Now that I’ve decided to bring a stove with me on my trek, I’m excited about trying this crazy new invention called “dehydrated food” (OK, it’s not new, but I’m always late to the party). The basic concept is that much of the weight in the food we eat is from the water content, so removing water lightens the food. Also, bacteria, yeasts, and molds need water to grow, so dehydrating prevents them from flourishing. Both factors make dehydrated foods a great option for someone – that has a stove, at least – hiking the A.T., in theory.
I say “in theory” because I’d never actually had a dehydrated meal in my life, as I mentioned the other day. So I contacted Mountain House to see if the company might provide me some samples to try. Mountain House dehydrated meals are sold pretty much anywhere from REI to Sports Authority to Walmart.
The company supplied me with a list of about two dozen “wheat free” foods but was highly concerned that none of their foods are certified “gluten free.” I assured them that, for me, it is not an issue. I’m gluten intolerant and can generally tolerate foods as long as they do not have gluten-containing ingredients (wheat, oats, etc.). To be very clear, if you have Celiacs or may have a sensitivity that is more extreme than mine, Mountain House products ARE NOT gluten free. If you are gluten intolerant and are interested in the list of “wheat free” products, leave me a comment.
Mountain House graciously sent me the following seven foods to try:
– White Bean and Chicken Chili
– Buffalo Chicken
– Chicken Fajita
– Chicken Salad
– Potatoes and Cheese with Broccoli
– Neapolitan Ice Cream Bar
– Scrambled Eggs with Bacon
When the samples arrived, I was taken with how light they were (each entree weighing about 4oz), especially considering what each package professed to contain. And the expiration date – good until 2019 – was more reminiscent of a Twinkie than produce and meats. Each one contained an oxygen absorber packet (to be removed before preparing) that helped increase the shelf life, but I gather that the dehydration process is the main cause of long shelf life. I also noted that the packaging was sturdy and convenient; not only does the bag reseal (like a ziploc) for pouring in water and cooking directly within, but also it stands up on its own once filled with water.
Onto the actual meals…
potatoes and cheese with broccoli – I decided to start with this one to ease myself into the world of dehydrated meals since I used to eat re-hydrated mashed potatoes as a kid. I removed the oxygen absorber, added two cups of boiling water, stirred thoroughly as directed, and zipped the packaging. After waiting 15 minutes, I sampled the fare. The texture was like a thick chowder or maybe applesauce, which is my favorite. My coworker tried it and concluded, “They’re thick enough that the potatoes didn’t drip/fall off the spoon.” Obviously, if you’re into thicker potatoes, you might just want to add less water.
The taste was really creamy and rich, and the strong flavors of broccoli and cheese came through. As far as quantity, this was a lot of food, especially for lunch, which isn’t that big of a meal for me (at least with my current desk job).
FYI. calories 500. fat 12g. sodium 37%. carbs 77g. protein 23g.
neapolitan ice cream – Well, I couldn’t just skip dessert when sampling my first ever dehydrated meal, could I? I used to love “astronaut” ice cream as a kid. Every time my family would visit the Smithsonian museums, I’d always get it at the Air and Space Museum gift shop. This was exactly the same, except I think I forgot how amazing it tastes. Chocolate was the strongest flavor and really sweet. Vanilla definitely had a potent vanilla flavor. Strawberry was more subtle.
The texture was somewhere between a meringue and styrofoam, which doesn’t sound complimentary, but just means it was much easier to suck on and let it melt in your mouth as opposed to biting it. It’s crazy how ice creamy it tasted and how similar the mouth-feel was when melting despite being solid. And the aftertaste was that of ice cream too. I know the wrapper says, “Made from real ice cream,” but it was still exciting.
FYI. calories 120. fat 6g. sodium 2%. carbs 15g. protein 2g.
chicken salad – Right off the bat, I was shocked by how much protein is in one bag (72g). The meal contained a ton of chicken, but it was not in recognizable chunks. Instead, it was textured with fine bits of chicken, as in finer than ground meat. Strangely, the texture was similar to the potatoes, which I didn’t mind (again, favorite texture). If you’re more into a chunky chicken salad, I would imagine less water would help somewhat, but it wouldn’t really get you solid chunks of meat.
Onion powder and chives came through strongly in the flavor. And the meal was full of pumpkin seeds and halves of cranberries, which added a welcome crunch and sweet/sour bursts of flavor.
This dish was marketed as a wrap filling, but I ate it on its own with a spoon. It would probably also hold up well on a rice cake.
FYI. calories 520. fat 20g. sodium 48%. carbs 16g. protein 72g.
chicken and white bean chili – I opened this one up and saw actual, recognizable beans, peppers, and chicken. Once rehydrated, the beans really had the texture of beans, not like styrofoam at all. And the chicken, which was shredded, had a fibrous texture of real chicken. I guess this baffled me because I had this preconceived notion of dehydrated food being like Tofurky, which – 10 years after having tried it – still makes me shutter.
The chili had an awesome medium spicy flavor too….chili powder, peppers, tomatillos, onion powder, garlic powder…a great mix. I even managed to get my coworker to try it (the woman is super picky with food and is extremely careful with consuming sodium, not to mention that she was weirded out by the “dehydrated” thing). To all of our surprise (even her own), she conceded that she liked it (“It actually tastes like chili.”).
