources to keep it going. If we continue this lifestyle, that's eventually the way we'll go.
Even though we haven't gone backpacking for a few months, our diet is kind of similar to when we backpack in that we rely on dried foods. We use a combination of foods I dry and purchased freeze dried foods. Car camping allows us to add some canned goods into the mix. Last summer we stocked up on many items from Honeyville, my favorite of which was powdered butter! Freeze dried cheese has also been a welcome addition to many meals or as a stand alone snack. The freeze drying process (about which I admittedly know little) is better for foods with higher fat content. While it is possible to dehydrate butter and other high fat foods, it is not a good idea if you need them to last more than a week or two or want them to actually taste good. Drying lean meats does work, however. The key to doing it successfully is to remove as much fat as possible. This is makes me sad, though, because fat=flavor.
Dried ground beef is often referred to as gravel because it does not re-hydrate well, so it's chewy and, well, it looks like gravel. They key, it turns out, is bread crumbs! This is a tip I picked up from Backpacking Chef Glen. I've gotten several good tips from him and his book Recipes for Adventure.
For every 1 1/4 lbs of beef, I incorporate about 1/3 C plain bread crumbs (you can do store bought or homemade) and some seasonings prior to cooking. I like to season in layers, so I add some before drying and then more when cooking at camp. Then cook the beef at medium heat so it doesn't get too brown, continually breaking it up with a spatula into the smallest pieces you can. Drain it with a strainer and/or paper towels to remove as much fat as possible. While some may recommend rinsing it, I don't like to do that, because I think it washes away the flavor.
It takes about 6 hours to dry at 145 degrees. About 3-4 hours in, I swap out the Paraflexx sheets in order to wipe of the bit of oil that's accumulated. (You may have noticed the photo above on the right shows some green food - this is not meat. I usually have extra frozen veges around and when I'm dehydrating and have extra trays, I will use them to dry more veges. Frozen veges are great for dehydrating because they are usually already cut into small and uniformly sized pieces, so you can just open the bag and spread them onto a tray!)
I generally do about 1 1/4 lbs of beef per tray and vacuum seal it when it's cool. Each package is good for two to three meals and I use it within a few days of opening the sealed package. I do also include an oxygen absorber with all my dried foods.
Voila! Dried beef for the back country! I do allow plenty of time to re-hydrate it (at least 15 minutes, preferable longer, and using hot water). The texture is super close to that of fresh ground beef. Depending on temperatures, it should last a few months. I have some that is older and haven't had any go bad so far.