"Like a bad cold, the whole thing left me angrily dribbling snot, wondering why I couldn't taste anything else at all". Fliss Freeborn trials dehydrated chillis from seven brands, with varying results. Read on to discover which resembled dog sick, which smelled like a dead skunk dipped in Marmite, and which was almost as good as real food...
Sometimes, people sign up for things without quite grasping the full reality of what the thing entails. For many, this is when they say they'll run a marathon. For an unlucky few, it's when they agree to marry someone. For me, it was when I offered to taste-test seven different dehydrated chilli con carnes for the good of all of you earnest UKH/UKC readers.
Tasted like the powdered gravy you'd make to pour over instant mash on a particularly nihilistic Thursday: not unpleasant, but a far cry from recognisable chilli con carne
My goal was to find the best ready-made lightweight meal that you'd actually like to sit down to eat at the end of a long hill day. Being obsessed with eating well outside, I wanted to find something that not only nourished aching muscles and filled rumbling stomachs, but one that genuinely sparked joy in the taste department too.
To even out discrepancies I chose same type of dehydrated meal from across a range of different brands, comparing weight for calories, nutritional profile (a good balance in terms of carbs, fat and protein), cost, and taste.
Every brand seemed to have a version of chilli con carne and there were lots of meat free options too, some of which I included for the good of all the non-carnivorous folk out there. And sure, I'd happily eaten ration-pack chilli con carnes before - you know, the boil in the bag ones. But this was my first foray into anything dehydrated beyond the raspberries in my cereal.
So, fully equipped with unbridled naivety, I bought seven meals off basecampfood.com for around the price of a small family car, and put my tastebuds to work.
Real Turmat Chilli Con Carne - £10.99
I was hopeful about my first meal. The packaging certainly gave it big licks about how good it was going to be, and it promised a 'cook' time of just 8 minutes, which is much faster than most of the others. On first opening after the allotted soakage time, it smelt promising. I could see good chunks of beef in the sauce, and it looked like it was about the right texture, if a little on the runny side. Then I tasted it, and any hope I had ran off to have an affair with hindsight.
The beans were nowhere near hydrated enough and there was a back-note of potato starch which lingered for far longer than any Hula Hoop lover would deem pleasant. I left it for a further 3 minutes to see if that made a difference, and while this made things slightly softer, there was still an unnerving crunch to the middle of the kidney beans. In terms of flavour, it was rather one-dimensional, but this is forgivable within the confines of dehydration - it'd be unfair to expect the same richness you'd get in a chilli at home. Instead, my main gripe was that, despite its name, this meal had never been near a chilli pepper in its life. I longed for some hot sauce, or even a desperate sprinkle of cumin; something to make it taste like it hadn't been seasoned with wallpaper paste. I considered picking some nearby wild garlic and chopping that in to give it something to cling onto, but I'd already promised myself no alterations. This was to be a fair test - but not on me.
Nutrition wise, the pack provided 570kcal for 151g of dried weight. It was well balanced in terms of carbs, fat and protein, but if you're a big person who's done a huge day of walking you'd probably want a fair amount more food at dinner than just this. There is of course, the option to have two, but you'd probably go bankrupt pretty soon because they're more than a sodding tenner each. Yep. Each meal costs £10.99 before delivery, which is just ludicrous. I'd want it to have twice the calories for this sort of price, and do a song-and-dance routine too.
- 570kcal, Fat:26G, Carbs:52G Protein:24G
- RRP £10.99
- Dry weight 151g
- Taste score: 56/100
LYO Vegan gf Chilli with Polenta - £6.99
I bought this chilli because it was specifically a vegan and gluten free option, two common dietary requirements in an ever-growing number of people who might also like to eat food outside. What I didn't read, however, was the small print. It turns out this meal only provides a measly 271 calories and just 8.4g of protein. I've drunk cocktails with more substance.
What was balanced, however, was the flavour. I was absolutely taken aback by how nice it was, and greedily inhaled the whole thing - more than could be said for most of the other meals in this test. Lyo's Chili Sin Carne felt fresh, wonderfully spiced, and best of all, the vegetables had retained some of their bite without still being crunchy. My only criticism in this department is that the occasional not-quite-crushed coriander seed found its way into the gaps in my teeth, but that's probably a non-issue for people whose molars decided to sprout in the right places.
Overall, this would be fine (if bloody expensive) for a cold day's hill snack, made quickly with boiling water from a flask. But seeing as you'd need at least three of these to feel full, anyone sensible would choose something bigger and more nutritionally complete for an evening meal.
