Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
22 May

How to Make Pemmican

Vihljamur Stefansson, eminent anthropologist and arctic explorer, went on three expeditions into the Alaskan tundra during the first quarter of the 20th century. His discoveries – including the “blond” Inuit and previously uncharted Arctic lands – brought him renown on the world stage. People were fascinated by his approach to travel and exploration, the way he thrust himself fully into the native Inuit cultures he encountered. Stefansson studied their language, adopted their ways, and ate the same food they ate. In fact, it was the diet of the Inuit – fish, marine mammals, and other animals, with almost no vegetables or carbohydrates – that most intrigued him. He noted that, though their diet would be considered nutritionally bereft by most “experts” (hey, nothing’s changed in a hundred years!), the Inuit seemed to be in excellent health, with strong teeth, bones, and muscles. He was particularly interested in a food called pemmican.

Pemmican consists of lean, dried meat (usually beef nowadays, but bison, deer, and elk were common then) which is crushed to a powder and mixed with an equal amount of hot, rendered fat (usually beef tallow). Sometimes crushed, dried berries are added as well. A man could subsist entirely on pemmican, drawing on the fat for energy and the protein for strength (and glucose, when needed). The Inuit, Stefansson noted, spent weeks away from camp with nothing but pemmican to eat and snow to drink to no ill effect. Stefansson, a Canadian of Icelandic origin, often accompanied them on these treks and also lived off of pemmican quite happily, so its sustaining powers weren’t due to some specific genetic adaptation unique to the Inuit. In fact, when Stefansson returned home, he and colleague adopted a meat-only diet for a year, interested in its long-term effects. A controlled examination of their experience confirmed that both men remained healthy throughout.

So, pemmican has a reputation as a sort of superfood. While I’m usually leery of such claims, the fact that the stuff is essentially pure fat and protein (plus Stefansson’s accounts) made me think that maybe there was something to it. I set out to make my own batch.

I got about a pound and a half of lean, grass-fed shoulder roast, let it firm up in the freezer, then sliced it thin. After adding liberal amounts of salt and pepper, I set the oven to the lowest possible temperature (around 150 degrees) and laid out the strips of meat directly onto the rack. I cracked the oven door to prevent moisture buildup. At this point, I also put a handful of frozen wild blueberries on a small oven pan to dry out with the meat.

I let the meat dry out for about fifteen hours, or until it was crispy jerky that broke apart easily. I tossed the jerky in the food processor until it was powder. After the meat, in went the blueberries to process. Again, you want a powder.

Now I was ready to render some fat. I used grass-fed bison kidney fat, which was already diced into tiny pieces. I put about half a pound of that into a cast iron pan and cooked it slowly over super-low heat.

I made sure to stir the fat as it rendered out, and watched closely so that it wouldn’t burn. When the fat stops bubbling, the rendering is done.

Use a strainer to avoid all the crispy bits; you just want the pure, liquid fat.

Mix the meat and berry powder together, then slowly add the hot liquid fat. Pour just enough so that the fat soaks into the powder.

I think I poured too much too quickly, so I added a bit of almond meal to firm it up. Let it firm up, then cut it into squares or roll it into a ball. I went with a ball.

Pemmican will keep almost forever. Pure, dried protein and rendered (mostly saturated) fat are highly stable, so I wouldn’t worry about it going rancid. If it does, you’ll know.

Now, my pemmican wasn’t exactly delicious. In fact, it tasted a bit like bland dog food. Maybe I’ll jazz it up next time with some more salt and spices, but I don’t think pemmican is meant to be eaten for pleasure. This is utilitarian food, perfect for long treks through the wilderness. It gets the job done, and I’ll probably make it again. It definitely doesn’t taste bad; in fact, the taste grows on you after awhile.

My dog certainly enjoyed cleaning up the bowl.

Has anyone else here tried pemmican? Let me know what you think in the comment board!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Mmmmmmmmmmm, cured epoxy.

    michael wrote on March 26th, 2012
  2. Mark,

    Congrats on what is always a fantastic resource and pleasure to read.

    I recently wrote an article for my blog regarding ketogenic adaptation, military training and Arctic exploration as I am fascinated by the biochemistry involved.

    I recently read about Schwatka’s search for the Franklin expedition before Stefansson’s more famous forays into the Arctic, and he too was a big fan of the pemmican.

