When thinking about survival tools and tips, we usually think about fire-making kits, sharp tools, and medical supplies. And while those things are vital, what’s even higher on the priority list are food and water.
Pemmican is to survivalists, long-distance hikers, and all people in crisis situations what Lembas bread is to hobbits – the ultimate nutritional and compact food. Except it’s also completely different as it’s the literal opposite of bread.
Below we’ll cover how to make pemmican and what all its awesome benefits are.
What is pemmican?
Pemmican is one of the many great things westerners have inherited from the Native American tribes of North America. A dry mixture of tallow (beef or mutton fat), dried red meat, and berries or nuts, pemmican is highly nutritional, low-carb, long-lasting, and easy to carry food.
The word comes from the Cree word pimîhkân the root of which is pimî or “fat, grease” in English. The Sioux or Lakota word for the same food was wasná which means “grease derived from marrow bones”.
Pemmican was a favorite of Native Americans as it’s easy to carry, lasts for years, and is very nutritional – everything a roaming Native American tribe would want.
Pemmican was also quickly adopted by the first European settlers because of its many benefits. It was widely used by fur traders, in particular, as well as the Arctic and Antarctic explorers such as Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, George W. DeLong, and Roald Amundsen.
Raymond E. Priestley from the first Shackleton Antarctic expedition in 1907-09, and the second Scott expedition in 1910-13 had this to say for his favorite food:
“I have taken all sorts of delicacies on short trips when the food allowance is elastic… I have even taken a small plum-pudding or a piece of wedding cake for a Christmas treat, but on every such occasion, I would willingly have given either of these luxuries for half its weight of the regulation pemmican… how we looked forward to a resumption of pemmican after a six months’ enforced abstinence.”
Why is pemmican not a popular food today, however? Without going too deep into its history, pemmican was simply replaced by other corn-based or cooked foods once the latest stages of the Age of Exploration were over, the North American continent was covered with railroads, and even the ice caps were conquered.
The need for “a survivalist’s food” simply wasn’t there anymore. Or so people thought at the time. However, looking at today’s popular foods and the eating habits of Americans and Europeans alike, maybe we should have stuck with pemmican?
Pemmican ingredients and recipes
So, how to make pemmican? The basic principles of preparing pemmican are very simple, however, there are lots of variations that can be made.
The main ingredients of pemmican fall into three groups or even two as the last one isn’t necessary – rendered fat, dried red meat, and berries and/or nuts.
1. Rendered fat
Also called tallow, this ingredient is usually made out of beef or mutton fat, however, almost any other animal fat can be used as well. There are two easy ways to render the fat:
- Put it in a pot and simmer it. Stir it constantly and make sure it doesn’t get too hot – the goal is to just melt the fat.
- Put it in the over and render it that way. This usually takes a bit longer but it’s also safer and less labor-intensive.
Whichever way you choose, the end goal is to liquidate the fat completely so that it can be mixed with the other ingredients. You can use any suitable and high-quality animal fat instead of beef or pork fat but do not use vegetable oils.
2. Dehydrated lean red meat
Native Americans used bison red meat, as well as elk, moose, and deer. Today, beef and pork work just as well with beef being the default choice for most recipes.
Or you can be even more creative and pick almost any other highly nutritional meat – some people love turkey meat pemmicans and we also know Native Americans occasionally used salmon as well.
Still, if this is your first attempt we’d recommend sticking to the classic beef recipe.
Once you’ve chosen the meet for your pemmican, the next step is to simply dehydrate it. Native Americans and the first settlers did that the old-fashioned way – by cutting the meat into thin strips and leaving it to dry in the sun. You can try the same method but we’d recommend a more 21st-century solution such as a nice big dehydrator.
Dehydrators can be pricey, especially if they are good, but they are almost always worth the investments. A good dehydrator will come with a 10-year warranty and will last at least twice as much. It will also be large and have at least 10+ trays. Plus, once you’re done with your pemmican you can use the dehydrator to dry other cool things such as fruits, vegetables, and spices.
If you’re not sure you want to get a dehydrator and you don’t know anyone with such a device, another option is to set your oven at 110-120°F (40-50°C) if possible, cut the meat into thin strips and dehydrate it in the oven until you can snap it like a piece of chips.
Ovens consume significantly more power than dehydrators and typically can’t be used for as many trays but they can do the work.
2.5 Meat/fat ratio must be 1:1
For proper pemmican, you’ll want the meat and the fat to be in even quantities weight-wise.
3. Berries and nuts
The third ingredient is optional and some people even avoid it entirely as they want their pemmican to be 100% meat-based. In many North American regions, pemmican was made that way and berries were added just for ceremonial and wedding pemmican.
Adding nuts and berries to your pemmican can give it an awful lot of additional taste, however, not to mention even more nutritional benefits and at least some carbohydrates. It’s also a good way to customize and diversify your pemmican recipes if you want to have several different types at your disposal.
Remember not to add too many fruits or nuts, however – pemmican is supposed to be mostly meat-based and rich in fat, adding too much fruit will turn it into a sugar-rich fruity bar.
You can use pretty much any type of berry you want – cranberries and Saskatoon berries are known to have been used by Native Americans, and blueberries, chokeberries, currants, and cherries also work. Fur traders were also known to add sugar and you can also add almost any other type of dried fruit or nuts of your liking.
