Freeze-dried food is arguably one of the best innovations in recent memory. Imagine being able to preserve a meal for years-- even decades--- without sacrificing its taste, texture or nutritional value.
It’s no wonder why folks stock up on these bad boys for camping and backpacking trips, thru-hikes, or heck, late nights when they’re too lazy to cook up a meal from scratch.
So, which freeze-dried food is the best among the rest?
There are tons of freeze-dried food brands out there and choosing the best ones could mean that you have to buy, prepare and taste each and every one.
Daunted? Don’t have enough time? Scared of indigestion?
Don’t worry, we got your back. As always, we at Tactical.com did the heavy lifting (or eating?) for you. In this article, we tried and tested 5 of the best standard freeze-dried food brands in the market today, so you won’t have to.
A Beginner’s Guide To Freeze-Dried Food
Before we dig into the review, here are some answers to your most common questions about freeze-dried food:
What Are Freeze-Dried Foods and How Are They Made?
Indigenous South American tribes have actually been “freeze-drying” potatoes since time immemorial, but the process wasn’t scientifically perfected until around World War II, when people started to freeze-dry blood plasma and antibiotics for wounded soldiers. Commercial freeze-drying then moved on to food, which was originally supplied to astronauts and soldiers as rations.
These days, you can find freeze-dried food just about everywhere.
From space missions and to military deployments, freeze-dried foods have now infiltrated the pantries of average joes. People love them for their extra long shelf-life and superior taste compared to traditional MREs (meals ready to eat). Their lightness and portability make them a big hit for many folks, especially hikers, campers, and backpackers who go on long trips without access to a good old home-cooked meal.
How Does Freeze-Drying Work and How Is It Different from Dehydration?
The freeze-drying process is pretty simple.
Unlike dehydration, freeze-drying takes out the moisture from the product without damaging its structure or changing its nutritional composition. This is why freeze-dried fruits do not share the wrinkly appearance or rubbery consistency of their dehydrated counterparts.
Freeze-dried foods also take a shorter time to rehydrate and are significantly lighter than dehydrated products.
Why Should You Store Freeze-Dried Food?
There’s a ton of good reasons to store freeze-dried food, especially if you’re someone who loves spending time outdoors. Here are a few reasons why you should keep a stash of freeze-dried food:
They have a long shelf-life
Few food products can match the extraordinary shelf-life of freeze-dried food (except raw honey— that stuff can outlast ancient civilizations).
When stored properly, freeze-dried food can last up to 25 to 30 years. This is because freeze-drying takes out all of the moisture from the food. No moisture means no environment for microorganisms to thrive and cause spoilage. Freeze-drying also stops enzyme activities, so products like fruits and vegetables don’t ripen. It’s like hitting one big pause button and suspending your food in time.
When you open a freeze-dried food pouch, however, its shelf life can decrease rapidly from 25 years to a week due to oxygen exposure. Once reconstituted, the freeze-dried food will return to “normal”, so make sure to consume the meal immediately to avoid spoilage.
Freeze-dried food products lose as much as 90% of their original weight. They also become more compact and portable. They’re a great choice if you’re an ultralight backpacker or a hiker who wants a hot meal without the bulk.
They’re easy to prepare
Preparing freeze-dried food is crazy simple. In the case of food pouches, you just need to add a couple of cups of boiling water, stir, seal them back up and wait for around 10-15 minutes for the food the rehydrate. Once it’s ready, you can eat it directly from the pouch. No mess, no dirty pots and pans to clean after each meal, no hassle.
Freeze-drying retains the food’s taste, shape, and nutritional value
Dehydration is well and good, but the process also takes away about half of the food’s nutritional value. The end product can also shrink, look wrinkly and have a tough texture. Freeze-dried foods, on the other hand, don’t suffer the same fate. When food is freeze-dried, they’ll often look and feel dry and crunchy, but when rehydrated properly, they’ll simply return to their original state— texture, taste, and shape included.
Sure, even cardboard would taste like a gourmet meal after a long day on the trail, but why suffer when you can pack some freeze-dried comfort food?
Aside from fruits, veggies, and beverages, freeze-dryers are also capable of processing actual meals. Manufacturers often have delicious variants like beef chili with macaroni, freeze-dried lasagna, breakfast skillet, beef stroganoff and the like. You can literally have your favorite comfort food in a few minutes— you just have to add hot water.
You can also buy freeze-dried meals to cater to a certain diet. Some brands have vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, paleo, and keto variants available.