FYI. calories 375. fat 6.5g. sodium 27%. carbs 48g. protein 32g.
chicken fajita filling – I opened up the package to see real chunks of chicken, sliced (red and green) peppers, and diced onions. It came with a seasoning pouch too. Once rehydrated, it was amazing how the chicken, peppers, and black beans “came to life.”
I definitely had to drain off the excess water (it was substantial), but it was convenient because I zipped the bag mostly and turned it like a spout so that no food fell out. I added the seasoning packet and mixed. It had a subtle smoky flavor, and the peppers definitely appeared char-grilled. The flavor was mildly spicy (less so than the chili but it still registered as “fire roasted,” as labeled on the package). I could definitely see preparing this with tortillas for dinner and nobody being the wiser that it was dehydrated.
It’s really baffling that Mountain House can effectively create rehydratable food with such substantial pieces of chicken…really tender too.
FYI. calories 320. fat 4g. sodium 42%. carbs 18g. protein 15g.
buffalo style chicken – This was my least favorite entree sampled. It tasted like buffalo chicken, which is not really my preferred flavor. In addition, when I think of buffalo chicken, I think of wings, so the flavor in combination with the mushy/watery texture didn’t suit. And, for the record, the second ingredient was hot sauce: it had an immediate kick! After a minute, a buttery flavor hit the palate in the background, but there was still an intense spiciness.
Harping back on the texture, the directions for preparation called for 1.5 cups of water, which I found to be way too much. It leaves the concoction really watery. As another entree marketed as a wrap filling, it could probably use like ½ cup less water to serve that purpose.
Overall, the buffalo chicken entree is just chicken and hot sauce with no other substantive ingredients. I seriously didn’t want to continue eating it, but I was too stubborn to throw it away. Instead, I offered it to my coworker. He liked the “cheesy” (buttery?) flavor, and after a few bites, zipped the bag and put it in the fridge for the following day’s lunch.
FYI. calories 390. fat 15g. sodium 41%. carbs 3g. protein 62g.
scrambled eggs with bacon – OK, I’ll start off this one by saying I went into it skeptical. I’m a huge fan of eggs. I’ve eaten eggs for breakfast (almost) every day for years. With the exception of raw, I pretty much like them prepared any which way. Also, I love bacon – crispy, crunchy, greasy. However, the idea of combining the two didn’t really sound right. And bringing bacon back to life with water…well, it didn’t seem like it would be crispy, crunchy, greasy.
After draining off the water (plenty of excess), I took a bite. With that first bite, the texture was spot on – dry scrambled eggs (as opposed runny, which some people may prefer). But (and for me this is a big “but”) it had a smoky bacon flavor, but I didn’t see bacon. Ugh, big ugh. I thought, “OK, not the best flavor for eggs, but I can eat these.” After a couple more small mouthfuls, I changed my mind. I zipped the bag and put the rest in the fridge for a coworker to eat as leftovers.
When I gave the meal to my coworker, I had one last bite just to make sure I wasn’t crazy. And, funny enough, they were better as cold leftovers (tasted more eggy) and (duh!) all the bits of bacon were at the bottom. I guess it just required that I mix the meal more thoroughly. Scrambled eggs with bacon: redeemed.
FYI. calories 315. fat 20g. sodium 45%. carbs 12g. protein 25g.
For the most part, I was extremely impressed with Mountain House’s offerings. I’m still mulling over how in the world anyone could take the moisture out of a meal and put it back while maintaining an appealing taste and texture, especially something as complicated as meat and veggies.
As far as the healthy factor, most of the meals I tried have about 40% of one’s daily quotient of sodium (with the exception of the low sodium chili). If you are someone with high blood pressure or otherwise watch your sodium intake, you should be aware. However, I personally have (really) low blood pressure to the point that sometimes I feel indescribably “weird” and know I need to consume more salt. Especially given how much I’ll be sweating out (in particular as the weather warms), I’m glad for the substantial amount of sodium in the meals.
I will also point out that most of the meals contain dairy in the form of butter, sour cream, or otherwise. I’m lactose intolerant but not to the point of avoiding dairy altogether. I just have to make sure I always have lactaid pills on hand. With each meal, I took them and didn’t experience any problems.
Other than that, the only noteworthy observation is that many of the meals have ingredients I cannot pronounce (like “disodium inosinate and guanylate”). In my “normal” life, I try to stick to foods with only whole ingredients. That being said, I recognize that demanding a meal to taste fresh after sitting dehydrated in a bag for months may require some ingenuity and preservatives.
As far as pricing goes, I’m sure it varies in retail stores, but this is what I found on the Mountain House website:
– chicken and white bean chili $8.69
– potatoes and cheddar with broccoli $4.99
– scrambled eggs with bacon $5.39
– chicken salad $7.09
– buffalo chicken (couldn’t find it on website)
– chicken fajita filling $7.09
– neapolitan ice cream $2.49
What can I say? I know dehydrating my own food could be less expensive and full of my own “whole” ingredients, but I know myself: I’m not going to do it. Instead, I prefer the convenience of Mountain House’s tasty pre-packaged meals, and I’m willing to pay someone else to do all the prep work for me.
Luckily for me, I should be able to find Mountain House in trails towns all along the way.
**UPDATE: Mountain House was generous enough to provide me three each of the two wheat-free entrees I hadn’t tried for my review: scrambled eggs with ham and peppers as well as Mexican style chicken with rice. (Revised 3/4/2013)