Whichever type of berries, nuts, or other fruits you choose, all you need to do is dry them (not necessary for nuts) and grind them into small pieces. Having a dehydrator also helps here.
4. Other possible ingredients
You’re the master of your own kitchen so, technically, you can add whatever you want to your pemmican. To give you a couple more ideas, some people add organ meat such as liver or heart meat to their pemmican. Organ meat is very fat and is extremely rich in various nutrients.
Do NOT use organ meat instead of red meat as organ meat shouldn’t be consumed in excess. Instead, you can just add a little extra to the main ingredients – 1/10th of the weight of the red meat is a good rule of thumb.
You can also add any type of spice you want – garlic, pepper, salt, onion powder, or anything else.
Another possible ingredient that can change your pemmican, even more, is toasted cornmeal. Dakota and Lakota nations were known to prepare corn wasná by simply replacing the red meat with toasted cornmeal. This recipe typically includes cornmeal, animal fat, fruit, and sugar but it’s not really pemmican anymore.
5. Mix it all up
Once you’ve prepared all the ingredients, all you need to do is mix them together. Here’s a quick step-by-step:
- Toss the dried meat into a food processor and break it into tiny chunks. Then pour it in a large pan.
- Strain the fat through a cheesecloth and let it cool down. Pour the cool but still liquid fat in the pan.
- Add any berries, nuts, or spices you want while stirring the fat with the meat.
- Pour the mixture in a nice big batter and put it in the fridge to cool.
- Once it’s solid, you can slice the mixture into bars of whatever size or shape you want (or, you can pour it into baking shapes in the previous step) and store the bars in ziplock bags or in any other well-sealed container of your choice. Stored properly, pemmican can last for years and even decades.
Pemmican nutrition facts
Now that we know how to make pemmican, let’s see why we should.
Pemmican’s nutritional properties are one of its biggest advantages and why it is (or should be) a very relevant food even today. A standard 100-gram pemmican bar will contain:
- 26 grams of protein
- 52 grams of fat
- 575 kcal of calories
- <1 gram of carbohydrates if you haven’t added any nuts or berries to the recipe. If you have, then the quantity should still be small as they should still be significantly less than the meat and fat.
These nutritional facts easily show why pemmican was so popular back in the day and why it makes for such perfect hiking, exercising, or survivalist food even today.
The 2:1 fat/protein ratio is great for any physically active person. Plus, the additional conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), vitamins E & B, omega-3 fatty acids, as well as magnesium, iron, zinc, potassium, selenium, and phosphorus all complement the amazing nutritional benefits of pemmican.
What are the health benefits of pemmican?
As a food that’s rich in both fats and proteins but is almost completely devoid of carbohydrates, pemmican is perfect for people with active lifestyles who want to or need to cut carbs out of their diets.
Living on a low-carb or a no-carb diet means your body relies entirely on fat for its fuel. The main benefit of low-carb diets is that they improve your metabolism and hormonal balance, and help you burn fat more efficiently.
Additionally, the healthy animal fat you can use in your pemmican is also great for your brain & nervous system, as well as your skin, reproductive organs, membranes, and hormonal balance.
Pemmican keto diet
Pemmican is the perfect food for a ketogenic low-carb, moderate-protein, and high-fat diet. Pemmican will help you burn fat more effectively and it will help you with your weight loss while also improving your overall health and performance.
Keto diets are great for people with type 2 diabetes or those that just have higher than normal blood sugar levels. That’s because the reduction of carb intake puts our bodies in a state of ketosis.
In that state, our bodies burn fat and ketones instead of glucose (sugar) which is usually stored in your liver. The reason this state is called ketosis is that ketones are what the liver starts producing after its storage of glucose is depleted.
Ketones are made out of fat, hence why it’s important to eat lots of fat in a keto diet. Once your ketones levels get high enough – usually several days after you’ve cut out the carbs from your diet – you’re officially in ketosis. In that state, you burn the extra fat which is why it’s great for weight loss. It’s also great for reversing diabetes and prediabetes, as well as for seizure and epilepsy management.
Risks, side effects, and considerations with a keto diet
Keep in mind that ketosis can also be risky. People with certain metabolic conditions should not try keto diets nor should people with a history of gastric bypass surgeries. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should also avoid it as should people with medicated high blood pressure.
If you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, and especially if you’re taking insulin or other oral diabetes medications, always opt for medical supervision.
There are also more than a few studies such as this recent study of over 447,000 people that have determined that eating too little carbohydrates is as dangerous as eating too much of them and a 50/50 approach is usually the best choice.
In general, a good rule of thumb is to consult with a physician if you want to attempt a keto diet. It also recommends it to restrict yourself to short-term keto diets and then return to a more balanced 50/50 regime.
If you do opt for a keto diet, however, pemmican is a great choice.
Pemmican is a great food for lots of different purposes. Whether it’s to help you with your keto regime, to take with you on long hikes, or just as an emergency crisis food storage, pemmican offers a lot of unique benefits.
Its compact and long-lasting nature, together with its high nutritional properties make it an awesome food to have with you. And now that you know how to make pemmican you can easily prepare some of this superfood even if it’s just to have it in storage.
Plus, as Raymond E. Priestley agrees, when it’s prepared properly, pemmican can be very delicious.