We talk to Maine chef and owner, Jennifer Scism, to learn what works and what doesn't when you're cooking ready-to-eat meals
Got an emergency? Then you're going to need to eat.
Dehydrated meals are designed to disappoint. Well, maybe not to disappoint by actual design, but the fact that they're pre-made and vacuum-dried mean they're never as good as you hope they might be. Kind of like any movie starring John Cusack after the year 2000. (Hot Tub Time Machine… need we say more?)
Ready-to-eat meals, in which you add boiling water to a packet of pre-made food, are the easiest ways to store food in case of extended emergencies. You can lay away a few dozen of these in back of a closet for a rainy (or hurricane-y) day, and know your family will get fed, just as long as you can make boiling water. But the question is this: Will your family be even more miserable when this food is served up?
The Good To-Go options are surprising. No beef stroganoff, thank ye gods, but Pad Thai, Indian vegetable korma, and a chicken gumbo.
We’ve tried most of the ready-to-eat meals, and some are better than others. When it comes to the big companies, we do like Mountain House. But we recently came across a more bespoke option, Good To-Go, created by an honest-go-goodness chef, Jennifer Scism, who’s cooked at a bunch of the NYC majors, and who now makes her Good To-Go meals in Maine, using high-quality ingredients and offering pescatarian, vegetarian, and vegan options. We decided to give them a go.
The Good To-Go options are surprising. No beef stroganoff, thank ye gods, but Pad Thai, Indian vegetable Korma, and a chicken gumbo. And yes, the results are good! Not always perfect — there's sometimes one ingredient that doesn't come back to life as perfectly as the rest — but the meals comes surprisingly close to the standards of good New York take-out. (When it comes to ready-to-eat meals, that's a high compliment.) As one of our tasters commented, "This tastes like food."
Take for instance the Pad Thai, one of Scism's own favorites. Fifteen minutes after the boiling water is added, the food is put on a plate with steam rising and a heady aroma in the air. The noodles are thin and cut short, unlike the long noodles we're used to. But they look like noodles. They aren’t mushy, and they haven’t lost their noodle consistency. On our first taste, we find a healthy blast of umami goodness from anchovies and fresh shrimp; a hit of cleansing acid; and a faint bite of red chiles. Oh, and the peanuts, which you add yourself from a small separate bag, are still crunchy.
And so we happily eat the entire serving. Our six year old son asks for more. This doesn’t disappoint.
We spoke to Scism over the phone. A graduate of the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, her resume includes stints at NYC's Bouley and the Lobster Club, and she was also co-owner of the very successful Annisa. In 2010 she moved to Maine with her now-husband, David Koorits, and started doing outdoorsy things like taking extended backpacking trips. While doing so, she discovered that most "dehydrated camping and backpacking food" were pretty dismal. So she started cooking her own, just to keep herself happy. Things progressed. Today, her Good To-Go meals are sold on Amazon, REI, and EMS.
Q: So, apparently the argument in ready-to-eat circles is dehydrated versus freeze dried. Can you break that down for us?
Scism: The main difference is that when you freeze dry food, it inherently becomes smushy. The bonus is that it reconstitutes faster. With a freeze-dried packet, you can add boiling water and eat in as little as seven minutes. But it's more... smushy. I'm all about texture; I want to chew my food. Dehydrated foods give a nice, toothy chew. So we go the route of dehydrated food.
Q: As a fine chef, how do you approach making a meal that will end up in a packet?
Scism: I'll make it from scratch, then use the dehydrater, and wait to see what will go wrong. One of the biggest hurdles when it comes to rehydrating is that all the ingredients come back evenly. Some ingredients don't hydrate well... or sometimes at all.
Q: How do your chef's instincts kick in?
Scism: Usually I end up deconstructing it. After all, that was a big rage in cuisine 15 years ago. Everybody was deconstructing everything — 'Oh, look at my deconstructed New England clam chowder!' In this case, for something like our Herbed Mushroom Risotto, I found that arborio rice is very inconsistent. So now we cook the arborio separately and add it at the end.
Q: What separates your food from some of the bigger companies?
Scism: We don't add preservatives or additives. Our sodium levels are low. Once in a while we get a complaint that the food isn't salty enough, but I always say you can add something like salt when you're eating it — but you can't take it away. Healthier options and nutrition are always on my mind. Sodium levels should be one third of what you need in a day.
"As a new Yorker, I wasn't very prepared. We always had candles, but because it was charming — not because you might not be able to see."
Q: Shifting gears a bit, let's talk about how ready-to-eat meals fit into being prepared for an emergency.
Scism: I think nowadays, after all of these recent natural disasters, people are trying to be a little bit more prepared. Not to the edge of paranoia, but to be self sufficient, where you gather things to last you a week. Mainers tend to be more prepared in general. We lose power often. But as a new Yorker, I didn't really prepare that way. We always had candles, because it was charming — not because you might not be able to see.
Q: How long will Good To-Go meals last on the shelf?
Scism: Most of our entrees last four years — three of them have a five-year shelf life. Our breakfast options — oatmeal and granola — have only a one-year life as they have nuts and seeds. Nuts go bad after a while, they just do.
Q: What really happens to dehydrated after time?
Scism: As food gets older, the ingredients might not taste as good. They get lackluster. While they probably could last much longer, I'm a believer that food shouldn't last forever. It's no longer as vibrant. So we look at five years as pretty much being the max.
Good To-Go Preparedness Party Pack
After tasting a variety Good To-Go's products, we here at Preparation Concierge very much recommend these meals, especially for families with picky eaters and those concerned with good ingredients. (The chicken gumbo is one of our favorites.) We've even found ourselves eating them on days when we don't feel like cooking or ordering in. (And yeah, that's even the case in NYC.)
Here is Scism's suggestion for a representative collection of food to put away for preparedness concerns — or what she somewhat jokingly refers to as the "preparedness party pack."
Note: Entrees are offered as both single servings (4 ounces) and double servings (8 ounces). Go with the double servings.
7 days — family of 3
Budget: Around $300.
Says Scism: "Our breakfasts are huge. For entrees, our double servings are best for families. All of these would fit into a 12 inch by 12 inch by 6 inch box — so it won't take up a ton of room. Put it in back of a closet."
Practical advice: How to boil water if you've got no electricity
Any ready-to-eat meal is only as good as your ability to prepare it, for which you need water (see water storage advice here), and the ability to boil it.
If you live in an apartment and you experience a blackout your stove or oven are likely to stop working as well. So how do you cook or boil water? Our recommendation is a backup system like the Sterno ActionStation Culinary 7,000-BTU Butane Stove. It packs up small and is easy to store in a closet, and works with 8-oz butane bottles that are also easy to store. If you're on the go, it's hard to beat the Jetboil Flash Cooking System, which boils water in 2 minutes and weighs next to nothing. It is even available with a coffee press. But you'll need the Jetboil-specific gas tanks.
See Good To-Go for more information on their meals.
About us: Preparation Concierge is devoted to emergency planning and disaster preparation. We offer users level 101 information and advice , and a smartly curated list of gear, food, and water solutions . We take a particular interest in urban and suburban areas — these populations are especially fragile and susceptible to disasters, and are often the most unprepared.