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How To Make Pemmican: The World’s First Survival Food

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How To Make Pemmican: The World's First Survival FoodFor centuries, pemmican was the ultimate survival food. But is there any reason we would want to eat it today?

Pemmican was invented by Native Americans. They depended on it when food was scarce, especially in the deep cold of winter. What native tribes had learned was that pemmican kept them warm in winter and well-fed even in the worst of times.

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Inevitably, fur traders, miners, and other European nomads found their way into the early territories of the northern United States and Canada and came across pemmican for the first time. It wouldn’t be the last.

Pemmican Indian

What is Pemmican?

In a word, pemmican is fat and meat. In fact, it’s just as much fat as meat in some recipes. Native Americans made it with bear fat or buffalo fat. Beef tallow, which is cow fat, soon became the fat of choice for the Hudson Bay Company and at forts and outposts across the early North American territories.

Its popularity was driven by its portability, preservative properties, high calories, and taste. It’s enough to give one pause as we ponder the taste of pure fat, but there was more to pemmican than just fat.

It’s a One Bite Meal

Pemmican was usually made with dried and powdered meat. Think of jerky as crisp as bacon ground into a powder or mealy mush. The meat varied from venison to buffalo to beef, although moose, antelope, and anything else on four legs was fair game.

The meat of choice was cut into strips, dried, and pulverized into a powder and mixed with the fat.

Pemmican Bar

(Pemmican was the inspiration for today’s energy bars.)

Wild berries were often added along with a generous dose of salt to further add flavor and help preserve it. Sometimes honey and nuts were also added, and the honey actually added additional preservative properties. The result was a nutritional wallop in every bite.

What’s in a Word?

The word “pemmican” is a derivative of the Cree Indian word “pimihkan.” Curiously the word “pimi” is the Cree word for “greasy fat.” The fat to meat ratio was typically 1:1 or 50% powdered meat and 50% fat. Some recipes vary that ratio and typically less fat was used in warmer climates.

A curious side note on animal fat is that it actually has food preservative properties in and of itself. Pioneer women would pack a crock with cooked meats and pour a layer of fat over the top allowing it to cool and congeal to preserve the meat. Salt certainly helped in this regard and probably had a lot to do with enhancing the flavor.

Pemmican Success Stories

Pemmican Antarctic Explorer

Don’t explore the world without it. Pemmican was a mainstay on expeditions north and south and all points east and west. Arctic and Antarctic explorers including Admiral Peary, Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott, Fridtjof Nansen, and Sir Ernest Shackleton made pemmican their primary food source on their expeditions. Both the men and their sled dogs subsisted on pemmican.

But Should We?

In spite of how it sounds, pemmican is actually a very nutritious food. What scares most people off is the amount of fat, and for good reason. Animal fats like beef tallow or suet and bacon fat are saturated fats.

Suet is the fat that collects around a cow’s internal organs like its kidneys and liver and was often used to make pemmican. Saturated fats are high in cholesterol, particularly the “bad” cholesterol or LDL cholesterol. LDL stands for low-density lipids and it’s the kind of cholesterol that forms plaque on the inner walls of arteries.

Then again, fat from bacon, steaks, pork chops, and even chicken fat and duck fat fall into the saturated fat category, and a lot of us don’t hesitate to eat our share. It’s the old moderation story. It’s okay to eat fats, but it’s a balancing act with how much you consume on a daily basis, and how you manage your carbohydrate intake while consuming fats.

The telegram is: lay off the carbs if you’re eating a lot of fat. Then again, if you’re on the Paleo diet, dig in.

Pemmican Shelf-Life

Pemmican reportedly has a long shelf-life at room temperature. That’s a questionable claim. You might want to stick with the fridge, freezer, or some other way to keep it cool like a root cellar or basement.

