Taste Test: Dehydrated and Freeze-Dried Food

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Days away from port and thousands of miles offshore, a sailor in the Volvo Ocean Race decides whether to eat chicken la king, beef stroganoff, or three-cheese lasagna for dinner. But the teams in the round-the-world race are not airlifting in home-cooked entres, and they have not hired chefs. The sailors’ hot meals come from freeze-dried and dehydrated food.

It’s the same stuff backpackers and soldiers eat—lightweight but high-energy grub packed in plastic pouches. To prepare it, boiling water is poured into the bag, the contents are stirred, and the zipper top is sealed. In about ten minutes, the hot meal is ready to serve.

It might not seem appealing to eat a meal out of a pouch every night, but these prepared foods provide vital fuel for sailors. “[Food] is very important as this race is a marathon,” said Dirk De Ridder, the watch leader and operations manager of the Mean Machine team. “You get a bit bored with the meals after day 15, but that's part of being on a boat for such a long time.”

Many cruisers keep a few of these products around so they have an easy meal when rough conditions make it too difficult to cook. They don’t roll around in the cabin or rust as cans do, and they can have shelf lives of up to 7 years from the date of manufacture. Plus, many can be prepared with cold water, an attribute that could come in handy in an emergency.

Manufacturers offer many instant-food options, From the exotic pesto salmon pasta to traditional spaghetti in meat sauce. Some will at least fill you up if you're hungry, but, as SAIL staffers learned from sampling more than 20 dishes, you wouldn’t want to be stuck in the middle of the ocean with others. Here are the top picks.

Mountain House Lasagna with Meat Sauce
Price: $5.99 for 2 servings
Calories: 310/serving
Overall score: 7/10

Even though this lasagna resembled a soupy pasta sauce, SAIL testers liked it better than many of the other dishes. Production editor Rebecca Waters initially though it “looked a little dodgy,” but ended up liking the flavor. And of all of the carbohydrates tested, it was designated "best of the bunch" by production associate Christa Madrid.

Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai
Price: $5.50 for 2 servings
Calories: 480/serving
Overall score: 7/10

The biggest complaint about this pad thai was that it had too much flavor. But for most testers, it was a welcome change from the blandness of other entres—if, that is, you like spicy food.

Mountain House Chicken Teriyaki with Rice
Price: $6.99 for 2 servings
Calories: 290/serving
Overall score: 8/10

With its teriyaki flavor, this meal could diversify any menu. Many testers returned for a second (or a third) taste, including associate editor Dave Baldwin. “I’d eat that every night,” he said.

Marine Cuisine Beef Stroganoff with Noodles
Price: $5.99 for 2 servings
Calories: 310/serving
Overall score: 9/10

Even the hardest-to-please testers liked Marine Cuisine’s take on this classic dish. The creamy sauce with mushrooms had the right consistency, and the beef cooked up “like real meat.” Even senior editor Bill Springer, a harsh critic, had something kind to say: “I’d eat this at home if I had to.”

Adventure Foods Chocolate Chip Coconut-Caramel Bar
Price: $4.69 for 2 servings
Calories:
Overall score: 9/10

This was the only platter wiped clean; testers didn’t let a single crumb of the bar go to waste. Testers agreed that this dessert—sweet and satisfying after sometimes tasteless entres—would be a hit aboard. “There’s nothing wrong with it,” said surprised editorial intern Rachel French, who gave the bar a perfect 10. Along with the good dishes came the bad—and we mean bad. Here’s what made senior editor Mark Corke say “I’d rather eat my hat.”

Backpacker’s Pantry Sweet and Sour Chicken
Price: $6.25 for 2 servings
Calories: 420/serving
Overall score: 3/10

This dish had a “strange” and “chalky” texture and lacked flavor. It looked so suspect that many testers had to be coaxed into trying it.

AlpineAire Foods Mushroom and Asparagus Risotto with Shrimp
Price: $7.15 for 2 servings
Calories: 359/serving
Overall score: 2/10

Design director Paul Lee: “It looks like bad dog food and it tastes like how it looks.” Enough said.

Natural High Kung Pao Chicken
Price: $6.75 for 2 servings
Calories: 280/serving
Overall score: 3/10

This dish fell into the category of mystery meat. Testers couldn’t quite recognize the flavor, but they did place it somewhere between “plaster” and “cardboard.”

Tips for Surviving on Prepared Foods

  • Do a taste test before you go. Nothing could be worse than being stuck in the middle of the ocean with an unlimited supply of unpalatable stroganoff (trust us).
  • Bring spices and condiments. Parmesan cheese, for example, can salvage a substandard pasta dish. According to Ken Read, the skipper of the PUMA team, it helps to use a lot of Tabasco.
  • Plan out meals in advance and make a food schedule so you don’t run out of provisions. Make sure you know about crewmembers who have allergies or are vegetarian.
  • Save space for extra treats like energy bars, nuts, and sweets to boost energy and morale. “You won’t believe how good a Twix bar can taste after a freeze-dried dinner,” Read said.
  • Read the nutrition labels to plan balanced meals. Prepackaged food may have high caloric value, but make sure the calories aren’t just coming from fat.
  • Get the right fuel. “It’s important to supplement the meals with vitamins and nutritional supplements to keep up your mental and physical strength,” Read said.

Posted: March 14, 2008

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