How To Store Freeze-Dried Food?
Freeze-dried foods are relatively shelf-stable even when kept in room temperature, so storing them is a no-brainer. They also usually come in tough containers that can withstand punctures, like mylar bags, #10 cans, or food-grade buckets. Still, you can maximize their shelf-life by keeping these guidelines in mind:
What To Look For In A Good Freeze-Dried Food Brand?
With hundreds of freeze-dried food brands and variants out there, how do you know which one is the best for you? Here are some factors to consider when choosing a freeze-dried food brand or meal:
As always, you have to determine why you’re packing freeze-dried food in the first place. Are you preparing for a long-term bug-in situation, or do you just need to pack a couple of gusseted pouches for that upcoming section hike?
This article focuses on freeze-dried food brands for outdoor activities like hiking, camping, and backpacking, so we’re limiting our review to freeze-dried food pouches from popular brands like Mountain House, Alpine Aire and Wise Foods to name a few. You’ll find out more about them below.
Overall calories and nutritional content
Look into the product’s energy-to-weight ratio. The more calories per ounce, the better. Consider your level of activity as well. As you know, the more rigorous the activity, the more energy and nutrients you need to replenish. You might need to pack a 2-serving pouch for yourself, or bring stuff like olive oil, nuts, chia seeds or tortilla wraps to augment your energy needs.
Freeze-dried food brands typically have high sodium content to help you replenish lost electrolytes. While sodium is great for your tired muscles after a long day of hiking, this could also mean bad news for those with conditions that require a limited salt intake. If you’re unable to tolerate high amounts of sodium, you might be better off with a low-salt freeze-dried food brand or variant.
Depending on the brand, freeze-dried foods use about 1 to 2 cups of boiling water to reconstitute. Waiting time can be as short as 8 minutes or as long as 15 minutes. For this review, we wanted a freeze-dried food brand with a stand-up pouch that doesn’t take a lot of time or resources to prepare because let’s face it, you don’t have a lot of both when out on the trail.
Taste, flavor, and texture
Hey, it’s food— personal preference is always a factor to consider. You don’t want to be stuck with food you don’t like, so choose a flavor or variant that you personally find appetizing. It’s also a nice trick to keep little spice packets or a small bottle of hot sauce to kick that taste up a notch.
All freeze-dried foods are pretty shelf-stable, so this factor isn’t too high up on our list. Still, different brands have different lifespans, so it’s worth considering. Some brands like Mountain House have an impressive 30-year guarantee, while others last for only about 5-7 years.
One of the biggest downsides to packing freeze-dried foods for camping, hiking or backpacking is the price. These meals aren’t cheap; a 2 or 2.5-serving pack can easily fetch for $8-$15 each.
Cheaper meals can get you by in terms of calories, but they leave a lot to be desired in the taste and nutrition department. Pricier variants, on the other hand, tend to have better taste, texture, and quality of ingredients. They have shorter preparation time, too, so weigh the pros and cons based on your budget and priority.
5 Most Popular Freeze Dried Food Brands In The Market Today
Peak Refuel Breakfast Skillet
- Taste: 5 stars
- Shelf life: 5 years
- Calories: 320 calories per serving
- Weight: 4.87 oz
- Cooking Time: 15 minutes
We didn’t expect this breakfast skillet from Peak Refuel to blow us away, but it did. This entree is arguably one of the most well-rounded meals in this list: it’s got eggs and sausage bits for protein, potatoes for carbs and a generous portion of green bell peppers and onions for added nutrition and taste.
You get a good proportion of each component, so every spoonful is tasty, filling and nutritious. It’s a bit bland though, so pack some salt or hot sauce to give this skillet a spice boost.
This entree reconstitutes so well that you could pass it off for a home-cooked meal. The eggs are nice, fluffy and safe for lactose intolerant folks because they don’t contain milk. The potatoes were a bit smaller than we expected. Even so, they had great consistency and taste. The bell peppers had the right balance of crunch and juiciness, which we enjoyed.
The bag is full to the brim, so make sure to pack it down nicely before adding water so you can close the resealable zipper seal properly.
Peak Refuel’s energy content ain’t so bad, either. At 320 calories and 32 grams of protein per serving, this pouch is a tasty and filling source of energy.