Explorers traveled with Pemmican packed in cans while early pioneers and Native peoples wrapped their Pemmican in canvas or hides. Arctic and Antarctic explorers had the benefit of year-round freezing temperatures, although Antarctica reported temperatures in the mid-60’s last week, so good luck with that.

We’re not going to take any chances and recommend that you at least refrigerate any pemmican you ever choose to make or freeze it. It actually freezes well. Just ask one of the Arctic explorers.

Assume a shelf life in the refrigerator similar to a raw piece of steak or pork. That’s usually about a week or two, depending on how fresh it is. In the freezer, it can keep for up to a year.

Pemmican Recipe

Pemmican Recipe Shot

The recipe is actually pretty simple, but there are a couple of steps that take a little time to do. What you’re essentially doing is mixing rendered fat and honey into a blend of pulverized meat, with some dried fruits and nuts.

You mix it all together and pour it out and flatten it into a pan and freeze, slice, and package. Here are the ingredients and the step by step process.

Ingredients:

Bacon and Tallow

  • 2 pounds of bacon and a 1 pound of suet or beef tallow (beef fat) which should give you about a cup of rendered fat.
  • ¼ pound (4 ounces) of jerky
  • The remaining crispy, fried bacon from your rendering

Pemmican Ingredients

  • 1 cup of raisins
  • 1 cup of craisins (dried cranberries)
  • 1 cup of peanuts
  • ¼ cup of honey
  • 1 teaspoon of Kosher salt

Directions:

1. Render the fat from the bacon and the beef fat. Once the bacon is crisp, remove it and drain. Toss the jerky into the fat and fry until crisp.

Bacon Rendering

2. Remove the jerky and add to the plate with the crisp bacon and set the fat aside.

Bacon and Jerky
Rendered Fat

3. Process the dry, crisp bacon and jerky in a food processor until it turns into bits. You should end up with about a cup.

Processed Meats

4. Combine the craisins, nuts, and raisins in a bowl.

Raisins, Craisins, and Nuts

5. Add the processed meats and the kosher salt to the bowl.

Dry Ingredients in Bowl

6. Mix all of the ingredients together until well distributed.

Dry Ingredients Blended

7. Pour the rendered fat into the mix. You should have about a cup of fat.

Adding Fat to Dry Ingredients

8. Mix everything together, making sure to incorporate and spread around the fat until everything is well blended.

Fat Blended Into Dry Ingredients

9. Add the ¼ cup of honey to the mix.

Honey Added to Mix

10. Mix and blend everything together until the honey is well distributed into the mix. When you start to see honey strands stretching across the ingredients, you’re ready.

Combining the Mix

11. Drop the mix into a 9 x 13 aluminum foil pan.

Pemmican in the Pan

12. Gently but firmly, spread the mix down and across and into the pan until you have a smooth, uniform surface and the same thickness across the pan. Freeze overnight. This will make slicing and packaging easier.

Pemmican Spread and Compressed

13. Cut the pemmican into snack-size bars about 1 ½ inches wide and 3 inches long.

Bar of Pemmican

14. Wrap them in wax paper and place them in a resealable plastic container and freeze until you’re ready to eat.

Pemmican Wrapped and Stacked

Tips for Eating Pemmican

Three recipes for eating pemmican have emerged over the years.

1. Fried Pemmican Rechaud

This recipe involves frying the pemmican in its own fat. Wild onions like ramps and potatoes were often added until browned, followed by two or three tablespoons of flour and salt to taste. This can be spread on bread or crackers and eaten like a sandwich.

I offered some to my wife in the kitchen once and she walked away shaking her head with disgust. I guess pemmican is kind of a guy thing.

2. Rubaboo

This recipe was a favorite of fur traders. A chunk of pemmican about the size of your fist was dropped into a quart of boiling water. Flour is added next along with onions, potatoes, carrots and some salt for seasoning.

Fur traders would also add a little sugar and chopped salt pork. It will have a soup-like consistency and was eaten that way. Great with sourdough bread (which my wife likes).

