Pemmican is a widely-known North American Native ‘superfood’ that can provide all of the necessary fat and protein the body needs for fairly prolonged periods of time. Approximately ¾ of a pound (12 ounces) of pemmican provides the daily caloric intake for the average adult (~2300 calories).
The word ‘pemmican’ comes from the language of the Cree people. (Much like ‘atlatl’ is the commonly-used word for ‘spear-thrower’ and comes to us from the Aztecs.) This food source is a truly North American invention.
How to Make Pemmican
The only two ingredients required to make pemmican are dried meat and rendered fat, mixed in a one-to-one ratio by weight (not volume).
1. Weigh Out The Dried Meat and Rendered Fat
Make sure to weigh them evenly. 175 grams (6 ounces) of each will yield 350 grams (12 ounces) or ~2300 calories. But there’s no need to base your batch on a day’s supply. Make your pemmican batches as large as you like!
2. Grind The Dried Meat
Pound or grind the dried meat into a fine consistency, resembling shredded sawdust. A round fist-sized rock and a log are a great primitive combo, or use a meat grinder or blender if you’re in your kitchen at home. Having very dry meat (that will break, not bend, upon breaking) is key here.
3. Carefully Melt The Rendered Fat Over Low Heat
You don’t want the temperature of the fat to rise so high that it begins to cook the meat (around 170 degrees Fahrenheit) or to smoke. Keeping the heat just high enough to melt the fat is a good gauge.
4. Add The Powdered Meat
Once the fat is melted, begin to add the powdered meat. I like to start by adding half of the meat. Mix it well, then add the next quarter and so on. The idea is for the melted fat to throughly coat every fiber of meat. Take a few minutes and make sure it is mixed well.
You’ll often hear of people adding berries to their pemmican. This is mostly done for flavoring, but a strong note of caution here: Be sure to only introduce foods that are, themselves, already fully dried without items that will spoil. (So the fruit should be thoroughly dried without added sugar, etc.) If you choose to do so, add additional items now.
5. Remove The Meat/Fat From The Heat
At this point, you may want to separate the mixture into the serving size you’ll want. Muffin tins work well, but so does a plastic bag. You can even leave it in the pan and cut/remove the pemmican later.
Allow the mixture to cool. Room temperature will work fine, but cooling in a refrigerator or outside on a cold day will move the process along very rapidly.
And voila! There you have pemmican. It’s definitely an acquired taste, but will keep you going on the trail or off for weeks at a time.
How to Dry Meat in the Wilderness
Thoroughly dried meat will last almost indefinitely and is likely the best option to preserve meat in a wilderness setting (as compared to freezing, canning, salting, smoking, etc.).
You’ll want to select very lean red meat, preferably from a wild game animal like deer, elk, or moose. Bison were also widely used, before their numbers declined in the 19th-century.
Avoid fatty meats, including most commercially-available meats today. There is really no comparison to wild game and you’ll struggle to adequately dry meats with any significant level of fat content.
- Slice the meat very thin (less than ¼” thick) and hang it to dry in the sun.
- Use the smoke of a campfire only to keep flies away, not to attempt to smoke the meat in the open.
- A mild heat from the campfire will also dry the air and remove moisture from the meat, but do not elevate the temperature of the meat enough to cook it.
- A good test is to hold your hand at the distance from the heat where the meat will be.
- If you can comfortably hold your hand in place indefinitely, it’s not too hot for the meat.
Depending on the humidity level and weather, it can easily take a full day (or longer) to dry meat in the open this way. You want it dry enough to break when you bend it.
Note: You do not want seasonings of any kind on meat that you will use for pemmican. Note the distinction between dried meat and jerky (the name comes from meat being “jerked” or spiced).
How to Render Animal Fat
Select the fat from a red-meat animal (deer, elk…). If you don’t have access to fat from wild game animals, ask at the butcher counter of your local grocery store, or consider collecting the drippings of your bacon (which will have already rendered by the time you collect it).
The 7-Step Rending Process
Rendering is the process of removing anything that is not pure fat (in the biological/chemical definition) from the ‘fat’.
- Begin by chopping the fat into small pieces (less than ¼”).
- Place the chopped fat in a pot and add just a bit of water (just enough that the fat won’t burn; you don’t want the fat chunks swimming in water).
- Over a low to medium heat, bring the fat to a good simmer/low boil. Keep the temperature here for the remainder of this process, which can take from 30 minutes up to several hours. You’ll notice that the fat begins to melt fairly quickly, especially if you chopped it very small.
- Continue simmering the contents of the pot until nothing else is melting. You may very well notice a large volume of translucent fatty-looking pieces that are not melting. That’s OK. Those aren’t pure fat and won’t melt at these temperatures.
- Remove the pot from the heat. If there are a lot of those larger chunks, pour the contents through a strainer to remove the chucks. If those chunks are not present, continue as below.
- Pour the contents of the pot into a container where you can cool it. I like to use glass containers (place a piece of metal, like a spoon, in a glass container to act as a heat sync and avoid cracking when you first begin to pour the hot fat), so that I can see in from the outside.
- Place the container in an area where it can cool. Room temperature is fine, although using a refrigerator or outdoors (if it’s a cold day) will rapidly speed the process.
Cooling The Rendered Animal Fat
As the contents cool, you’ll notice that a few distinct layers settle out:
- On the very top, there will likely be a thin layer of particle-looking matter. That’s the non-fat waste we want to get rid of.
- Below that will be a large, whitish layer. That’s the fat. The color will depend on species and diet of the animal you used.
- Below the fat will be any remaining water, often a brownish, translucent color.
- Sometimes on the bottom of the jar you’ll note additional bits that settled there.
You want to discard everything but the fat layer. Scrape off the top, remove the fat and dump the water. You’re now holding your freshly-rendered fat – for use in soap, oil lamps, pemmican, cooking, and waterproofing!