The only downside to the Peak Refuel Breakfast Skillet is its price. At around $12 per 2-serving pouch, this is not the most budget-friendly freeze-dried food brand out there. Still, its taste, proportion and nutritional value can make up for the hefty price tag. If you’ve got a few dollars to spare, we recommend packing a pouch or two of this delicious meal.
Mountain House Chili Mac With Beef
- Taste: 4.5 stars
- Shelf life: 30-year taste guarantee
- Calories: 230 calories per serving
- Weight: 4.8 oz
- Cooking Time: 8-9 minutes
If you've been prepping, camping or hiking for some time now, you'd know that Mountain House has already made a name for themselves in the freeze-dried food sphere. We'd go so far as to say that their products have become synonymous to "camping comfort food."
For this review, we tried and tested one of the company's bestsellers--- the crowd favorite Chili Mac With Beef. We got the 2.5 serving pouch, which packs around 230 calories per serving. It’s not the most calorie- or protein-dense meal out there, but with pasta, ground beef and beans, it should be able to fill your tummy after a long day on the trail.
The pouch itself only weighs around 4.8 ounces, so it's pretty nice and lightweight. The meal also comes in a Pro-Pak, which is more compact and vacuum-sealed to prevent expansion in high altitudes.
Mountain House’s biggest edge is definitely its 30-year taste guarantee. You can buy a pack, leave it for 3 decades and it will still taste good.
Opening the bag, you'll be greeted by the smell of chili and seasonings---which is appetizing in itself. There's also ample amounts of macaroni pasta, kidney beans, and chunks of ground beef. Each ingredient is proportioned pretty well, so you get a nice filling bite for every spoonful.
The label suggests adding 2 cups of boiling water to reconstitute the meal, but we went for just a cup and a half to keep it from being too diluted or soupy. Waiting time is relatively short at 8-9 minutes (other brands need 15 minutes to reconstitute). We suggest opening the bag and mixing it thoroughly around the 4-minute mark to evenly rehydrate all the ingredients.
We love that all of the ingredients reconstitute well; the texture overall resembles a legit meal. It even has a nice spicy kick to it. Some brands have pasta that feels off or crumbly; Mountain House's pasta remained al dente even if we left it cooking for a minute or two more than the recommended time.
We're also glad that Mountain House didn't scrimp on the sauce and seasoning. We can see why this variant is a bestseller--- the sauce itself is rich and flavorful. 1 and a half cups of water is pretty much sufficient to achieve the right sauce consistency.
The big chunks of ground meat and the beans make this meal quite satisfying. Beware if you’ve got a delicate stomach though; many folks report a bit of gassiness after eating this entree.
Aside from its relatively high price point and low energy yield, another downside to the Mountain House is its high sodium content. It’s not great for everyday consumption, but it does allow you to replenish electrolytes lost after a day of hiking.
Overall, the Mountain House Chili Mac may not pack the most calories, but at the end of the day, it is delicious and filling comfort food that’s perfect for camping or hiking.
Wise Foods Creamy Pasta And Vegetable Rotini With Chicken
- Taste: 3.5 stars
- Shelf life: 25 years
- Calories: 230 calories per serving
- Weight: 4.3 oz
- Cooking Time: 12-15 minutes
Wise Foods may not hold the record for Tastiest Freeze Dried Food Brand out there, but their Creamy Pasta And Vegetable Rotini With Chicken variety sure was tasty. The serving size lesser than we would have liked, though. Its 2-serving pouch is too small for two people to share. We did appreciate the huge chunks of chicken breast added into the mix.
As with Mountain House, we put slightly less water than recommended to this entree keep it from being too diluted. It’s quite powdery, so make sure to stir as you pour in water to avoid forming clumps at the bottom of the bag .
Tastewise, the meal isn’t too bad. In the battle of creamy pasta sauces, this one won against Alpine Aire by a wide margin. Its sauce is slightly sweet, with a milky aftertaste. The vegetables offered some much-needed texture and crunch, too. The pasta itself is passable, but isn’t as great as Mountain House. We encountered some crunchy pasta bits despite mixing and cooking it thoroughly as well.
On the plus side, the chicken reconstitutes well and is surprisingly chunky. It’s not too dry, either. Even if the pasta doesn't seem like much, the chicken breast chunks make up for your protein needs well.
While it might not be mind-blowing in terms of taste, quantity or caloric content, this entree from Wise Foods is one of the cheapest on the list at around $7. There are definitely better options out there, but if you want to pack a freeze-dried meal while sticking to a budget, you might want to go with this one.
