True pemmican made by combining equal parts of dried lean meat and rendered fat. Dried berries may also be added if available. While pemmican has been used for thousands of years by many different groups of people, the Metis are particularly famous for their pemmican production. The Metis were an ethnic group of mixed Native American and European heritage who lived on the plains of North America. The Metis used bison meat, bison suet or bone marrow, and sometimes chokecherries. Suet is an extremely hard fat that can be found around the organs, especially the kidneys, of an animal, usually bovine. It is traditionally used to make candles and soap as melts at much higher temperatures than other fats. The Metis based their livelihood off of pemmican, making thousands of pounds of it every year to eat themselves and to trade with European voyageurs and their companies, including the Hudson Bay Company and the Northwest Company. Voyageurs could not waste time hunting and foraging for food so they had to carry much of it with them. Pemmican is relatively lightweight in comparison with its nutritional value so, they could carry less of it, leaving more room in their packs to carry trade goods. More goods equalled more money for the voyageurs so pemmican was an ideal food. It is also extremely shelf stable (it can last for up to 30 years if made and stored properly, according to some sources) so they could cache it in places and it would be waiting for them on the return trip months later, once again saving valuable pack space. The Metis were so busy keeping up with the demand of these companies that it is thought that a Metis hunting party could bring back 1 million pounds of meat from one of their twice yearly hunts. It is also said that a skilled Metis woman could process 10 bison a day! I'm not sure I could even do one, bison are much larger than white tailed deer. They would slice it into long, thin strips and hang it over a fire to dry until it breaks when bent. Then, they would grind it to separate the small muscle fibers and mix it with melted fat and berries. It was then packed into large skin bags.
The Metis were not the only producers of pemmican, though, and bison was by no means the only meat used to make it. Although I've only heard of it being used in North America, it's use there was widespread and there were dozens of variations. Pemmican can, and has been, made with any lean meat, including venison, rabbit, fish, moose, dog, and horse depending on what resources were available. The aboriginal peoples of Canada and Greenland, for example, may have used caribou, muskox, fish, or marine mammal meat along with marine mammal fat and northern berries, such as lingonberries, crowberries, blueberries, or cloudberries.
More recently pemmican has been a favorite of circumpolar explorers. Robert Peary, an explorer who claimed to have reached the North Pole in 1909 (although this is widely disputed) was recorded saying that "Of all the foods I am acquainted with, pemmican is the only one a man can eat twice a day for 365 days and still have the last mouthful taste as good as the first". I recently went to a talk by John Huston, who, with his partner Tyler Fish, completed the first unsupported American expedition to the North Pole in 2009. At this talk, Huston, who relied on pemmican as his main food source, confirmed Peary's sentiments. Huston and Peary are not the only explorers to have relied on this superfood, though. It's lightweight nature and its high fat, high protein content makes it perfect for these energy expensive expeditions in the extreme cold.
The reason that pemmican was so ideal, especially for strenuous work, is that it is nutritionally complete, especially when berries are added. One can survive on only pemmican for weeks with little to no ill effect. The high levels of protein and fat support high levels of activity, especially at cold temperatures, and because the meat is dried at very low temperatures, it maintains much of its nutritional value that otherwise would have been lost in the cooking process. The fat provides insurance against protein poisoning, also known as rabbit starvation, which is a form of malnutrition that occurs when only large quantities of lean meat, such as rabbit, is consumed. Without at least an equal amount of fat as protein, a person quickly becomes very ill, getting symptoms such as diarrhea, low blood pressure and heart rate, fatigue. If no fat or carbohydrates are consumed, it will eventually lead to death, despite having adequate amounts of food. Protein is converted into glucose in the liver so it can be burned for energy but because the liver can only process so much protein at a time, it becomes stressed and ammonia and amino acids begin to build up. These excess byproducts are then flushed into the bloodstream, leading to dangerous consequences.
The addition of dried fruits prevents scurvy, especially in the cold winter months when fresh fruits and vegetables are not as readily available. Scurvy occurs when a person’s diet lacks vitamin C, which humans cannot synthesize and is vital for collagen production and absorption of iron. Symptoms include bleeding of the mucous membranes, fatigue, swelling, and feelings of paralysis. Old wounds can even be reopened, since scar tissue is made up of collagen.
Pemmican is very nutrient dense for its weight. According the the FAO, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, a typical analysis of 100 g of pemmican (nearly a quarter lb) yields 40 g protein, 45 g fat, and 2.4 MJ (573 calories). Another source estimated that ¾ lbs a day would provide 2,200 calories, enough to support an active adult. By those estimates, 10 lbs would provide a week's food for an adult doing very strenuous activity, such as mountaineering (4,400 calories/ day), or for two weeks at a lower level of exercise.