- 271 kcals, Fat:7.7g, Carbs:36g, Protein:8.4g
- RRP £6.99
- Dry Weight 70g
- Taste score: 85/100
Summit to Eat Vegetarian Chilli Con Carne - £5.99
Having visited far too many outdoor shops in my lifetime, these are the packets that always stare back at me in the food section, their bright yellow jackets beaming suggestively into my wokny retinas. I've always been curious about them, and now it was finally time to satisfy that urge.
Reader, it missed the mark by a nautical mile. To quote Blackadder: it started badly, tailed off in the middle and the less said about the end, the better.
Firstly, the bag is overfilled, which makes finding and removing the dessicant packet impossible without spilling half your not-yet-hydrated dinner all over the floor of the tent and creating secondary, Gore-Tex flavoured chilli. Secondly, the instructions told me to continuously stir the thing for 8 whole minutes. I thought this was odd, as surely - surely - this would obliterate any sort of texture whatsoever. I even Googled the instructions to see if this was a misprint on the packet because all of the other dehydrated meals asked me to leave it for a bit and then stir. But nope, Summit to Eat insisted I pimp out my wrist for a full 480 seconds, each one more tedious than the last.
And I was right about the texture: it ended up looking like when a dog eats something it shouldn't, and then you have to scrape it all up from the pavement the next day while the poor animal in question slinks off with its tail between its legs. Harder to pin down, meanwhile, was the flavour, probably because there wasn't much of it beyond an isolated whack of pure chili and a weird incongruent sweetness throughout. Like a bad cold, the whole thing left me angrily dribbling snot, wondering why I couldn't taste anything else at all. This was the only one I didn't finish.
While Summit to Eat both ranked and resembled bottom for taste, the cost, weight, and calories were fine, if a little megre on the protein. Perhaps next time it shouldn't be stirred for so long, but I certainly won't be buying another one to test out anytime soon.
- 628kcal Fat:30.4g Carbs: 64.2g Protein:15.1g
- RRP: £5.99
- Dry Weight: 136g
- Taste score: 12/100
Firepot Chilli Con Carne with Rice - £7.45
I've been recommended to try Firepot Foods by several different people in the past, but I went in with no expectations, because having expectations tends to lead to disappointment - ask any parent. But like a knight in tasty armour, Firepot swooped in and saved me from despair. It was like eating actual food - a low bar I know - but I'd have been happy to eat this for lunch at home, even if I wasn't hungry enough to start chewing on a block of post-it notes for sustenance.
The rehydration period of 15 minutes was the longest out of all of the meals I tested, but it was worth the wait. The chunks of beef were plentiful and well-flavoured, and it was nicely spiced throughout, with what started as a subtle chilli undertone working its way up to a pleasant nose-running crescendo by the end of things. The rice stayed fluffy and distinct, uninhibited by gloop-inducing starch in the same way as many of its competitors. And happily, at 600kcals per pack, it teeters into 'decent meal' territory, with 30g of protein thrown in for good measure.
Someone has evidently thought about how this was going to work in terms of taste, texture and nutrition. Based on the high quality of this meal, I'd definitely be keen to choose other options from this range if I were undertaking a multiday hike and actually wanted to eat something nutritious and delicious at the same time. A clear winner so far.
- 600kcals Fat: 17.7g Carbs: 78.7g Protein: 30.6g
- RRP: £7.45
- Dry Weight: 135g
- Taste score: 93/100
BeWell Vegetarian Chilli Con Carne - £6.49
Upon hydration, this one smelled like someone had dipped a dead skunk in Marmite and put it in a hole to ferment for a year or two. However, like washed-rind cheeses, durian fruit, and some offal-based dishes, sometimes the smell isn't the whole story - so I put my nasal predjudices aside and tucked in. It was fine. And by fine, I mean exceedingly ok - nothing more, nothing less.
The onions were still a little crunchy, despite me accidently leaving it for a minute or two longer than the specified hydration time, but the rest of the texture was acceptable. The soy-based "meat" was more like mince than big chunks of beef, and had diffused around the whole thing rather than being in discernable isolated clumps. It was also heavy on the kidney beans, so felt slightly Heinzy, but other than that was pretty middle of the road in terms of taste. It could have done with some more interesting seasonings, but I was beginning to think this was an issue across most of the meals I tried, and by this point, I was happy to accept that I could taste at least something to do with cumin and oregano.
