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We taste tested freeze-dried meals to see if they deserve a place in your pandemic pantry

Mrs. Davenport ambivalently eyes Thai noodles with chicken during a taste test of freeze-dried food.
Mrs. Davenport ambivalently eyes Thai noodles with chicken during a taste test of freeze-dried food.Christopher Muther/Globe staff

The longer COVID-19 keeps me housebound, the more I’m identifying with Howard Hughes, although I’ve yet to wear empty Kleenex boxes as shoes (give it another week). I’ve become something of a latter-day agoraphobic Gladys Kravitz. I yell at joggers who ignore the rules of social distancing from behind my window, far from their sweaty paths.

But what has stymied my efforts to shelter as much as possible is the grocery store.

The once mundane task of picking up Swiss chard and condensed milk now requires careful strategy. In the end, the experience is as frustrating as trying to find peanut butter in Cuba. I decided I needed to get clever about food. I had no intention of standing in line outside Trader Joe’s like I was waiting behind the velvet rope at Studio 54 circa 1978, especially after Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said this was not a good week to take a stroll to the grocery store.

I did a bit of research and came upon an ideal solution to avoiding the supermarket: freeze-dried meals. It’s the preferred choice of doomsayers, hikers, and astronauts, so why not a pandemic? These are meals that have a 30-year shelf life. If we live through month-after-month of shelter-at-home orders, I could be swimming in freeze-dried chicken fettuccini for years.

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Freeze drying is exactly what it sounds like: Food is frozen, the pressure is lowered, and then it’s dried before ice can form. Just nod and pretend that it all made sense. The meals come in small packages so there’s room to store them in large quantities. Just add boiling water, wait 10 minutes, and it’s dinnertime. Because I’m not the only one who had the brilliant idea to order freeze-dried meals, I found that many of the highest rated flavors on REI.com, campingsurvival.com, and Amazon were sold out or in short supply. But finding freeze-dried meals is not as fruitless as seeking out toilet paper. There’s still plenty.

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I was excited about the freeze-dried option, but decided that I should probably taste what I was getting into before I start ordering in bulk. I ordered four meals and one dessert. Under normal conditions I would rope friends or coworkers into helping me sample the meals. But because that wasn’t possible I asked my husband to help. He turned on his heel. He was completely uninterested in taste testing, so I enlisted the only other possibility I had, my cat, Mrs. Davenport. It turns out her palate is more sophisticated than I had given her credit for. Here’s how we did.

Freeze-dried chicken teriyaki in rice, pepper added for garnish, and not freeze dried.
Freeze-dried chicken teriyaki in rice, pepper added for garnish, and not freeze dried.Christopher Muther/Globe staff

Chicken teriyaki and rice

The first thing I noticed was the texture. The rice seemed a bit too gritty. I’m quite sure I followed the directions to the letter, but it could have used a few more minutes in its pouch. Speaking of the pouch, the preparation of these meals is quite simple. Boil water, pour it in the bag with the freeze-dried food, reseal, and let science work its magic. Most of the freeze-dried meals took about 10 minutes to cook in the bag. As for flavor, the chicken teriyaki and rice had a bit of zing to it, and a hint of sweetness, but not overwhelmingly so. The most prevalent flavor was salt. I was impressed, however, that I could pronounce all the ingredients. There were bits of chicken, but it took some digging to find it.

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I then put a small amount down for Mrs. Davenport (she’s the cat). She is not allowed to eat anything but cat food, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Before we get to her assessment, let me first explain that Mrs. Davenport is a big-boned girl. She’s not one of those gals who’s too proud to beg for food at 3 a.m. In fact, she does so every night. She can smell chicken being roasted in distant area codes. I expected her to be meowing for this dish as soon as she smelled it. She didn’t. I had to place her in front of the bowl several times until she tentatively took a bite. One bite was enough, and she went back to sleep. (Makes two servings, $8.99 per pouch at amazon.com).

Freeze-dried chicken and dumplings with a healthy sprinkling of paprika.
Freeze-dried chicken and dumplings with a healthy sprinkling of paprika.Christopher Muther/Globe staff

Chicken and dumplings

Imagine, if you will, that somebody placed a chicken pot pie in their back pocket, sat on it for about an hour, scraped the crushed remains it into a bag, and then served it to you. Now you know what freeze-dried chicken and dumplings tastes like. I didn’t have high hopes for this one, and I was right to be wary. It was a pallid, mushy mess. I took a couple of photos, and realized that it looked like Cream of Wheat poured over mashed turnips, so I doused it with paprika. It didn’t really help, Again, it was salty, but at least this time I could locate the chicken. I would recommend dining on this only when you’ve run out of everything else in your pantry. Mrs. Davenport enjoyed the chicken and dumplings more than I did, but I suspect that’s because it resembles the food she’s accustomed to receiving from a can every night. (Makes two servings, $8.50 per pouch at REI.com.)

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Mrs. Davenport samples beef stroganoff in a taste test of freeze-dried foods.
Mrs. Davenport samples beef stroganoff in a taste test of freeze-dried foods.Christopher Muther/Globe staff

Beef stroganoff

Jackpot! After two days of so-so results, we scored something close to normal with beef stroganoff. The noodles were firm and the thick, creamy sauce clung deliciously to the curves of the pasta. It wasn’t exactly restaurant quality, but it was a vast improvement over the previous meals. The beef wasn’t plentiful, but it was reliably tasty and just chewy enough. Like the other meals, it was too salty, but there were actual slices of mushrooms. It was a win all around. I wasn’t the only fan of the beef stroganoff. Mrs. Davenport didn’t need any coaxing to give it a try. This time I had to pull her away from it after a couple of bites, otherwise she would have finished it, held up the bowl, and said, “Please sir, may I have another?” Did I mention I’ve been trapped inside for about a month and now hallucinate that the cat speaks to me? (Makes two servings, $15 per pouch at www.amazon.com).

A serving of freeze-dried Thai noodles and chicken.
A serving of freeze-dried Thai noodles and chicken.Christopher Muther/Globe staff

Thai style chicken and noodles

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I should have known that my luck would be short-lived. I couldn’t determine what was going on with the Thai noodles and chicken. The flavor was sharp and unpleasant, lacking the comforting combination of sesame oil and soy sauce. By this point I probably don’t need to mention that it was too salty, but I will anyway. The noodles were firm enough, but the chicken was nearly non-existent. I also could not get past the look of it. The noodles bore a disturbing resemblance to worms. Mrs. Davenport had absolutely no interest. I placed her in front of the dish three times before I gave up. She turned up her nose and walked away. (Makes two servings, $7 per pouch at REI.com)

Freeze-died raspberry crumble.
Freeze-died raspberry crumble.Christopher Muther/Globe staff

Raspberry Crumble

Not to be a stickler, but technically this wasn’t raspberry crumble. A proper crumble has toasted oats, brown sugar, cinnamon, and flour. Instead, the crumble part of this dessert was chocolate cookie crumbs that are sprinkled over a thick raspberry sauce (the sauce is the part that’s freeze dried). Although the crumble was a misnomer, the raspberry sauce, which resembled fake blood from a Mario Bava film, wasn’t half bad. It was made of actual raspberries and was gooey, hot, and sweet. You would never mistake it for homemade, but at least it wasn’t salty. In case you were curious, Mrs. Davenport passed on dessert. (Makes four servings, $8.50 per pouch at amazon.com).


Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.