A few years ago, somebody stashed a couple bags of Good To-Go meals in my backpack at Outdoor Retailer. As a dedicated consumer of dehydrated backpacker meals, so dedicated in fact I will occasionally consume them at home, with a full kitchen at my disposal just because I enjoy them, I was intrigued. The Thai Curry was excellent. Kale and White Bean Stew — surprisingly bright and tasty. The backstory to Good To-Go was also interesting. The founder, Jennifer Scism, was a NYC-darling chef/restauranteur who once defeated Mario Batali on the Food Network’s Iron Chef, moved to rural Maine, fell in love with backpacking, and decided she’d abandon the restaurant scene for the backpacker meal world of high sodium and long shelf-life. It can’t be easy to move from fresh ingredients served at their peak to planning recipes that will be cooked then dehydrated and stored for who knows how long.
We talked about what actually goes into healthier dehydrated meals and how one goes from slinging plates to stocking hiker’s shelves.
AJ: What do the existing big backpacker meal brands (Backpacker’s Pantry, Mountain House, etc) get right about dehydrated meals?
To be clear, at Good To-Go, we cook and then dehydrate our food and the companies you mentioned primarily use freeze-dried ingredients and may or may not cook the meal before packaging. The two processes produce different results. Both companies have been around for a long time, have great brand recognition and broad product lines.
What prompted you to try to fill the void with healthier, good food dehydrated meals?
Before starting Good To-Go, I had been working as a chef for 20 years and created my own unique recipes. I had no idea why food manufacturers used fillers and additives, the only preservative I used was kosher or sea salt. I tried the other brands, but wanted clean ingredients and whole foods. Also, I wanted my tried and true comfort food recipes. I cooked and dehydrated my homemade favorites; Thai curry, mushroom risotto, marinara with pasta, and used those for our camping trips. We shared my meals with fellow hikers and were urged to start selling them. After a year of research and brand development, Good To-Go was born.
Did your past as a chef mean you had connections in supply that would help, or other advantages coming from a foodservice background when trying to develop healthier dehydrated meals?
My enthusiasm for yummy food drove me to always search for the perfect ingredients, tirelessly travel to the most amazing restaurants, and plan lunch and dinner as you sip your morning coffee. I live and breathe food. You can’t teach that, you’re either food and cooking obsessed or you’re not. My dad always joked when I was a little kid, “Jennifer, you live to eat, I eat to live.” No truer words have been spoken. That obsession drove me to change careers in my mid-twenties, from a designer for an architectural firm to attending culinary school and eventually chefing in New York City restaurants. That is my advantage, an absolute passion for delicious food.
What are the challenges when it comes to dehydrated meal production on a wide scale?
We’ve been cooking and drying using the same process from the beginning. It works, so scaling has just required more space and larger equipment.
How important is sustainable production and logistics to you and, assuming the answer is ‘very,’ how do you
We’ve worked with local farmers for some of our ingredients. It’s tough being in Maine. There’s a short growing season so we do source our vegetables on a more national level. Last year alone we went through 50,000 lbs of diced onions. That’s a whole lot of onions! As far as our packaging, at the moment it is not compostable. It is made from a percentage of post-consumer recycled product. A salesman walked in our door yesterday trying to peddle his packaging wares. I told him if he had a bag that would be able to hold boiling water for 20 minutes without decomposing, I would buy it on the spot. Unfortunately, that doesn’t exist right now. I believe educating hikers and backpackers about the shelf life of real food and the process of rehydration would go a long way. If we were to sell our meals in compostable bags, the shelf life would be shorter and the meals would need to be rehydrated in another vessel, like a thermos.
What’s your fave meal in the backcountry? Dehydrated or otherwise?
Is there a meal you wish you could make as a dehydrated meal but just can’t?
Recipe is below
I’ve been to Athens Greece, two times in my life and both times I’ve had the most amazing Gyro Lamb Kebab sandwiches. This is a super easy recipe and most of it can be prepared ahead of time. I know when I’ve car camped, many of the campsites have grills at each site. If a grill is available, your dinner will be even more delicious.
1 small onion, grated and squeezed dry
2 garlic cloves – finely minced
1 tsp dried marjoram
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground cumin
1 tsp kosher or sea salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 lb ground lamb
4 metal skewers
1 Tbsp olive oil
Large Cast Iron Pan if no grill is available
1 cup full fat Greek yogurt
1 clove garlic – finely minced
1 Tbsp finely chopped fresh mint
½ European cucumber – peeled, grated (discard seeds) lightly season with salt and drain, squeeze dry
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
¼ small red onion – thinly sliced
1 large tomato cut into thin strips
½ European cucumber – peeled, seeds removed and cut into ½ dice
Pack of pita bread
In a medium size bowl, mix all the kebab ingredients except the lamb. Fold in the ground lamb. Don’t over mix the meat or the kebabs will be tough. Pack into a container and refrigerate.
Next, combine all the tzatziki sauce ingredients together and put into a container and refrigerate.
When ready to serve, form 8 oblong kebabs and skewer lengthwise. The kebabs can be cooked on a grill. (If no grill is available, omit skewering them and cook in a large cast iron pan with olive oil. ) The grill should be scoured and free of debris. Prepare a fire and let the grill get very hot. Rub the grill grates with olive oil. Place the skewered kebabs on the hot grates and cook until dark sear marks are on one side. Gently turn over the kababs and finish cooking. Remove and place on a clean plate. Quickly toast the pita on the grill to warm the bread. Serve the kebabs with the warm pita, tzatziki sauce and gyro fixings. Enjoy!
Top photo: Threlkeld Outdoor