    I am in the British military and passed my commando course a few years ago now and earned my much-coveted green beret. The final challenge in test week being a 30-mile ‘yomp’ (run downhill, stride-out uphill sort of pace) over Dartmoor, caring equipment, in under 8 hours. I recall the overwhelming urge to consume sugar in the final stages and the pleasure of finally crossing that finish line!

    Having been ‘paleo’ or ‘primal’ for a year or so, I am going to re-run the 30 miles with only pemmican as a food source and water to drink. I’ll be posting the results on my blog. I don’t particularly enjoy these sorts of long runs, much preferring strength training now, but when serving in the military, especially commando forces, there is a big emphasis on the ability to cover a lot of ground, carrying equipment, and arriving ready to fight. I’m hoping that all the theory behind ketogenic adaptation plays out!

    Nick Newton wrote on March 27th, 2012
  3. I remember reading about pemmican while studying in school about the Native Americans, and I was intrigued about what it might taste like. I tried some yesterday, and I LOVED IT!!! (I was kind of surprised I would) I used bacon drippings for my hot fat–not a bad choice because I made a tiny amount, just to try it, so it was eaten quickly (not for storage). Does anybody know if bacon fat be used safely in pemmican you wanted to store long term, or would it go rancid? Not wanting to put on my food processor so early yesterday morning, I even ground the jerky using my mortal and pestle–I felt very primal indeed!

    Yvonne wrote on June 6th, 2012
    • Bacon fat would work if you properly rendered it. The key to pemmican storage life is to be sure there is no moisture whatsoever in the final product. You would have to boil the fat until no bubbles come out. At the point the temperature will also rise, as the moisture keeps it near the boiling point of water.

      Likewise you need to dry the meat very thoroughly.

      Now you could refrigerate it and the moisture need not be fully removed. But one of the advantages of pemmican is the ability to take it with you on trips.

      Don Wiss wrote on June 6th, 2012
      • I strain and refrigerate my leftover bacon fat after cooking breakfast, to the point where I have a spaghetti sauce jar full of bacon fat. Do I need to do something else with this, or can I just scoop it out and use “as is” when I make pemmican?

        Jessica wrote on June 21st, 2012
  4. Put the pemmican into boiling water. Makes better stew. Leave out berry’s and its very low carb. I use BK seasoning mix instead of salt.

    Mark Price wrote on June 22nd, 2012
  5. Thanks for putting this recipe out there, and the facts that you found to go along with it. I have a very hard time finding REAL food, not stuff with so many preservatives in it my organs work overtime to feed me. I go to college full time and work second shift full time, so my stress level can be high since I also have family at home to manage with my wife. I am saving your website to visit when I can as I am sure you have more content to interest me further.

    Scott wrote on July 15th, 2012
  6. I’ve made it before. Dried the lean beef to 1/4 the weight then added an equal weight of Kidney Suet, i.e. 4# raw Beef and 1# Suet for 2# Pemmican. I added some S&P, Pea Soup powder, Onion Soup powder and Dried Berries. Tasted pretty good. Have read this will keep for 40 years or more depending on how well it is made and stored. Dieticians killed it during WWII as too fatty but explorers and North American First Nations People have been using it for centuries to no ill effect. Couldn’t have got to the North or South Pole without it. The key is NOT to cook the meat but only DRY it. Must be very lean. Deer or Buffalo is best.

    deadbeat wrote on July 20th, 2012
  7. Thanks for this simple How-To for making Pemmican. I’ve purchased Pemmican from US Wellness Meats. It’s absolutely delicious and very filling. I think this article is to help you get started but you have to treat it like any other recipe. I could see how it wouldn’t taste good if all you did was what’s in this article. I’m sure US Wellness meats first seasoned their jerky and then added what they have listed as ingredients for their Pemmican. I find their Pemmican to be very flavorful. I just bought their 5lb bucket of beef Tallow and I’d bought 1/4 of a pastured, grass-fed cow from Tendergrass Farms who were kind enough to send me cuts with me making beef jerky in mind and plan to make my own Pemmican soon. I’ll let you know how it turns out. I’ll want to add my only blend of spices. :) But I discovered for me personally if I ever let myself get too hungry, I’m unable to get past the initial hump of weaning off carbs. Every time I’ve fallen off the wagon it’s because I not eaten enough or gone too long without eating when I knew I was hungry early on. Time is an issue for me so now that I know about Pemmican I can make my own and have something portable I can eat when I’m hungry and not able to cook a full meal. The first time I tried Pemmican I was surprised at how one bar filled me up and kept me satisfied for hours and hours. :)

    ThreeWest wrote on August 14th, 2012
  8. People always say something bland or bad “tastes like dog food”. I’m still waiting for someone to actually tell me they’ve ate some.

