In survival and preparedness, there’s a lot of confusion around freeze-dried food. What is it, what it’s not, why you should care, can you make freeze dry food at home, etc.
That’s why today I’m going to clear the air. I’m going to share with you everything I know about freeze dried food, specifically:
- What Is Freeze Drying
- Freeze Dry Vs. Dehydrate
- Freeze Dried Foods Vs. MRE’s
- 7 Reasons Why You Should Get Freeze Dried Food
- The Story Behind Pre-Packaged Freeze Dried Food
- Can You Freeze Dry At Home?
- Best And Worst Foods To Freeze Dry
- How To Rehydrate Freeze Dried Food
WHAT IS FREEZE DRYING?
Freeze drying food is a food preservation method using the science of low-temperature dehydration.
This process results in a lightweight, shelf-stable and decay-resistant food product.
But freeze drying is only possible by using a tightly controlled series of temperature and vacuum settings. And this can only take place in a sealed chamber that takes advantage of sublimation.
Sublimation is the process where ice changes directly from a solid to a gas. Skipping over the liquid state entirely.
Once the ice is in its gas form, the freeze dryer extracts it from the chamber and away from the food.
We can break the entire process down into three simple steps:
- Step 1: Freeze the food
- Step 2: Decrease air pressure
- Step 3: Slowly warm the food to allow ice to sublimate, removing water vapor
By repeating this process several times it will gradually reduce the water locked within the food.
In the end, the food retains its original appearance, taste, and smell – but with a fraction of the moisture and weight. Resulting in a dehydrated food – with nearly zero moisture.
Here’s a quick 40-second video that gives you an overview of how to freeze dry food:
FREEZE DRY VS. DEHYDRATE
Now, let’s address the differences between freeze drying and other dehydration methods.
All conventional home dehydration methods depend on warm, dry air moving over food. As opposed to the cold temperatures of freeze drying.
Nearly all outdoor and home goods stores, carry all-in-one countertop dehydrators.
These consist of a stackable series of open trays and a combination fan/heater. This fan circulates warm air past the food, gradually extracting moisture.
Solar dehydrators (sometimes called Solar Ovens) also use gentle heat to remove moisture from food.
In a hot climate, this can be as simple as open trays in the sun. In colder climates, an enclosed warm space (i.e., greenhouse) works best.
Regardless of the temperature, the addition of air circulation speeds up the dehydrating process.
Smoked meats and fish are a traditional way to dehydrate and preserve a seasonal catch.
Smoke takes advantage of the dry heat and smoke produced from a fire. The natural chemicals in the smoke, act to dry out the surface layers of the food and prevent spoilage.
Depending on how dry the end product is (and how well it’s packaged), smoked meats can have a very long shelf life.
Most of these non-freeze drying techniques use similar temperature ranges (100-150 deg). And they’re all easy to do at home (you can even use the oven, with the door cracked).
And they provide decent results, especially with sturdy vegetables and fruits. I’ve also eaten at least my own bodyweight in venison jerky prepared this way over the years.
Unfortunately, they do an unsavory job with liquid foods such as soups.
They are also not a suitable method for delicate foods like berries because they lose their structure with heating.
FREEZE DRIED FOODS Vs. MRE’s
Often people get confused between freeze-dried foods and MRE’s. Why? Because they are both considered “survival” or “prepper” foods.
People buy them and stockpile them for a future emergency but they are not the same thing.
The easiest way to explain the difference between MRE’s and freeze-dried meals is MRE’s require no rehydration. MRE (meal ready to eat) is ready to consume immediately after opening.
With freeze dried meals you must add boiling water to the dried food to rehydrate it. This requires a portable stove and fuel.
With MRE’s, the main entree often includes a chemical heating pad. The allows you to quickly warm up the food without a separate stove.
MRE’s also come with extra items included such as gum, a spoon, candy bar, matches, tabasco sauce, crackers, etc.
However, this extreme reduction in moisture and no extras, has some significant benefits, especially for survival.
First, it significantly extends the shelf life of the food. With nearly no moisture, freeze-dried food can sit on the shelf for 25 or even 30 years (as long as it remains in a cool dry environment).
However, with MRE’s you’re lucky if they last a decade.
Also, freeze dried food weighs much less than MRE’s on a calorie by calorie basis. So if you plan to carry food in a pack, you can carry more frozen dried calories vs MRE’s.