As stated above, it is not only lightweight but can be preserved for an extraordinarily long time if stored properly. When the jerky and fruit is dried, most of the water is removed, preventing the growth of contaminants that rely on moisture to grow.The jerky is generally dried much longer than the fruit and is often smoked, meaning that pemmican without fruit lasts longer. According to a recipe provided by the FAO, pemmican is only 3% water. The fat is the major preservative, though, as it prevents contaminants from reaching the meat and protects it from oxygen and moisture. Even if the outside of the block is moldy, it can be cut off and the inside will most likely still be good. I do not recommend doing this, though, as you could get very sick. I would not recommend doing this even in a survival situation, because the last thing you need is to be violently ill. Use your best judgement.
Did I convince you to try it?? Here's a couple of recipes I use:
Feel free to use whichever type of meat, fat, berries, or seasoning you like. Just remember that you must always use at least as much fat as protein. For example, if I use 1/2 lb of jerky, I need to use at least 1/2 lb of fat. Also remember that while pemmican has been historically stored at room temperature, this should only be done in a survival situation. If making pemmican for everyday use it is best to store it in a fridge or freezer, it is still a meat product.
1.21 lbs lean stew meat 5.5 oz after dehydrating
2.2 oz dried currants
3.7 oz dried cranberries
0.7 oz prunes
5.5 oz lard
When making the traditional style pemmican I took frozen stew meat and sliced it against the grain as thinly as I could (using partially frozen meat makes it much easier to slice thinly). I let it dry in an electric dehydrator at 155 degrees F for 20 hours, at which point it snapped cleanly when bent.
I put the jerky in a blender until it was ground finely into soft fibers.
After measuring out the dried fruit, I mixed it with the jerky in the blender.
I then melted 5.5 oz of lard, equal to the jerky by weight, and combined it with the jerky mixture and packed it all in a loaf pan in the fridge.
This version turned out well but it tasted very much like raw meat because there was no seasoning. Definitely not for modern tastes and takes some getting used to. Remember that pemmican can be eaten cold or cooked. I like to break it into chunks and fry it with vegetables to make a hash or add it to a hardy stew. You could even try adding it to pasta sauce or stir fry if you like, really anything you would use ground beef for.
1 lb stew meat, dehydrated
½ cup honey
2 TBS garlic
2 TBS salt
2 TBS pepper
1.7 oz cranberries
1.9 oz prunes
3.2 oz currants
7 oz lard
To make modern pemmican, I sliced frozen stew meat thinly and put the slices in the marinade, which I made from salt, pepper, garlic, and warmed honey. I let it sit in the fridge overnight and then dehydrated it for 28 hours. It never got to the stage of dryness that the traditional jerky got to. I think this was caused by the honey. This will probably cause it to have a shorter shelf life than the traditional pemmican, although the salt and honey will act as preservatives. Regardless, I blended with fruit in the same fashion as mentioned previously. It was difficult to measure out an equal amount of lard to jerky weight because the marinade made it much heavier than just the jerky alone would have weighed.
I ended up melting 7 oz of lard and mixing it with the jerky and putting it in the fridge in a loaf pan. After it cooled and hardened overnight, I simply popped it out and wrapped it in tin foil. When tasting it I realized that I used way too much lard. The jerky tasted great but the texture of the lard is definitely an acquired consistency. It would be amazing once cooked, though.
6.2 oz unsalted peanuts
5.1 oz flax seeds
5.3 oz walnuts
5.5 oz almonds
3.3 oz pine nuts
4.4 oz dried currants
6 oz dried apricots
4.4 oz dried cranberries
6.3 oz dried prunes
0.2 oz coconut
Making the vegan pemmican was very simple. I just mixed the nuts, dried fruit, and coconut oil together in a bowl and then ground it together in the food processor until it was a nice consistency that could be molded together easily.
I then rolled in into small logs and wrapped it in wax paper. I put them in the freezer, where they will be good for about a year.
The vegan pemmican turned out really well. It was delicious and very filling. It is a great modern day alternative to a meat based high energy food, although it is not as shelf stable. This product would be very easy to make and you would not have to jump through too many hoops that you might get with a meat product if you were to sell it. This product is can be more expensive to make than the other two, though, as it requires more store bought items.
Vegan Pemmican: Selling Price= $2.60/ 1.35 oz or $1.9/oz
Traditional Pemmican: Selling Price= $2.90/oz
Modern Pemmican: Selling Price= $1.47/oz
Hi-Country Pemmican Bites: $1.09/oz
BisonBisonCo. Bison Pemmican: $3.5/oz
EPIC: $1.33- $2.00/oz
Bear Valley Pemmican:$0.53/oz
US Wellness Meats Regular Beef Pemmican Pail: $1.14/oz
I found five companies that make a product that they call pemmican. Some are more authentic than others. The US Wellness Meats’ product is the only one that actually contains animal fat. The selling price of the products I made were quite a bit more than the products on the market but all the ingredients I purchased were organic/and or local products in small quantities from the co-op. If I raised livestock for meat, it would be much less expensive. I could use the worst, toughest cuts of meat and lard that would either go to waste or be sold for just a couple of dollars a pound, let alone per ounce once they were made into pemmican.
If you would rather purchase pemmican I would recommend Epic brand. It's very tasty and shelf stable:
Want to learn more about pemmican? Check out these books:
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