The author’s wife picks wild blueberries to make roll-ups. Wild ones are smaller than the domestic variety.
It was mid-January and the first of many trips afield with biologists from the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. We were gathering data about a small pack of gray wolves that had recently migrated into the region.
I’d already had a solid year of staying a week at a time out there, almost every week, and these excursions were old hat to me. But this was my Odawa friends’ first trip out wearing snowshoes. We’d started just after sunup, and now, as we neared the parked Natural Resources Commission truck with 10 miles under our ’shoes—most of it breaking trail—one of them announced that he was “starving.”
With all the activity of that day, food had never once crossed my mind. I rarely ate any meal except supper when I was alone. Now, I saw the effects of hypoglycemia creeping up on my companions. I’d seen it before and it had never been a positive experience.
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I dug into the daypack I was carrying and withdrew a nutritious, tasty snack that should have struck a note of familiarity in my friends’ genealogy. As I held out the opened Tupperware dish, I hid a laugh; one of my companions was gobbling them so enthusiastically that he bit his own fingers.
The snacks that my friends were scarfing down were, in fact, a homemade version of the popular Fruit Roll-Ups marketed to children—probably more to parents—as a healthy alternative to candy.
Roll-ups are easy to make, durable and lightweight enough for backpacking. This article concerns itself with making them from blueberries, but they can be made from almost any fruits or vegetables. A bonus is that whatever they’re made from, they have a shelf life of at least several months in open air.
The roll-up concept is ancient; every society has dried meat and produce to decrease trail weight, and to extend storage life to last from harvest to harvest. Before refrigeration, dehydrating fruits and vegetables was essential, and fresh produce was a rarity, available only in season. The ability to buy recently ripened fruits and vegetables is a recent phenomenon that we’ve come to take for granted.
- 3 cups berries
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
First, you need to render the fruits into a form that dries most efficaciously into a thin, tough sheet. This step is the favorite of Neanderthal types because it gives us an excuse to get down and physical with our food.
Start with 3 quarts of blueberries. Volume is dependent on the size of the individual berries; domestic blueberries are much larger (and less tasty) than their wild cousins. The objective is to take a bowlful of blueberries and do your level best to mangle them, reducing the berries to a homogenous pulp. A food processor or blender may be used, but just squishing the mass between your fingers suffices.
Super-fine consistency isn’t necessary; a little pulp gives the finished product personality. When berries are sufficiently blended, mix in a cup of granulated sugar (optional) to add a few more calories on the trail. I also like to add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, for increased tartness.
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This next step is purely preferential: I like to simmer the mass of crushed berries in a saucepan, boiling it for about 10 minutes, stirring every few seconds. I add a quarter cup of cornstarch, dissolved into about the same amount of water, to further enhance the finished product’s gummy-bear-like consistency.
To render pulped fruits into a dried sheet, you can use a commercially made dehydrator. Or if you live where the weather is hot enough, you can get the job done the same way our forebears did for millennia, by just spreading them thinly on a solar-heated surface. I generally use a convection oven. Evenly spread the fruit about a quarter of an inch deep onto a very lightly oiled cookie sheet. Place it on your oven’s center rack.
Ovens vary, but I find that 185 to 195 degrees Fahrenheit is usually ideal. You aren’t cooking the fruit (it has already been cooked and pasteurized if you simmered it in a saucepan, anyway), your aim is just to drive moisture from it. The thin sheet can burn easily if dehydrated too fast at too high a heat. Too little heat is always preferable to too much.
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Check periodically, but expect that it will take four to five hours for the sheet to become tacky enough to be peeled up at its edges. If the bottom is still wet, drying can be hastened by lifting the fruit carefully with a spatula, then turning it over on the cookie sheet and placing it back into the oven.
The sheet should come free of the cookie sheet easily enough, but don’t fret if you tear it. I like to sprinkle it with a little more sugar, confectioners or granulated, and then use scissors to cut it into strips. A light sprinkling of sugar gives what I think is the ideal tackiness, and on the trail, especially if you’re snowshoeing or backpacking, it’s hard to get too many calories.
The most important feature of dried foods is that they keep for long periods of time without refrigeration. Moisture is the enemy because it allows for bacteria, which causes decomposition. Open air is an ally. I’ve stored dehydrated blueberry strips for up to three months in a cloth sack that was exposed to the air. Move the strips around every day to ensure that air circulates evenly, and, if you want to roll them, don’t do it until you’re ready to hit the trail.
Eventually, depending primarily on factors like humidity and temperature, strips will become drier, tougher and more jerky-like. The edibility of dried fruits has been reported after years of storage. Personally, mine have always been consumed before half a year passes.
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This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Spring 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.
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