So in my opinion, the only reason to choose MRE’s over freeze-dried meals is if you know preparation will not be possible. This can be the case in battle zones.
In my experience, MRE’s tend to be more expensive as well.
So weighing all the pros and cons, I prefer investing in freeze dried meals over MRE’s for my survival and preparedness needs.
7 REASON WHY YOU SHOULD CHOOSE FREEZE DRIED FOOD
1. It Tastes Better!
Canning and dehydrating can both be great options, but they also can leave a bland end product. Freeze dried food tastes FRESH!
2. It Looks Better!
Look, and taste are not the same thing. Adults have learned this through experience. Sometimes food may look gross but taste amazing. Or the other way around…
But it’s easier to get a kid to eat a strawberry that “looks” like a strawberry, instead of a sad dried nugget.
3. Better Nutrition!
The nutrients in fresh foods are often damaged or lost in preservation. Luckily, freeze drying retains nearly all the nutrients and no added preservatives!
4. Less Food Waste!
You can freeze-dry small portions – even leftovers from meals you didn’t finish.
5. Amazing Shelf Life!
Freeze dried food can last decades with proper packaging. That’s compared to months for freezing and a couple of years for canning.
6. Lightweight Storage!
You can store freeze-dried food in regular cabinet shelves. You don’t need heavy reinforced steel can storage racks for mason jars and #10 cans.
Plus, freeze-dried food meals travel exceptionally well in your survival pack or bug out bag.
7. Easy Preparation!
With freeze-drying, you don’t have to add anything extra to your food before processing.
For example; I’ve seen an entire lasagna freeze-dried directly in a pan!
THE STORY BEHIND PRE-PACKAGED FREEZE DRIED FOOD
The easiest way to get into freeze-dried food is to buy some online. Nowadays the selection of commercially-made pre-packaged freeze dried meals is incredible.
There are lots of companies providing a vast menu of options, so there are flavors to suit everyone.
But not all freeze-dried food companies are equal. Some are reputable and provide an excellent product and customer service experience. While others are “fly-by-night” operations, who are good at marketing but not much else.
These quality brands have delicious menu offerings, with lots of time-tested favorites:
- Valley Food Storage
- Legacy Food Storage
- Mountain House
Choosing The Right Meals
As for which meals to choose, there are a few things to look out for:
Taste is, of course, a huge factor in which meals you’ll want to select.
Sure, after a long day on the trail or post-emergency, it easy to wolf down just about anything. But eating a tasty meal makes life a little easier. This is especially true if you’re eating a meal during times of emergency or chaos.
So my advice is to stick mostly with meals your confident you’ll enjoy. For example, if you love lasagna or beef stroganoff, get several of those meals with your order.
But also, try to add in a few new options as well. You’ll never know unless you give it a try. The “safest” way to do this is to buy as small a quantity of the new meals as possible.
So if you have a choice between a 4 serving package or a 2 serving meal, go with the smaller one. Then if you love it, you can always buy more next time.
Serving size and ingredients help determine how many calories a meal can provide. If a package claims to be 2 servings, be sure to see how large those servings are before purchasing.
Just be sure you order enough calories to replace what you’re preparing for… Whether it’s a backpacking trip or for a dire national emergency, you don’t want to run out of calories…
Going hungry – even for a short duration is not an enjoyable experience. Not to mention the horrors of starvation…
One of the common gripes with many freeze-dried meals is the high sodium content.
While your body does lose salt during exertion, the amount of salt in many meals is quite high. Higher than necessary for typical replacement.
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about the sodium level in most of these meals. You can’t remove it. But it’s worth noting which ones are lower if you’re concerned about the extra salt intake.
Unfortunately, pre-packaged freeze dried meals aren’t cheap.
If you’re planning for a long excursion or an extended emergency backup, the price can add up fast.
Some manufacturers (i.e., Mountain House and Valley Food Storage) have bulk packages. These deals can help to keep the cost down a bit.
But these deals generally come with pre-determined menus. So you don’t have a lot of options if you don’t like the selection.
They also often include stand-alone vegetable sides. These can sometimes be disappointing in both taste and texture. But they offer balanced, often with a better nutritional profile than ala carte meals.
Also, some vendors offer a small discount if you buy a given item by the case (generally 6-10 packages per case).