    MoT wrote on September 30th, 2012
  9. Saw recipe for bacon pemmican in the most recent Men’s Journal. Don’t know how long that kind would keep, but it sounded delicious. I made some with beef last weekend and was pretty impressed with the flavor. I used 7% fat ground beef, dried blueberries and cranberries, and rendered bacon fat. Some sea salt and black pepper in the final mix, pressed into muffin tins, and it was scrumptious! Ate 2 “meat muffins” as my wife calls them, the first day and was completely satiated for hours. My new snack staple!

    Mike wrote on October 11th, 2012
  10. I made ground beef jerky with raisins. Re-dried raisins make it like India Rubber. A challenge to your jaw muscles.
    For pemmican, I use Palm Shortening for the fat because of a higher melt point. http://www.tropicaltraditions.com/organic_palm_shortening.htm

    bob wrote on October 14th, 2012
  11. I have survived on self-made pemmican for up to four days of forced marching in mountainous terrain in the dead of the summer Mediterranean climate.

    The defining thing about Pemmican is that it’s the food which is a) whole, meaning you can survive on it indefinitely, and b) has the highest caloric density of the foods satisfying a).

    Taste is irrelevant. Imagine you are to pack for a long, exhausting trip into the wild. You need food which can sustain you and is as compact as possible. Pemmican is the optimal answer.

    BTW, my personal experience is that it doesn’t taste bad, and it is very satiating. To the point that you have to force yourself to eat, to avoid losing weight!

    Manuel wrote on October 18th, 2012
  12. I made my Pemmican with beef jerky, craisins, and oatmeal. Bacon fat was my fat source. Ground up the jerky, craisins, and some oatmeal, added the bacon fat, and more oatmeal until I was happy with the consistency. (and some whole craisins) Lined a baking sheet with parchment & froze. Excellent! I want to eat it regularly but know I can’t.

    aacampbell wrote on November 10th, 2012
  13. We have made pemmican several times in my home, standard stuff for my Grandparents. The proportions are 3 parts meat, 2 parts berries, and enough fat to soak. Standing pools of fat are fine, but they do not win blue ribbons at County Fairs.

    I avoid using salt (it’s hygroscopic, as many spices are). And I avoid sugar (or any sugar-type substance) as it reduces shelf life greatly (to about 10% of what one should normally expect). If shelf life is not a factor, Great!

    Berries of any kind are fine, as long as they are dried well. They are not necessary, and are used for flavoring, as my grandmother told me. Also, matching meats to fats greatly improves storage life (beef fat to beef, deer fat to deer meat, etc)

    DO NOT use pork. It does not dry well (IMHO) and fails quickly. IF that’s all you have, and IF it’s short term only………. Yes, there will always be someone that has successfully used pork, but you won’t see us using pork!

    Cameron wrote on November 24th, 2012
  14. Thank you for the recepy, we just killed today grass-fed bull so I will try it in about 14 days…plus some other recepy from book Tender grass fed meat or Sally Fallon’ s Nourishing Traditions
    Thank you, it encouraged me.

    Vera wrote on December 6th, 2012
  15. This is awesome, I’ve been looking for just this kind of receipe. Thank you.

    Judi wrote on December 7th, 2012
  16. This is one of the more inteligent and productive web boards I have encountered. Maybe a primal diet makes people’s brains work better and be more reasonable and patient with others as well?

    I am not a “Primal Diet” person myself but I do understand well the concept and biochemistry of it.

    Peyton wrote on December 20th, 2012
  17. Salt is a tasty addition, but a detrimental factor for very long-term survival eating only pemmican. One example is that salt excretion in the kidneys leads to calcium depletion: more calcium will be excreted than you’ll gain from the food.

    If pemmican is only a part of your diet (as it would be for virtually everyone here) it’s no big deal. However, if you’re planning on living on only pemmican alone for an extended period of time, do not add salt.

    Jason Jones wrote on January 3rd, 2013
  18. How do you store the pemmican? In a plastic jar?

    Lella Gislén wrote on January 16th, 2013
  19. Pemmican without any fruit added was always considered the best form of iron rations. Addition of fruit greatly shortens the lifespan and does not allow the pemmican to “keep forever”.

    Natives added blueberries only to “wedding gift pemmican” for this reason. They sometimes added bitter type berries but even then only rarely.

