Pemmican is a high-calorie, nutritious trail food first made and used by the First Nation peoples of America. It is made of lean meat, fat, and often berries. It keeps for a long time and provides most of the daily nutrition a human body needs.
Pemmican is the ideal food to take with you into the wilderness. It needs no further preparation before you eat it. It’s highly nutritious, and it lasts for ages without going bad.
It’s traditionally made of meat and fat, which makes it a great outdoor snack. If you are vegetarian, you might like to use nuts and seeds instead.
I first made my own version of pemmican when I was in my early teens. I fried and shredded some bacon. I added lots of lard, oats, and raisins and made cereal bar shapes out of the result. I thoroughly enjoyed my homemade trail food as I wandered the North Downs National Trail.
Read on for more information about the ultimate survival food.
History of Pemmican
Pemmican was first made around 5,000 years ago by North American First Nations Tribes such as the Metis and the Chipyewans. Traditionally, they used bison meat and fat. Bison were plentiful back then on the vast plains that covered America.
The word “pemmican” comes from the Cree indigenous peoples of America. It translates as “greasy food,” or “manufactured grease.” It was also spelled “pimikan” and “pemican.”
Pemmican in Trade and Export
In 1779, a settler named Peter Pond acquired some pemmican from the Chipyewans and started to sell it to other white settlers.
The indigenous Metis tribe began making and selling pemmican too. They sold it to fur trading posts such as Fort Garry and Fort Alexander. This became a big business, with the Royal Navy as one of the customers.
Governor Miles MacDonell nearly started a war with the Metis later in 1814. He attempted to enforce the ‘Pemmican Proclamation’. This forbade the export of pemmican from the Red River Colony. This law didn’t last long.
Pemmican in the Arctic Expedition
The Navy supplied pemmican to Arctic expedition teams.
Lewis and Clark, Peaty, Steffenson, Shackleton, and Scott were all Arctic explorers who used pemmican. It was a godsend in the cold conditions, providing essential calories and requiring no cooking.
Types of Pemmican
Pemmican was often made with bison meat, fat, and berries as ingredients, but it could also be made with:
- Reindeer meat
- Fish and sturgeon oil (Inuit recipe)
- Deer meat and seal oil (another Inuit recipe)
- Offal, such as liver and kidneys
Sweet pemmican was a superior-quality pemmican. It was made by boiling broken bones to extract the marrow. This marrow was very nutritious and still is. Now we are more likely to drink bone marrow soup as part of the Paleo diet.
The fruits used in pemmican could also vary. This fruit could be chokeberry, Saskatoon berry, June berry, cranberries, or any other fruit that was available at the time. If you are making your own, you can use currants, dried apricots, or raisins.
Some recipes tell you to add sugar or honey. This is up to you; if you like sweet things, then go for it.
The common thread with all these types of pemmican is that they include fat, protein, and fruit for vitamins and minerals.
How to Make Pemmican
Would you like to make pemmican the way First Nations people did and still do? Pemmican is traditionally made by following these steps:
- Hunt some bison, reindeer, or fish.
- Cut your meat into thin strips.
- Dry the meat on a frame above a fire. The smoke will also help cure it and keep away flies.
- When completely dry, pound the meat between two flat stones until it forms powder.
- Weigh the meat powder. Add one third of this weight of melted bear, bison, or reindeer fat to the powdered meat.
- Mix in well.
- Add dried fruits—whatever you have in season.
- Press into 41-kg bison skin bags. It will keep for months, if not years, if it is made properly and the meat is very dry. Enjoy your pemmican on your long hikes and hunts. Or sell it to some fur traders.
Check out the video below on how to make a pemmican:
How to make pemmican in a modern kitchen
If you would rather make pemmican in your kitchen or don’t have access to an open fire, here’s how.
You will need:
- 4 cups lean meat (game meat like caribou is ideal; beef is fine)
- 3 cups dried fruits
- 2 cups rendered fat
- 2 tbsp. honey
- Herbs to taste (optional)
- Get the butcher to double-grind the meat. Or use a grinder if you have one.
- Spread the meat out in a thin layer on an oven tray. Dry for around 8 hours at 180 F (82 C) until thin and crispy.
- Use a blender to pound the meat into a powder.
- Grind up the dried fruit into rough pieces.
- Melt the fat and add the fruit and meat. Mix well.
- Mix in the honey.
- Form into cakes or bars.
Check out this video on how you can make a modern day pemmican:
How to Make Vegetarian and Vegan Pemmican
Pemmican can be made without using any meat at all.
You can use peanut butter for the fat part. You can also use coconut fat or vegetable shortening instead of tallow (animal fat). Just bear in mind that it will melt at lower temperatures.
If you are vegetarian or vegan, try this recipe.
Vegetarian Nutty Pemmican Bars
The nuts in this recipe are what provide the fat. The protein is provided by the nuts, the flour, and the seeds.
You will need:
- 1.5 cups mixed dried fruits
- 2 cups mixed nuts
- ½ cup wheat germ
- ½ cup wheat bran
- ½ cups whole wheat flour
- ½ cup milk powder
- ½ cup honey
- 1 tbsp flax seed
- Crush and mix the nuts, fruit, and flax seed.
- Mix the dry ingredients together.
- Mix bit by bit into the fruit and nut mixture, along with the honey.
- Add enough water to soften. Roughly ½ a cup should do it.
- Spread it out in an 8-inch (20 cm) buttered loaf tin
- Bake in a 375 F (190 C) oven for 30 minutes.
- Cut into bar shapes. Stores for 3 months in the freezer.
