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Freeze-dried foods turn into booming local business

Freeze-dried foods turn into booming local business

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JEWELL RIDGE, Va. — Even before the pandemic, Jennifer Joyce was a prepper, gathering food and supplies in preparation of emergencies and events that threaten survival.

Her pantry at her Jewell Ridge, Virginia, home is stocked with hundreds of packages of food that she has freeze-dried — a practice she began as an avid hiker years ago.

She has enough food stored for five people for five years. Each package has a shelf life of 25 years.

And what does she freeze-dry? Just about everything.

She freeze-dries steak, turkey, gravy, green beans, corn and other vegetables for her family and friends, but her bestsellers at local farmers markets are a bit on the sweet side.

Joyce, 39, who goes by “J.J.,” is a year-round vendor at Abingdon Farmers Market, as well as the Tazewell and Lebanon markets during the regular season, where she brings her freeze-dried candy and fruits to each market day.

She even brings her version of homemade pizza crust — yes, it is freeze-dried — that’s made primarily from fresh vegetables.

She's also created a gourmet freeze-dried hot cocoa.

Much of her business is from return customers who love her products.

She estimated she sold as much as 3,000 pounds of homemade freeze-dried taffy during this past Christmas at the Abingdon market.

Not only is the practice of freeze-drying a good way to stay prepared, especially during times of food shortages, but it’s also a fun way to preserve foods, she said.

The food prepper is always experimenting with different foods to freeze-dry. That’s why she named her company Kitchen Science.

J.J. modifies manufactured candy like Skittles, Starbursts and Peach and Apple Rings by freeze-drying them for a different taste and texture. She also freeze-dries her own homemade taffies, caramels and pecans. Customer favorites at the farmers market are her preservative-free freeze-dried apples, bananas and grapes.

“I’ve always made saltwater taffy at home. One day, I experimented and put the taffy in the freeze-drying machine. It came out like perfect little puff balls. The texture is like cotton candy in a solid form. They’re absolutely amazing and unbelievably addictive,” she said.

When the Skittles are freeze-dried, they come out crunchy instead of chewy, and the flavors are intensified. “People with braces like my nephew cannot eat chewy candy like Skittles, but he can enjoy it now,” she said.

Kitchen Science is born

Freeze-drying food has always been a personal choice for J.J. until last year when she had to create her own business out of necessity.

When her fiancé, a crane operator, was laid off for 10 straight months during the pandemic, the couple knew they had to do something else to help pay the bills.

“I never planned on making this a business, but we took a leap of faith, and it’s been good. I had never sold my freeze-dried products. I mostly was giving them as gifts for special occasions.”

The couple invested in a new freeze dryer to go along with the two she already had, and they also bought lots of freeze-drying bags and other supplies.

“An, that didn’t include the food,” she said. “I started buying 50-pound bags of sugar not knowing if I was spending my money on sugar instead of paying my power bill.

“It was just a stressful thing. It was a gamble, and I didn’t know if it would work out.”

J.J. said all the work and worry did pay off eventually.

“We’ve paid for all of the products we invested in and even paid the bills, too,” she said with a laugh.

A healthier way

J.J. said freeze-dried food is actually a healthy way to eat and store food.

Freeze-drying food is completely different than dehydrating food, she explained.

The machine freezes raw or cooked foods to temperatures as cold as minus 61 degrees. Once frozen, the freeze dryer creates a vacuum in the food chamber, and as the food is warmed, the water turns to a vapor and evaporates out of the food.

“For example, freeze-drying takes spaghetti back to the consistency before it was cooked. All you do is open the bag, pour in water and let it sit to rehydrate,” she said.

According to her, freeze-drying maintains 97% of the nutritional value of food.

What’s for dinner?

J.J. got interested in the process when she became a hiker, but she said it’s a good way to store and transport foods anytime.

“It’s lightweight for carrying in a backpack. You can even take freeze-dried products on road trips when you don’t want to stop for fast food.”

Freeze-drying also is good for leftovers.

“If we have leftover steak on the grill, I slice it, put it in a bag and freeze-dry it. When I’m having dinner one night, all I have to do is pull it off the shelf and add water.

“Sometimes we just eat out of the bags, and we have no dishes to clean. Or I can pour it onto a plate and serve it on the table and you’d never know,” she said.

Freeze-drying food can be a time-consuming project for some foods that contain a lot of water. Green grapes require 63 hours to process because of their water content.

“The freeze-dried grapes look like they have been sprinkled with sugar, but they have not. It’s all natural. It’s not a frozen product, it’s freeze-dried,” said J.J.

“I love my products. I eat them. I give them away, and I want everyone to experience them.”

Products from Kitchen Science can be purchased at the Abingdon Farmers Market. The winter market is open from 10 a.m. to noon on the first and third Saturdays through March.

During the regular season, she sells the products at farmers markets in Lebanon and Tazewell.

The products also can be purchased at Market on Main at 160 E. Main St. in Abingdon, The Trading Shoppees in Tazewell and Bristol, Virginia, Southern Gap Outdoor Adventure in Grundy, Virginia, Life Life Chiropractic in Cedar Bluff, Virginia, and Get Fancy in Lebanon, Virginia.

Follow Kitchen Science on Facebook and at www.ezkitchenscience.square.site.

Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at news@washconews.com.

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