    It wasnt until the pemmican trade that fruit additions became the “norm” as the voyageurs liked it better and they were the first target market.

    If you are making pemmican for survival rations and hoping it will last years the safe bet is to leave out all fruit, and keep it to a lean / fat ratio of 1:1

    Danny J Albers wrote on April 21st, 2013
    • In the northern fur trade fruitless pemmican was standard. Berry pemmican was rare, expensive and probably used by native people themselves rather than traded. Mentions of the two were made by the Earl of Southesk and Captain John Palliser. Both preferred berry pemmican but found it hard to come by in the fur trade country.

      Steve wrote on October 8th, 2013
  20. Wouldn’t bacon grease vice kidney fat add some taste?

    galt wrote on June 8th, 2013
  21. I googled this site to learn more about pemmican. Just finished reading THE ICE MASTER – a book about a trek Stefansson started and then abandoned. Because Stefansson did not check the contents of the pemmican cans he took as supplies, many men in the party died due to kidney problems which occurred due to their diet of pemmican. Very good book.

    josey wrote on August 27th, 2013
  22. I want to clear up a few factual assertions. Obviously Pemmican is
    a mixture of what anybody wants to add for almost any reason.
    Some of the reasons are nutrition, longevity, taste, cost, historical
    accuracy, ease of making.

    Seemingly pemmican is the granola or casserole or stew ( all
    being mixtures of desirable ingredients ) of two requisite ingredients.
    dried meat and fat. ( nearly any kind of meat and any kind of oil
    as we have seen ).
    Some of the mistaken assertions have been that salt is good or bad.
    It depends. We all know for a thousand years salt has been a preservative agent… such as in cured hams etc. Too much salt is
    of course bad for our health when consumed such as in drinking
    seawater. Just a little bit to replace our electrolytes however is necessary. Sugar likewise has been spoken of improperly. Sugar
    can increase shelf life as in when fruit preservatives are made etc.
    Sugar however is a pure carb but hard to omit when in the form of
    berries or maple syrup or honey etc. because of the flavor enhancement. No one has mentioned that carbs are the only source
    for quick energy if needed as they can digest and spike blood sugar
    in just a few minutes whereas the human cannot turn fats into energy
    nearly so fast… may take hours etc.

    I’d like to comment here that some fats and oils go rancid faster than
    others and that is a topic for separate research and I would use whichever fat is best pending the outcome of research. One thing
    we all know however is that peanut butter never goes bad and I am
    inclined to think that peanut oil thusly has a good rancidity performance for our purposes here. The peanuts themselves
    while actually a legume I do not classify as an undesirable carb.

    I have in fact made my own “survival cookies” by mixing peanut
    butter with powdered jerky, various chopped nuts, and dried friut/
    raisens , eggs and protein powder. These cookies after baking
    and then 24 hours in the dehydrator subsequently and stored in plastic baggies kept well for 6 weeks of outdoor travel.

    I do not think they would last forever but only for so long as
    they could be kept absolutely dry.

    I do believe a pure oil/fat of some kind mixed with just powdered
    jerky might last a very very long time exposed to air ( without being
    kept in an airtight container ) …. maybe years because
    if the oils would not spoil, I think the food would have a hard time
    absorbing moisture from the air because the powderd meat would
    already be saturated with oils. It is the moisture that allows
    the microorganisms to grow and spoil the food whether it be
    fungus, or bacteria or yeast etc.

    separate point, many have talked about cooking their jerky and I have
    seen much commercial jerky sold that contains a lot of moisture,
    and I know that sooner or later this kind of jerky would mold and spoil.

    I have a gallon jar of beef jerky I made 15 years ago that is so try
    that it cracks like saltine crackers. The only way to store it for
    unlimited duration is to remove absolutely as much moisture as
    possible and keep it in an airtight container otherwise the jerky
    will act as sponge and take humidity out of the air if the air has
    a greater percentage of moisture than the jerky.

    To me the improvement with pemmican is that by supersaturating
    the dried meat with oils, you prevent the meat mixture from soaking
    up moisture from the air without having to store in an airtight container. Now we just have to make sure the oil
    used in making the pemmican does not go rancid.

    Scott wrote on September 10th, 2013
  23. Historically, pemmican was a cooked food. Fur traders in what is now Canada would fry pemmican in its own fat. Once the meat was cooked (as pemmican is made with raw, dried meat) the traders would add water and other ingredients to made a type of stew. I make mine from bison and would not willingly eat the stuff in its solid state.

    Steve wrote on October 8th, 2013

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