Every spring and summer, I find myself at U-pick farms, farmer’s markets, and even my own garden, stocking up on produce to dehydrate and vacuum seal. I’ve been doing this for years because it saves loads of money; the food is locally grown and picked in season, reducing my carbon footprint.
While dehydrating food itself significantly extends its shelf life, vacuum-sealing dehydrated food will keep its nutrition and flavor for 30 years or longer. It will ultimately depend on the type of food, how it is stored, and how much moisture is in your product.
Food dehydrators and vacuum sealers are already valuable tools in the prepper’s arsenal. Combining the two to achieve better results makes a lot of sense. You can even create and store dehydrated meals for hiking, bugging out, or other emergencies.
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6 Reasons to Vacuum Seal Your Dried Foods
It sounds like a lot of extra work for a small gain. After all, drying and dehydrating greatly extends the life of food without any additional help. But there are many benefits to vacuum sealing dehydrated food, even if you don’t let it sit for decades on end.
- Better retention of nutrients. Your foods won’t keep all of their vitamins and minerals, but they won’t lose them at the rate that other preservation methods will. Dehydrating stops the initial loss, but vacuum packing ensures they stay put.
- Better flavor for longer. The food’s flavor is also locked in. Dehydrated food keeps flavors in check because all you lose is water. Vacuum sealing doesn’t let that flavor out afterward, and foods never taste stale.
- Lightweight prepackaged snacks are ready to go. I have a stockpile of single-serve trail mix and jerky waiting if I ever need it. Whether I want to take some on a hike or if I need rations while I move the family quickly in an emergency, we won’t starve.
- Takes up less space and stores better. I’ve seen many other people vacuum pack their dried goods in mason jars, and I get it. It’s handy and easy to organize. The problem is that they take up a lot of room, and once a jar is opened, the freshness clock starts ticking. Instead, think about creating a well-organized bin system full of single-use packages.
- Keeps foods from going rancid. You know that taste. We all do. Dried foods like nuts and brown rice have healthy fatty acids that can go rancid over time. Vacuum packing these foods stops oxygen from causing rancidity.
- Use up your random leftovers. I buy fresh herbs like cilantro and parsley but only use about ¼ of the bunch each time. Now I dry the leaves and separate them into ¼ bunch bags for me to throw in with rice, soups, and casseroles. The same works for other veggies and fruits, too.
Keeping your dehydrated food flavorful and nutritious aren’t the only benefits of vacuum sealing. Vacuum sealing food also prevents moisture and air from getting in. If you’re ever caught in a situation where your basement floods or your bugout bag is dunked in the river, properly sealed food will survive.
Food that isn’t exposed to moisture and oxygen makes it resistant to airborne bacteria that cause food to spoil. It’s simple enough to dry your food to the driest levels. Still, if you are concerned about the amount of moisture left in a sealed bag, food-grade desiccant packs can help remove any leftovers.
Botulism is a real threat, and it doesn’t care about oxygen. Even just a taste of food contaminated with the poison can cause paralysis or even death. It is rare, but it’s why proper food handling is so important.
Botulism works with moisture in environments that lack oxygen. The bacteria and its spores can be killed quite easily. The toxins they create are a little more difficult to kill off, and it’s not recommended that you try, according to the CDC and the National Center for Home Food Preservation. If you see moisture inside a vacuum-sealed food pack, throw it out.
The rule of thumb is that unless you process your food as if you were canning it, you should expect that your food will contain live spores. This is why we generally store fresh food in the fridge or freezer. If it belongs in the fridge or freezer before vacuum packing, it should still go in the fridge or freezer after vacuum sealing it.
Storing Vacuum Sealed Dehydrated Foods
Exposing food to light, air, heat, and moisture will reduce the quality of your stored foods. Any one of these elements alone will slowly destroy all of those precious vitamins and minerals in your food, if not destroy it entirely. Vacuum sealing will keep out the air and moisture, but what about the other two?
Light and heat are storage placement problems. The colder and darker your storage area, the longer your food will last. Storing your food in a bin or using Mylar bags will keep light and oxygen under control, but packaging cannot control the temperature.
Keeping food at a temperature of 60F(15C) or colder is ideal. A cool basement, a fridge, and even a freezer are excellent. In my opinion, keeping your carefully packed food in a freezer or fridge is overkill and against the point of this whole exercise.
So what can you do if you don’t have a cold storage place?
Just find the coolest place you can. The shelf life of vacuum-packed dried food stored in warmer temperatures might not last 30 years. However, it will still be considerably longer than dehydrating alone.
What Dehydrated Foods Can I Vacuum Seal?
Dehydrating and Vacuum Sealing Meats
We naturally think of jerky when we think of dehydrated meats, but the list doesn’t end there. I’ve learned that dehydrating and vacuum packing meats and fish can work very well if they have a low-fat content or have the fat removed. I’ve had great luck with drying ground beef and canned chicken. Other meats to try are deli meats, ham, sausages, and canned meats.
Fruits, Vegetables, and Nuts
Just about any vegetable or fruit can be dehydrated and vacuum packed. Exceptions are high-fat foods like avocados because they don’t dehydrate at all.
Some fruits and vegetables require a little extra work before they can go through dehydration, like blanching or a citric acid dip, so take care there.
Most nuts shouldn’t be put in a dehydrator as the combination of heat and air can cause rancidity. Skip the dehydrator and head straight to the vacuum sealer.
Vacuum Sealing Pantry Items
This one is a no-brainer to me, just because I already do it, but isn’t the most conventional. I always buy things in bulk that I don’t use often but need to have on hand. Take popcorn as an example. I buy a big bottle of it at Costco, and that bottle lasts me 5 years. But the popcorn itself doesn’t last that long. By the end of the second year after opening, its kernels pop up very small and aren’t as flavorful.
Vacuum packing pantry items into smaller packages means that they will remain fresh forever. Sticking with the popcorn example, I vacuum-pack a half cup per bag because I know that’s how much I make each time. Other items I store a month’s supply in each pack.
Dried goods to consider stockpiling way include flour, cornmeal, rice, baking ingredients, or even pasta.
Making Your Own Dehydrated Vacuum Packed Meals
This is an area I’m looking forward to exploring, mostly because I like to cook and I like to eat, and when that happens, I’ll be posting my findings. So far, I have learned that some foods just don’t dehydrate well enough to work for backpacking, but many definitely do.
There are two methods for this type of cooking with your dehydrator. Some meals work better when you cook them in advance and dehydrate them after, like chilis and stews. Other meals turn out best if all ingredients are dehydrated separately and combined in their final package, like rice dishes and noodles.
Remember that there are many different types of prepackaged boxed meals on grocery store shelves that could be replicated. Adding products like powdered eggs and dehydrated dairy products, a real meal whiz could create and pack their own macaroni and cheese or boxed scalloped potatoes.
Chef Glenn over at BackPackingChef.com has a wealth of recipes, instructions, and insights into dehydrating and creating backpacker meals.