To make this vegan, use peanut butter or coconut fat instead of milk powder. Or experiment with vegan binders (foods that stick things together) and make the recipe your own.
How to Use Pemmican in Cooking
You can add pemmican to hot water with vegetables and greens to make a soup or stew. The rich fat in the pemmican acts like stock, transforming a bland dish into a hearty one.
Why not try making pemmican hash? Fry pieces of pemmican together with thinly sliced potatoes, onion, and bay leaves. Rubaboo
Add pemmican to a carbohydrate-rich dish like pasta. Or slice it thinly on a sandwich ciabatta roll with salad.
How to make tallow
Okay, so you want to know how to make meat tallow from scratch. It’s easy enough to buy lard from a store, but what if you are living in the wilderness for a while and need to use what is around you?
Tallow is simply animal fat that’s been rendered down to get rid of impurities. This is done by cooking it and straining it. This can take a long time, as it must be done slowly at a low heat.
If you’re using beef or lamb fat, it’s called tallow. Rendered pig fat is called lard. Fat from a wild animal you have caught and killed is just called plain fat.
- Look around the kidneys of the animal. There is a high-quality fat here called leaf fat. It should look waxy.
- Chop into chunks. Shred into fine crumbs if you can.
- Melt the fat slowly over low heat. Do NOT burn it.
- Using a home stockpot, this rendering takes 5–6 hours with a 6-quart crockpot.
- Any impurities will rise to the top of the fat liquid.
- Strain the liquid fat through cheesecloth, natural fabric, or a strainer.
- Pour into jars and allow to cool. Voila! Your tallow is ready to be used to make pemmican. Or anything else you want it for.
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How to Store Pemmican
The First Nations peoples of America used bison skin bags. Nowadays, a resealable plastic box works just fine. As long as you keep it dry, pemmican should last for several months, if not years.
You can seal it in a crock pot with fat around it. You can also wrap it in tin foil to keep out the light. After that, put it in a Ziplock bag (freezer bag).
Keep it in a cool, dry place, well off the floor, to discourage vermin. A root cellar or basement is ideal.
5 Ways to Preserve Pemmican
There are quite a few different ways to preserve pemmican. Would you bury your food? The First Nations people did.
- Burying: The Native Americans used burying to preserve pemmican. They dug a hole in dry soil or sand, then lined the hole with wood ash. They would then bury the pemmican in the wood ash, protecting it from light. The alkaline wood ash, dry soil, and darkness preserved the pemmican effectively.
- Freezing: If you have a freezer, you can freeze your pemmican. Once it thaws, though, you need to eat it soon. In a survival situation, you are unlikely to be able to use a freezer.
- Confit: Confit is sealing the pemmican inside a container with an extra layer of fat around it. You can use a crock or jar with a tight lid.
- Canning: This is not the best way to preserve pemmican. If you can, use a pressure canner and food-grade cans. Once opened, it needs to be eaten within a few weeks.
- Wrap and seal: This is the best and least hassle-free way of preserving pemmican. Simply wrap in tin foil, then a freezer bag, and store in a cool, dry place.
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Is Pemmican Good For You?
A 2.2-ounce (62-gram) piece of pemmican meat contains roughly 290 calories. It has:
- 15 g of protein
- 1 g of carbs
- 26 g of fat
It will also contain various vitamins, such as Vitamin E, and minerals, such as copper, if you have added fruit or berries.
A word of warning here. Vitamin C is destroyed by heat, so if you have cooked the berries or heated the pemmican (for example, by adding it to a stew), it won’t contain much Vitamin C. You can easily get Vitamin C from fresh fruit, vegetables, and edible wild plants.
Pemmican doesn’t contain much carbohydrate. You can get around this by teaming it up with oat crackers or hardtack biscuits. These are full of carbohydrates.
Hardtack biscuits are made from flour, salt, and water. They have been used by sailors, explorers, and settlers all over the world. A well-made hardtack biscuit can last 30 years without spoiling. The secret of their success is that they are very dry and hard enough to break your teeth.
To eat hardtack, soak it in water, tea, coffee, soup, or anything else, and wait at least 10 minutes before you try to eat it.
Check out this recipe on how you can make a survival biscuit:
Why is pemmican still popular?
Pemmican is still popular as food to take on hikes and as an expedition ration. It has stood the test of time as it is lightweight, keeps well, and is very nutritious. It is especially good in cold conditions, as the fat contains a lot of energy.
What does pemmican taste like?
Pemmican has a rich, intense, creamy taste from all that meat and fat. The fruit adds sweetness and tanginess, which really help to offset the fatty taste. It’s very chewy in texture. If you enjoy beef jerky, you will probably enjoy the taste of pemmican.
How long will pemmican last?
Even pemmican that is poorly made can last a year. Fat is a preservative, and because the meat is dried and encased in fat, it will not go off for a long time. It helps if it is properly stored in an airtight container.
Pemmican has been discovered to be 50 years old and still good to eat. A more usual shelf life is 5 years.
Why does pemmican appeal to preppers?
What are the benefits of eating pemmican?
Pemmican gives you a lot of energy, even in a small piece the size of a cereal bar. This comes from the fat. Meat, such as beef, is very high in protein as well as minerals like iron. The berries in the pemmican give you vitamins and minerals as well as sugar for an instant energy hit.
Why is pemmican the ultimate survival food?
In a nutshell, pemmican is nutritious, needs no refrigeration, and tastes not too bad. It can be eaten straight away or added to other recipes, like stews. It provides most of the nutrition the human body needs. Together with some fresh wild greens for extra vitamins, you could survive on pemmican indefinitely.