I'm sure Rannulph Fiennes - whose face adorns the packaging - wouldn't have given a rat's arse what it tasted like, as long as it supplied enough calories, which it most certainly did: there was 696 of them in total, with a big dollop of protein and masses of carbohydrate for overnight glycogen replacement. It's not sexy or exciting, but as meat-free meals go it's going to do the job. Just don't open it near anyone else.
- 696 kcals, Fat: 18g, Carbs: 97g Protein: 42g
- RRP £6.49
- Dry Weight 180g
- Taste score: 58/100
Expedition Foods Chilli Con Carne with Rice - £8.99
They've not yet found a way of dehydrating water, so the next best thing if you're limited by how much H2O you can carry is to use as little as possible to cook with. This high calorie chilli con carne only required 250ml, as opposed to 500-700ml, which is perfect for long expedition days where you can't access much aqua. It's light too, packing over 800 calories into just 155g of dried weight.
The main caveat of this is that the less water you use, the more likely the dehydrated meal is to take on the texture of pollyfiller. This was sadly the case for Expedition Food's attempt at chilli, giving the distinct impression that someone had already chewed it for me. Taste-wise, it felt like that same person had extracted all the flavour from it too, leaving me with an underwhelming aroma of tomato ketchup and an overwhelming lack of anything else. I would normally at least mention some spices or ingredients here, but seeing as I genuinely couldn't distinguish anything in particular, I won't.
One thing which struck me about the instructions on this one was that there was no indication of how long to leave it for, so I averaged the rehydration times of all the others, coming up with 9 minutes. What I really should have done is left this to soak, forgotten about it, then gone off to eat a decent meal in a nearby pub. But I was relatively hungry and quite skint, so I managed half before donating it to a group of friends who were similarly unimpressed.
- 800kcal, Fat: 43.9, Carbs: 77.6g, Protein: 33.8g
- RRP: £8.99
- Dry Weight: 155g
- Taste Score: 34/100
Extreme Adventure Food Chilli Con Carne - £6.99
Putting 800 kcals into 162 grams of dehydrated weight may be relatively difficult, but Extreme Adventure Foods has done it for £2 less than Expedition Foods. Oh, sure, a lot of sacrifices in terms of taste and texture have been made to get here, but if you want a high calorie, nutritionally balanced meal - which may or may not have the constitution of rusty radiator water - you've come to the right place.
In terms of taste, this had a mild yeastiness reminiscent of prepubescent Marmite. In fact, prepubescent is the way I'd describe most of the flavours here: nothing was quite deep or mature enough to be taken entirely seriously. The minced beef was thin on the ground, swamped by a sloppy gravy which should have been made with at least 100ml less water than called for. And the reason I'm using the word 'gravy' here, rather than the mexican 'mole' or even the ubiquitous 'sauce', is because although tomatoes and spices were listed on the ingredient list, they'd somehow gone missing before I ate them. This made everything taste more like the powdered gravy you'd make up to pour over instant mash on a particularly nihilistic Thursday: not wholly unpleasant, but a far cry from a recognisable chilli con carne.
- 800 kcals, Fat: 36.5G, Carbs: 77.1g, Protein: 34.2g
- RRP £6.99
- Dry Weight: 162g
- Taste Score: 41/100
Look, I know I'm a food writer who probably cares a lot more about taste than the average outdoor enthusiast. But really, unless you're doing a multi-multi-multi-multi-day expedition where saving weight and space is paramount to the success of the trip, I'd save yourself the disappointment of eating dehydrated food altogether. For most weekend or 3-4 day excursions including DofE, I'd either go for the much tastier and slightly cheaper boil-in-the-bag options or have a go at making any of these packable, 1-pot camping meals. You'll feel a lot more satisfied in both mind and body, and even if you do have to carry a couple of hundred grams more, I think it's worth it:
If, however, you are doing a multi day exped and want to take care of your tastebuds, Firepot Foods seems to be the way to go here. It's not the cheapest option, but if you're wanting something that's going to satisfy you and provide a good bit of protein for muscle recovery, then it's your best bet if the chilli test is anyting to go by. They also come in 1000 calorie packs for bigger people who'll need more to feel full. I swear I'm not being paid by Firepot for this review.
That said, if you're doing something really fun and daft where you won't be able to access any shops for weeks on end, consider buying a second hand dehydrator and making all your own meals instead - it'll probably save you money in the long run.