The Vacuum Freeze Driers are Coming

Food preservation has always been important. Early methods of salting, preserving through the use of fats, pickling, drying and later canning and freezing have been modified throughout the years. Vacuum sealing and packing frozen foods became the Gold Standard, and has enhanced the quality of food storage, especially for fish and meats.

Now, we are on the edge of a new method: vacuum freeze-drying. After rehydration, fruits, vegetables and meats are almost impossible to distinguish from those in your refrigerator. They can be used cooked or uncooked and they have an amazing shelf life, and without refrigeration for up to two decades or more. Currently, these units are expensive. However, when you consider the cost of catching fish—the boat, motor, trolling motor, tackle, licenses, insurance or the cost of bringing home that deer, etc.—this superior method of preservation seems reasonable.

Smaller machines with two cookie-sheet-sized trays cost about $2,000, while the larger ones with four trays can run over $4,000. There is also the cost of Mylar bags, with most at 50 in a package for $20. These can be sealed with an iron or special tool. Mason jars can also be used with or without vacuuming or oxygen absorbers (about a quarter each) for long-term storage of up to 25 years. For use within a year or two, products can be shelf-stored in jars or sealed plastic bags.

When looking at units, be sure you are pricing and comparing vacuum freeze driers, not dehydrators, which are often referred to as freeze driers. I have a couple of small dehydrators and they are great for drying apples, tomatoes, peppers and even beef jerky, but they are “driers,” not “vacuum freeze driers.” Although dried fruits and veggies will last on the shelf for months or more, they are vastly different from ones that are vacuum freeze dried, which when properly packaged, can last up to 25 years.

Foods must be dried on flat trays that are rather shallow. All foods not less than a few inches thick will have to be sliced. Foods that are not liquid or those with heavy aromas like garlic, onion or jalapeño, can be freeze dried together so you can mix small batches of foods together. You can put slices of turkey, slabs of dressing, mashed potatoes topped with gravy and a dollop of cranberry sauce in a tray. In fact, you can probably process two or even three complete dinners, stow them in bags and have a great pre-cooked turkey dinner on the Fourth of July prepped months ahead.

However, some foods like bread, cake, or cookies need to rehydrate very slowly and may require three hours or more in the refrigerator in a sealed plastic bag with a moist paper towel to return them to their original texture.

This is the food preservation process of the future. Not only is it extraordinarily long term, but almost spoilage proof. For the fisherman, it is ideal for fillets or steaks. Saved this way, these rehydrate and taste as fresh as they day they were caught.

There is no way to vacuum freeze-dry a whole venison roast at home, but thick slices can be processed, tied together and baked with just a bit of braising liquid for great flavor. Rabbit and squirrel can be cut just like chicken, and then these are there to enjoy next summer or even years from now. I have not tried any of the game or fish sausages or smoked salmon, but I would think this method would be extremely good, especially for smoked meats.

For backpackers, vacuum freeze-dried meats, vegetables, fruits or even casserole favorites can be prepared, rehydrated and eaten from the bag. For boaters or RV users, whole meals can be pre-made, stowed on a shelf and with a little water added, and then rehydrated while you fish or move down the road.

Obviously, I haven’t had a unit long enough to tell you my product “kept” for two decades, but many companies that provide vacuum freeze-dried products for the government, camping and backpacking firms have been using this method for at least that long without any problems reported.

The process itself is simple: Fresh or cooked food is placed in the vacuum freeze dryer and frozen to at least 40 degrees below zero. After the food is frozen, the dryer creates a vacuum around the food, which warms it slightly. Through a process called “sublimation,” the ice transitions into vapor and is drawn out of the food, which you then seal in an air-tight container. This will keep it fresh in most cases up to two decades or more.

To eat the food long after the process and sitting time, just add water, let set and the food will return to its original fresh texture, appearance, flavor and aroma. You can vacuum freeze-dry individual foods, complete meals, leftovers or keepsakes like the top of a wedding cake or a child’s first fish.

Properly packaged freeze-dried foods need no refrigeration and is often more compact than fresh foods when stored, and these weighs much less. Food saved this way is ideal for camping, backpacking or home emergency use. But for the hunter, fisherman, home gardener or anyone who enjoys fresh food out of season, this preparation and preservation of food an advancement. And, unlike that trout, smoked salmon, walleye, venison or waterfowl that can go bad in the freezer during an electrical outage, your vacuum freeze-dried bounty will stay safe on any shelf.

Rehydrating is really simple and can be done in several ways depending on the food and what you like. First of all, it can be eaten just as it is out of the package, but to return it to its “just-picked” state, foods like fruits can be submerged in a bowl of water until rehydrated, water-spritzed a time or two, or water can be added to the fruit a little at a time until plump until they look fresh. Tomato slices work best with the spritz or a little water added at a time. Fresh fruits and vegetables, e.g. apples, are best soaked or spritzed with a little lemon juice in the water. Blueberries and other whole berries are best submerged in water. Vegetables like green beans can be soaked for later use in fresh salads or taken from the container. These will have a crunch, or you can just cook them like those fresh from the vine after they’ve been taken out of the tray.

Rehydrating meat is probably the simplest of all and works for either raw or cooked pieces. You don’t have to worry about overhydrating the meats, as they absorb only the liquid they need and no more. And, they will not become soggy. Your vacuum freeze-dried meat is soaked in warm to moderate hot water until its appearance, texture and aroma is restored. When using pre-cooked meats for sandwiches, after soaking, pat the slices dry with a paper towel before putting them on bread. Meat can be flavored as it rehydrates by using broth, garlic or other flavors in the water. For sloppy joes, add all your usual ingredients to the vacuum freeze-dried meat with about 1/3 extra tomato sauce and simmer, adding more liquid if necessary.

The only things I’ve discovered with this preservation so far is that lettuce-type greens and eggs will fail to return to their original state after the wait. Vacuum freeze-dried eggs must be whisked before pouring on the tray. When rehydrating, the resulting egg powder can then be added to water to make scrambled eggs or used in a recipe. Greens that are to be cooked work well, but I have not been able to get lettuce to its original crispness. Freeze-dried shredded cheese with a little water added becomes a quick cheese sauce, and I’ve heard freeze-dried ice cream is a real treat. I haven’t tried that yet, but Gummi Bears come out as squishy, crispy sugary bites.

At this time, vacuum freeze driers are expensive when compared to other methods of preservation. But for now, they are the best method for food preservation whether you want to save bounty from your garden, the outdoors or from seasonal sales to use in a month or 20 years. Almost without exception, the end product is not altered in taste, texture or aroma. Nutrients are preserved, fruits, veggies and cooked meats, and foods can be eaten right off the shelf from the container and taste good. For those who live far from a grocery store or are outdoors persons or home gardeners, vacuum freeze-drying preserves a spring or summer bounty for next winter or for the one decades from now.