3. Raw

This was the eating method of choice for Arctic and Antarctic explorers and Canadian voyageurs. A chunk of pemmican was held in one hand and a piece was bitten off and chewed.

It was instant energy after a long portage and is the reason so many explorers favored it on their expeditions.

Pemmican On A Plate

Keep it Frozen

Pemmican goes bad when the fats turn rancid. You’ll smell it and taste it if that happens. For this reason, you should keep your pemmican frozen. You can safely transport it for a couple of days and eat it on a backpacking or fishing trip. It also makes a great survival food if disaster strikes.

Pemmican in many respects was a food born of desperation. It allowed many people to get through rough times and if that’s on your mind, it’s a good recipe to know.

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33 Comments

  1. Cynthia on May 30, 2020 at 7:16 pm

    Could you dry can this? Sealed in jars it should be safe.. just wonering

  2. Pat on January 12, 2019 at 6:53 pm

    I can not find beef fat where I live however lard is available. I will use lard to make this mix. Powdered blueberries are great according to people I have talked too.

    • carlo on August 27, 2019 at 8:38 pm

      I had to ask the butcher for it. Also ask for grass feed beef tallow. I was told its more nutritious. Haha a more nutritious fat.

  3. Val Jardine on November 27, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    Can lard be used in place of tallow?

  4. bob on September 28, 2016 at 6:22 am

    don’t put it in an airtight container. it will go rancid fast. wrap it in breathable cotton cloth.

    • lc on February 25, 2017 at 10:28 am

      if yours goes rancid, you didnt cook your fat properly

  5. Toribia on August 5, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    The way I see it , it’s palatable. I will try it. Thanks.

    • Bert H on August 26, 2016 at 6:04 pm

      I made my Pemmican with my Home made Jerky, I use a Jerky Mix called Spice N Slice, it uses 2 Lbs. of Extra Lean Hamburger. Open the pack and add to 1/8 cup water, stir till fully dissolved, mix into Hamburger, it will get VERY STICKY. I use a Jerky Press, it’s like a cookie Shooter. Dehydrate, and grind as stated. I added Pine Nut’s, Dry Juniper Berry’s, Dry Blue Berry’s, And my home made Tallow, Tastes Great. Thanks for Sharing this.

      • raymond wickham on June 7, 2018 at 11:37 pm

        Jerky is not advised as its spiced and cut in the wrong way

  6. Vickie on June 25, 2016 at 8:46 pm

    I always save my bacon drippings to use later. I was wondering if they could be used in place of the beef fat. I mean, who doesn’t like the taste of bacon?!

    • Carlos Torres on October 17, 2016 at 1:21 am

      Not a good idea, bacon fat is known to go rancid real quick in pemmican. This isn’t a food that’s meant to taste real good but to keep a long time.

    • beachnut on April 23, 2018 at 10:16 am

      I’d like to hear some actual experiences about this myself. Since strained bacon grease lasts years where beef fat goes rancid, looks to me like it ought to be a much better choice.

  7. John Ragnvald Logan on May 2, 2016 at 9:12 am

    Remember that this is for areas where water is easiely obtainable. Since all Animal protein i thirst inducing.

    • Donar on December 8, 2018 at 2:23 am

      That’s not entirely true. The drier the prepared meat is, the more thirst-inducing it is. Raw or slightly cooked meat doesn’t induce thirst. Raw meat naturally contains around 70% water.

  8. farmersdaughter on December 10, 2015 at 9:02 pm

    I have to chuckle reading these comments. Everyone is so concerned about measurements, precise ingredients, etc. The tribal members that make this, still to this day, use whatever is in abundance. It can be made with bear meat and fat (you need to be really hungry to eat this) or “store bought” meat. Game is usually fairly free of marbling and fat so it works out the best. What I’ve eaten had dried huckleberries as that is what grows wild here and didn’t have any “fancy” flavorings. Just venison, bear fat and huckleberries, it will keep you alive through a bad winter and make you appreciate a nice thick steak! I have also seen it made with salmon that had been dried, I chose not to try it as it smelled like cat food.