MRE Star Barbecue Chicken With Black Beans And Potatoes
- Taste: 2.5 stars
- Shelf life: 5 years
- Calories: 300 calories per serving (entree)
- Weight: 14.85 oz
- Cooking Time: none; 15 minutes heating time
People get unpleasant flashbacks at the mere mention of the word “MRE”, but that doesn’t seem to stop MRE Star from changing the reputation of ready-to-eat meals across the community.
As the name suggests, MRE Star’s food packages are ready to eat out of the box. No, they’re not technically freeze-dried, but they do last about 5 years, which isn’t too bad for something that doesn’t need reconstitution or cooking.
MRE Star’s sets come with pretty much everything you need for a well-rounded meal. They’re significantly heavier than freeze-dried food pouches, but they do pack a lot of stuff. Each brown package contains an individually packaged entree, starch (usually flour tortillas or military crackers), snacks, desserts, powdered drinks like lemonade and coffee, condiments, small candies and even plastic cutlery and moist towelettes. As if that isn’t enough, it also has a flameless heater, which you can use to heat your meal with just a bit of water.
We like how each component helps meet your calorie needs. The entree alone clocks in at about 300 calories, while the other food products contribute about 800-900 calories altogether, making around 1100-1200 calories per meal.
Heating the food is easy enough; you just put a couple of ounces of water to activate the chemical heater, slip the food pack into the pocket and place them both inside the box for 15 minutes.
As for the actual taste of the products, well, let’s just say there’s a lot to be desired in that area. For this test, we got chicken in barbecue sauce with some black beans and potatoes. It came with a pack of flour tortillas, oatmeal cookies, corn nuts and a fortified juice mix.
The entree doesn’t necessarily taste bad; it’s just that its texture tells you that it’s been sitting in that package for quite some time. The sweetness of the barbecue sauce is overpowering and the chicken has a flaky texture similar to that of canned tuna. There’s also more beans and potatoes in the mix compared to the meat--- which is saying something, because around 60% of the pack is just, well, sauce.
The flour tortillas are nice and soft, but they also have this strange texture and aftertaste that we’re not quite fond of, either.
Thankfully, the oatmeal cookies were good. You get a pack of four slightly tough but good-tasting cookies. It’s a great way to incorporate a bit of fiber into your meal. The corn nuts were great to munch on, too.
MRE Star’s food packs are obviously not the lightest, cheapest or most delicious meals out there, but they certainly meet your caloric needs. They also take little to no preparation time and have pretty much everything you need for a complete meal.
Overall, we think that MRE Star shines best in emergency situations and disaster response. You can bring them when car camping or day hiking, but you might want to go with something more compact for longer trips.
Alpine Aire Spicy Sausage Pasta
- Taste: 2 stars
- Shelf life: 5+ years
- Calories: 300 calories per serving
- Weight: 5 oz
- Cooking Time: 10-12 minutes
On paper, Alpine Aire looks like a pretty good deal: it only weighs 5 ounces, is pretty compact and already packs 300 calories in a single serving. The meal itself sounded promising: you've got your pasta, sausage crumbles, creamy sauce, plus a kick of spice from the cayenne pepper. In fact, we were pleasantly surprised to find that Alpine Aire had more pasta than Wise Foods. It seemed like a good meal…until we actually tasted it.
To put it simply, we wouldn't be keen on keeping this pack on rotation anytime soon.
The texture of the pasta really threw us off. While we get that freeze-dried pasta won’t ever compare to something homemade, Alpine Aire’s pasta just didn’t cut it for us. It had a very loose, crumbly texture. It kind of disintegrates in your mouth during the first bite, and we don’t mean that in a good way.
The whole thing was too bland for our taste as well. The only distinct taste present in this dish is the spiciness from the cayenne, but even that wasn’t enough to salvage this entree. Its supposed creaminess didn’t pull through, either.
The proportion of meat to pasta was quite disappointing, too. There’s too much (subpar) pasta and not a lot of sausage bits to go around.
You can definitely try this Alpine Aire variant if you simply need to fuel up on the trail. 600 calories in one pack is pretty substantial…if you don’t mind the taste. If you ask us, however, we honestly won’t be stockpiling this soon.
Freeze-dried foods may not be cheap, but you can’t deny that they’re convenient, tasty and portable.
They’re the perfect food companions for a day out in the trail or campsite.
Have you tried the freeze-dried food entrees in this review? Or did you enjoy another variant from the same brands? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below!