Whether they admit it or not, food is the highlight of camping for many adventurers. Unless you are the epitome of a hard-core bushwhacker, you probably aren’t foraging for wild berries or trapping hares. Rather, most campers and hikers choose to bring in their own source of pre-packaged sustenance. Of course, the primary limitation when discussing survival food is weight. Anything you bring with you must be accounted for because when it comes to loading a backpack, ounces can make a difference.
If your goal is to remove weight without compromising calories or nutrition, removing moisture is the best route. There are two primary methods to reduce the weight of food: freeze drying vs dehydrating. Although they achieve the same result, they are very different processes. Both methods have their place in your camping arsenal but knowing the difference between freeze dried and dehydrated food can be extremely helpful in deciding what to bring. So, what is the difference between freeze drying and dehydrating? Here’s what you need to know.
Dehydrating – How does it work?
As you may expect, the process for dehydrating food is fairly self-explanatory. Using a combination of air circulation and gentle heating, the moisture is slowly driven away from the food. This is far from a new process. Some estimates suggest that humans have been purposefully using dehydration in food for over 10,000 years. These early dehydrators weren’t done for camping or weight savings. Rather, the purpose was preservation.
This is another key benefit to freeze dried and dehydrated foods. When moisture and oxygen are eliminated, the ability for food to rot is greatly diminished. Dehydrated food is typically self-stable, or at least prone to lasting much longer in unrefrigerated conditions.
What does it taste like?
Obviously, if the resulting food is inedible, all of the weight savings and preservation techniques in the world mean very little. So, what is dehydrated food like? It depends a lot on what is being dehydrated. Some foods, like beef jerky, can remain relatively succulent and chewy. Other items like fruits or vegetables might be crispy or hard.
The preparation method also makes a significant difference. Some foods are designed to be rehydrated before consumption, whereas some are meant to be enjoyed in their dried state. The variety of dehydrated camping meals is quite impressive. There are soup mixes, mashed potatoes, chilis, and many more meal options. There is certainly no shortage of options. In these situations, you simply add warm water for an easy to tote but satisfying meal.
Freeze drying, how is it different?
Is freeze dried the same as dehydrated? Not exactly. When considering freeze dried vs dehydrated food, the differences may not be immediately obvious. Compared to dehydrating, freeze-drying is a relatively new phenomenon. Unlike dehydrating, freeze-drying is not a process that many home cooks can tackle.
Although it is relatively modern, there is still a history behind the process. Freeze-drying was originally invented during the Second World War to preserve blood. The process was later adapted for food. The terms are somewhat confusing because freeze-drying is actually a different dehydration method. Thus, the term “dehydrated freeze dried food” is actually an apt description.
To freeze dry an item, the food is placed in a vacuum chamber where all air is removed. Then, the food is frozen before being slowly thawed. This pressure differential in the atmosphere causes the moisture in the food to evaporate as a gas, resulting in a different type of moisture-ridded food.
What does it taste like?
When comparing freeze dried food vs dehydrated food, freeze dried products are more likely to have a crumbly texture. Astronaut ice cream is an example that many people have experienced. An almost sponge-like quality is not uncommon. Although this does not sound necessarily pleasant, there are many surprisingly pleasant freeze-dried meals, especially if they are allowed to be rehydrated.
Freeze Dried vs Dehydrated
Because the processes are relatively similar, it may be tempting to think of them as equal. However, there are important distinctions that can make a big difference in your camping preparation. Let’s look at each factor separately.
How much moisture is left?
As we’ve discussed, the main goal of both processes is to remove moisture, which ultimately preserves the food and increases its portability. So, how much moisture is left? Dehydration lacks the ability to directly impact the interior of the food. Because of this, dehydrated food typically retains about 5-10% of its natural moisture content. For home-made dehydrating efforts, this may be closer to 15%.
The freeze drying process is more efficient. Freeze-dried food often has a near 1-2% of its original moisture content. This not only makes the food lighter, but it makes it more shelf-stable.
How long will it last?
Moisture content has a significant impact on how long a food item can be preserved. Home-made dehydrated foods may have a shelf life of only a year or two. When considering the more efficient processes used by commercial dehydrating, a 12-18 year shelf life is fairly common.
Although this may seem like a long time, it is nothing compared to freeze-drying. Because of the extremely low moisture of freeze dried food, it is common for freeze dried food to have a shelf life of 30 years or more. That said, this increase in time doesn’t necessarily mean the freeze dried option is “better.” Unless you are planning a camping trip for the year 2052, the difference is often moot. For prepping situations, the difference may be more meaningful.
Is it still good for you?
When comparing the difference in freeze dried food vs dehydrated items, there are subtle differences. The structure of the food is generally not altered, so the fiber and mineral content is not impacted in either process. However, the vitamin content may be. Freeze-drying is a more gentle process that has less impact on the nutritional value of the food. Studies have shown that freeze dried foods retain almost all vitamins, while dehydration can be prone to breaking down some key nutrients.
What do they cost?
Camping or survival prep can quickly become an expensive undertaking. Thus, it is worthwhile to always consider the economics of each option. Freeze-drying is a more complex process that requires significantly more equipment. This makes freeze-dried food more expensive. Thus, when looking at freeze dried vs dehydrated options, dehydrating may be the more practical option if weight savings and longer shelf life aren’t a top priority.
As with so many survival considerations, there is not a single “right” answer. Choosing whether to purchase freeze dried or dehydrated food does not need to be a set answer, because each option has distinct advantages and downsides. To this end, freeze dry vs dehydrated food is a situation where each option complements the other.
When trying to choose freeze dried vs dehydrated food, the best choice is to experiment. You may find that you love certain foods in one form but not another. Trying new foods and techniques is a fun pastime unto itself, so don’t be afraid to experiment with both. Ultimately, when it comes to camping food, there is rarely a bad option.