    • Stephanie on June 10, 2016 at 4:57 pm

      We use fall bear, the fat renders into a clean white and very tasty lard. I get more compliments from people when I use bear lard for my pie crust than anything else! We do use a mixture of beef and bear in our pemmican and rarely have much left by the end of the season. It’s good for fishing trips, hunting trips and even just for fun.

    • Robert J Reardon on March 14, 2017 at 2:14 pm

      Hells bells it is cat food………………..

  9. ExHelot on November 19, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    The fat should be just hot enough to be liquid. If it is too hot it will cook the meat. cooked meat is far more susceptible to spoilage and when that spoilage occurs in the absence of air (like in fat) it is a home to botulism which can be deadly.

  10. Patricia Joanides on October 17, 2015 at 10:29 pm

    do the berries, dried fruit or nuts and seeds need to be dehydrated before adding to powdered meat and fat? i would like to use coconut oil instead of rendered meat fat. does this sound workable?

    • ExHelot on November 19, 2015 at 1:48 pm

      The idea is minimum moisture. The absence of moisture prevents the growth of bacteria, mold and fungus.

    • Ammo Walsh on September 10, 2016 at 7:44 pm

      I am also interested in using Coconut Oil, so I look for a response.

    • Elise on January 20, 2017 at 1:33 pm

      I personally wouldn’t do it with coconut oil, as I’ve seen the oil (when hardened) collect mold in a jar after about 4-5 months of being opened. Now I’ve never tried the recipe, so I can’t say 100%, but just my experience of having seen coconut oil go bad, it would not give me comfort to see it put aside with meat for months/years…

      • Lenny Kukuruza on October 4, 2019 at 6:04 pm

        I have never experienced coconut oil going bad. Coconut oil does not go rancid. I’ve had jars of coconut oil for years in storage – never moldy nor rancid.

        • SC on October 27, 2019 at 9:56 pm

          Coconut oil can definitely go rancid. I know this from experience. Would not use it for pemmican.

  11. Brena Burleson-Cabalar on August 3, 2015 at 4:14 am

    Thanks for sharing this recipe for us. Dehydrator works great for this process as well.

  12. Seano on January 8, 2015 at 12:26 am

    “Add one part of fat for every two parts of meat”

    Two parts meat or two parts meat *mixture* made in the previous step? Does one part meat to one part fruit get one or two parts fat?

    • Alan on January 8, 2015 at 7:32 am

      Meat, not meat mixture. So in your case, a one part meat one part fruit mixture would get half a part of fat. I wouldn’t use anymore fruit than that, though.

    • taz on August 3, 2015 at 4:04 am

      It needs to be firm and not sticky. Don’t mix it all at once.

  13. tim on January 4, 2015 at 10:23 am

    What would the estimated shelf life be if vacuum sealed?

    • Brena Burleson-Cabalar on August 3, 2015 at 4:11 am

      depends on the temp. but if properly sealed and kept cool and dark. I would give it about 8 months to a year. Possibly more. Freezer & Vacuum sealed. Years.

  14. dannyb278 on December 11, 2014 at 8:42 pm

    If you don’t like the idea if all that beef fat you can also use peanut butter. Quick and easy too. Mix on with powdered Jerkey and some dried fruit. Its a little easier on the modern pallete

    • Brena Burleson-Cabalar on August 3, 2015 at 4:16 am

      Coconut oil is great at that too and not as bad on the arteries or peanut oil. I only suggest an alternative because I can no long digest peanuts. Great beef fat replacement idea though. I give you props.

    • John Ragnvald Logan on May 2, 2016 at 9:17 am

      Yes. PLEACE do experiment with taste. Try out a batch with different tastes. Maybe you hit family gold…

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