Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
For 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.
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.
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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.
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
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 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.
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.
- 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
- 1 cup of raisins
- 1 cup of craisins (dried cranberries)
- 1 cup of peanuts
- ¼ cup of honey
- 1 teaspoon of Kosher salt
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.
2. Remove the jerky and add to the plate with the crisp bacon and set the fat aside.
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.
4. Combine the craisins, nuts, and raisins in a bowl.
5. Add the processed meats and the kosher salt to the bowl.
6. Mix all of the ingredients together until well distributed.
7. Pour the rendered fat into the mix. You should have about a cup of fat.
8. Mix everything together, making sure to incorporate and spread around the fat until everything is well blended.
9. Add the ¼ cup of honey to the 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.
11. Drop the mix into a 9 x 13 aluminum foil 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.
13. Cut the pemmican into snack-size bars about 1 ½ inches wide and 3 inches long.
14. Wrap them in wax paper and place them in a resealable plastic container and freeze until you’re ready to eat.
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.
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).
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.
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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