Albertans battle waste, high prices with food dehydrating

·4 min read
Calli O'Brien, pictured, wrote an online cookbook so that people can make dehydrated meals at home. (Submitted by Calli O'Brien - image credit)
Calli O'Brien, pictured, wrote an online cookbook so that people can make dehydrated meals at home. (Submitted by Calli O'Brien - image credit)

Anita Chrisp's mother and father lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War, canning any foods that it was possible to can.

It was how Chrisp says she became in tune with food preparation, storage and preservation.

Later, when her family moved to Irvine — a hamlet located about 3½ hours southeast of Calgary that has a semi-arid climate — Chrisp began exploring another method of food preservation: dehydrating.

"We're known for our drought, and … we had all these fresh chives. I was like, 'What am I going to do with all [of them]?" Chrisp said.

"So I brought them inside and I thought, 'I'll take a hand [at] drying them."

She's not the only one. CBC Calgary has been looking at ways people can save on their grocery bills as food prices soar, and a handful of people immediately reached out to recommend dehydrating.

Frugality and efficiencies

For Chrisp's first go, the process involved chopping the chives finely, setting them on parchment paper, and leaving them on the stovetop.

The success of the experiment led Chrisp to realize the possibilities before her.

"I thought, 'Well, I could do that, I can do anything,'" Chrisp said.

Submitted by Emerson Dunlop
Submitted by Emerson Dunlop

She got to work drying peppermint and basil, the leaves crunched up and then left in glass containers with the lids off to ensure no moisture made its way in.

Mushrooms (for soups and sauces) and apples (for snacking) soon followed, sliced on a mandolin to about an eighth of an inch.

"The mushroom stayed beautifully, beautifully, beautifully," Chrisp said. "I wish I'd done, like, 10 times that many, because [they were] so awesome."

Chrisp didn't bother buying a dehydrator; instead, she dries herbs and produce on the stove or in the residual heat from the oven — low and slow.

And when money was tight for the Chrisps during the pandemic, she says dehydrating helped preserve produce her family couldn't eat fast enough from flash-food boxes.

It has fulfilled one instinct for frugality, and another that Chrisp says she share with her husband: to look for efficiencies.

"I really feel strongly that if there's something that's useful, it needs to be used, not thrown out," she said.

'Good, cheap food'

Food frugality is something that Calli O'Brien is also familiar with.

She grew up in poverty, she says, and has experienced homelessness. But her mom always tried to take advantage of sales and good deals, and keep the pantry stocked.

That was considered, O'Brien says, their own personal food bank.

"We ate a lot of the same things, but being able to also have, on occasion, fresh produce and things like that to supplement was always really good," O'Brien said.

Years later, the instinct to prepare and save remains for O'Brien, who is also a backcountry camper.

And when she ran out of freezer space preparing for potential food shortages during the pandemic, she bought a $100 dehydrator to explore alternative ways of preserving food.

"I have a whole shelf just, you know, base ingredients like dehydrated green beans, dehydrated carrots," O'Brien said.

Eventually she began piecing together recipes that could feed one or two people, and vacuum sealing them.

It culminated in The Hiker's Pantry Cookbook, a collection of recipes people can make at home from dehydrated ingredients.

And O'Brien says the breakdown of the ingredients costs about a fraction of freeze-dried emergency kits and meals purchased in-store.

"For us it's nice because, like, my partner … travels a bit for work. He can take a few of those packs," O'Brien said.

"And instead of eating out, or, you know, trying to lug a cooler or anything, as long as he has a way to boil water at wherever he's staying, then he's got good, cheap food."

Food waste begone

Potential food savings are not the only reason people are experimenting with dehydrated food.

Calgarians Emerson and Jeanne Dunlop use a dehydrator to make their own beef jerky, and dehydrate vegetables for soups.

The convenience of having prepared ingredients is a big draw for the couple, Emerson told the Calgary Eyeopener on Thursday.

"We have the carrots, we had the celery, we had everything already covered," he said.

"Throw it into the [soup] stock, and it absorbs the stock — rather than fresh [produce], which releases liquid and dilutes [it]."

Submitted by Emerson Dunlop
Submitted by Emerson Dunlop

It also helps to ensure what they need is in the cupboard during the winter, Emerson says, and it cuts down on food waste.

"One of the issues we had was we buy things … in bulk [is] that there's unfortunately a lot of waste when there's only two of us," Emerson said.

"So now we've learned we just dehydrate what we haven't used, and there's no waste."

CBC Calgary: The High Cost of Food

CBC Calgary is using community insight to help understand the gaps in Calgary's food system. Add your cell phone number to share tips on saving money and help document how the high cost of food is changing the way we eat and shop. Read the series at cbc.ca/costoffood.

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