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Fans of freeze-dried food come in many shades – end-of-the-world “preppers”, hungry hikers, top chefs looking for a bit of zing. Jacqui Gibson caught up with a handful of fanatics to find out why this latest food trend is flying high.
Water out, flavour in. That’s freeze drying, and it creates crunch, turns up taste and makes food last a really long time, as much as 30 years. Probably invented by the Inca to preserve potatoes back in the thirteenth century, freeze drying today zaps away moisture in a slow mechanical process. It renders veges, fruit, meat and even some dairy products lightweight and durable, while locking in nutrition and boosting flavour. Add water, and a freeze-dried strawberry or garden pea plumps up again, maybe even sweeter. Once the preserve of doomsayer preppers, trampers, and space travellers, freeze-dried foods are taking off around the world and in our own backyard.
You may find one of Yvonne Cheong’s freeze-dried treats in the next dish or cocktail you order. In 2020, the Wellington entrepreneur launched Foodnerd, a food business specialising in small-batch freeze-dried fruit and vegetables for Wellington’s food and hospitality industry.
She’s supplied dessert cafes with freeze-dried berries and city bars with fruit, vegetables and tiny marshmallows, all freeze-dried. Artisan food retailer Forage Merchants of Wellington stocks her retail packs, as does Fresh Choice in Merivale, Christchurch.
Yvonne’s most recent convert is Hippopotamus’ executive chef Jiwon Do, a “huge fan”. He’s using freeze-dried lemon with a citrus oil to enhance the flavour and texture of his fish of the day. He’s also added parsley powder that Yvonne’s made exclusively for him to the deer-milk dessert.
“I wanted something with maximum colour and flavour; something that hadn’t completely lost the chlorophyll. I knew dried parsley wouldn’t do the job.” He likes the “unrefined” aspect of the powder – “You can still see all the tiny leaves.”
Wellington chef Vicki Young says few people realise how flavoursome and versatile freeze-dried foods are.
“It’s exciting. As kids we’re told, ‘don’t play with your food’. Well, freeze-dried food gives you full licence to play.”
Vicki met Yvonne at a Welly Hospo Wāhine networking event and the pair have experimented with freeze-drying foods for Vicki’s various projects ever since.
“She’s fearless and I love her approach to my crazy ideas. She’s freeze-dried corn, which I used in a dessert and cocktail match. Together, we’ve freeze-dried vegan ice cream for a pop-up event last year.” Experimenting with tomatoes was “perilous” – they were whipped out of the freeze-dryer “mid-explosion”, in the nick of time. “They were so good, like little pockets of sugar, and just so wild-looking and intensely flavoured.”
While Yvonne is excited about her business, she admits it’s still early days.
Her husband’s desire to stockpile food in the early weeks of covid led to her to her importing a domestic-scale freeze-dryer from the United States and setting up a small business.
“We freeze dried all sorts of things – vegetables, cheese, chicken. You name it,” says Yvonne. “But we found fruit tasted particularly amazing.” Nothing, not even sugar, has to be added to fruit, “the freeze-drying process retains its nutritional value and makes everything crunchy.”
Their commercial range is mostly fruits, including banana, orange, pineapple and berries, and petite popmallows, Yvonne’s only freeze-dried lolly.
The global freeze-dried food market is expected to grow by more than eight percent annually over the next three years according to market research reports.
It is growing fast in the Asia-Pacific region, with an increasing demand for ready-to-eat meals. But exploiting this demand is not straightforward.
Hataitai food writer and entrepreneur Rosie Percival has spent some years exploring the possibilities of freeze-dried ready-to-eat meals aimed at outdoorsy types and trampers. Using Massey University’s freeze-dryer, and with help from a food technology student, Rosie prototyped two gourmet vegan meals. But the cost of producing the meals themselves, combined with the difficulty of finding compostable bags that could withstand the requisite hot water, proved too much. So she switched to making freeze-dried vegetable mixes that could be added to an existing meal for nutrition and texture. This time she contracted a commercial freeze-dryer, but before the year was out the company shut down.
Rosie shelved freeze-dried products altogether, and settled on a line of dehydrated hummus and blackbean dips, which she plans to launch this summer. “It has been about identifying a process that’s viable and still meets the needs of my target market. And, for me, the cost of freeze drying was too big a barrier.”
According to New Zealand food technologist Samuel Richardson, freeze drying (or lyophilisation) is a three-stage process of removing water from food. These steps are usually freezing, drying (using vacuum), and secondary drying (using sublimation).
Refined by various industries for more than a century, freeze drying is now commonly used in the food, pharmaceutical and aeronautical industries. During World War II, for example, it was used to preserve human blood. In the 1970s, it became the preferred means of preserving food for space travel. It seems to have surged again during the global pandemic as people sought to dodge shortages by stockpiling.
Samuel says that freeze drying can maintain a food product’s colour, shape, and nutritional value. It also lengthens shelf life, intensifies flavour, and makes foods more crisp and lightweight.
But freeze drying is relatively expensive to set up and to run. It uses significantly more energy than air drying. And buying and setting up a freeze-drying plant costs anywhere from tens of thousands to more than a hundred thousand dollars.
Katie Louttit launched her freeze-dried lolly business, Sweets and Treats, in October 2021. She’d noted the popularity of freeze-dried sweets online during lockdowns, and wanted a small business that could grow into a fulltime job. Katie searched high and low for an affordable freeze dryer and eventually found an American-manufactured model in Auckland, and had it shipped to Christchurch. After several months’ experimentation with many kinds of sweets, she launched a range of around a dozen freeze-dried lollies to an eager market.
After less than a year in business, Katie has already decided it’s time to buy bigger machinery, increase her production, and rebrand. “I’m only just keeping up with demand. I’m turning down requests to bulk buy my product.”
She explains that the process changes the texture of sweets completely. “It makes things airy, but crunchy. It feels like hokey pokey in your mouth. Kiwis love freeze-dried pineapple lumps.” And it intensifies taste freeze-dried sour lollies “come out even more sour.”
She says Wellingtonians, her second-biggest consumer market right now, are “adventurous and always keen to give new things a try.”