As we discussed before, freeze drying removes a considerable amount of the weight from a meal. But they can still take up a lot of space – especially if air remains in the packages.
That’s why some manufacturers take the extra step to vacuum-pack after freeze drying. This can significantly reduce the package size.
Depending on your situation and how tight you are on space, this can be a game changer.
Most commercially available pre-packaged meals come with detailed cooking instructions. This usually includes precisely how much water to add and how long to let them rehydrate before eating.
This may seem like a small detail. But an extra quart of water, or overcooking, can make a delicious meal not taste it’s best.
Plus, at the end of the day, it’s nice to have fewer things to remember when you’re hungry and tired – just read and follow.
CAN YOU FREEZE DRY AT HOME?
Yes, you can.
But if it were easy to do, everyone would be freeze drying the produce from their gardens each autumn. And there would be cookbooks targeting the best freeze dryer meals.
So what’s the problem? It’s expensive and/or complicated.
Commercial manufacturers can afford massive, efficient, high-quality freeze-dry chambers. Most of the freeze driers targeted to home users are small and expensive home appliances.
How About Without A Vacuum Chamber?
Sure, there are some sites out there which claim to show how to freeze dry food at home without a vacuum chamber. I’ve read enough to know their methods are really just allowing things to get “freezer burned.”
They all discuss leaving food exposed in the freezer on wire racks for days or weeks. And while this does extract some moisture from foods, it’s also prone to a lot of problems.
Dense foods will never completely dehydrate this way. Delicate items will suffer texture and consistency changes and won’t rehydrate properly later.
Have you ever eaten meat that’s been severely freezer burned? If so, chances are it wasn’t that great…odds are it was straight up terrible.
Now, I hope you agree, drying without a vacuum chamber is not really freeze-drying. So what about building your own freeze dryer?
Well, it’s complicated.
If you’re not into advanced DIY projects, you can forget about it. However, if you feel like you have the skills and you’re up for a challenge – here’s a detailed DIY freeze dryer video for your enjoyment:
All this to say – yes, it IS possible to freeze dry food at home.
However, it usually involves either buying an expensive unit or building a complicated drying chamber. Either way, this is NOT simple or inexpensive.
The popular Harvest Right brand starts around $2,000 for a freeze dryer about the size of a small toaster oven.
Prices rise exponentially with the larger models.
I can place a large bulk order of commercially produced freeze-dried meals for $2000!
So unless you’re planning to start your own small freeze dried food operation, it’s hard to justify. The capital it takes to DIY freeze dry food with a vacuum chamber is cost prohibitive.
With that said, if you plan to freeze dry a ton of food and want ultimate control, it may be a price you’re willing to pay.
BEST FOODS TO FREEZE DRY
If you DO decide to try freeze drying your own foods, remember, not all foods are created equal. It’s always best to start with fresh foods.
Use fresh fruits and vegetables. Stick with fresh herbs and spices – fresh mushrooms and fresh meats (either cooked or raw).
Also, try freezing liquids such as coffee, soup, stew. And even whole meals (seriously, try lasagna!) or bread & pasta.
There are some things to avoid as well, such as high-fat foods. Also, avoid freeze drying watery fruits like watermelon or cucumber.
Leafy vegetables also produce poor results like lettuce and spinach. As well as high sugar foods such as jam, and jellies.
HOW TO REHYDRATE FREEZE DRIED FOOD
While freeze-drying can take as long as 24-48 hours to remove all the moisture, you can prepare a meal in mere minutes!
For most foods, you simply soak them in hot or boiling water for a few minutes before draining them. That’s it.
If you need to heat them further, a few minutes in the microwave should do the trick.
If you’ve dehydrated something more delicate, like bread or pasta, it’s often best to gently steam them. That way they keep their shape and texture.
On the trail, I like to rehydrate meals in an insulated mug with a close-fitting lid. By the time I have a second pot of hot water ready for coffee, my whole dinner is ready to eat!
Rehydration is fast, easy, and convenient, so nothing to worry about.
Freeze drying isn’t as simple as dehydrating or as quick as canning. That’s why I like to think of it more as a valuable complement to your overall food preservation plans.
Whether you buy freeze-dried meals or invest in a home freeze dryer, the results are the same. Excellent prepper food at the ready you can store for the long term.
Lightweight, shelf-stable, easy to use and tasty, freeze-dried food is a winner!