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. 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
  2. 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
  3. This is awesome, I’ve been looking for just this kind of receipe. Thank you.

    Judi wrote on December 7th, 2012
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. How do you store the pemmican? In a plastic jar?

    Lella Gislén wrote on January 16th, 2013
  7. 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
  8. Wouldn’t bacon grease vice kidney fat add some taste?

    galt wrote on June 8th, 2013
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. Pemmican is made from meat, dried berries, and melted fat.

    Anonymous wrote on February 1st, 2014
  13. I don’t know if anyone has posted this, but you can render any kind of animal fat in the crockpot. Just put the suet in there on low when you leave for work in the morning. When you come back, it should all be liquified. Then, you just filter it. It won’t burn on the low setting.

    Also, in response to those who’ve said that pemmican is messy to handle: I have a native american cookbook in which the author puts the finished pemmican inside sausage casings and smokes it. Although, I don’t think the smoking would be entirely necessary.

    Tiffany wrote on February 8th, 2014
    • A slow cooker would probably work if you leave the lid off. But rendering suet is more than liquifying it. You must also get 100% of the moisture out. The total lack of moisture is key to it keeping for a long time.

      After filtering it needs to be boiled again to get all moisture out.

      Don Wiss wrote on February 8th, 2014
  14. As a Canadian expat, I am so going it make this to (a) teach my son about First Nations traditions in Canada (b) prepare for this summer’s solo back packing / camping trip and (c) use up the beef tallow I have in the fridge. Thanks!!

    Jillian wrote on March 16th, 2014
  15. I recently purchased pemmican bars from the local Whole Foods store. These are real pemmican, not the half-granola bar stuff *some* folks call pemmican. The grass-fed beef, cranberry and bacon bar is quite good, if not a bit pricey.

    I’ll try your approach and see what I can cook up. Thanks for the article!

    Cecil Nixxon wrote on March 19th, 2014
  16. My collaborators and I are headed to the High Arctic (Northern Ellesmere Island) this summer for some field research. I’ve been trying to get them to agree to bringing along some pemmican. I might make some and have them try it to see what they think. Thanks for the article and the recipe!

    Graham Lau wrote on April 4th, 2014
  17. I would like to see some authoritative reference to scientific data showing
    exactly which oils or fats last the longest before going rancid. What we have
    in this thread is a lot of non-experts either repeating old wives tales or telling
    stories of what ancients used because it is the only thing they had available
    to use. Today, most of have a choice as to what to use. We could use any
    kind of powdered protein including dehydrated eggs, milk or meat from any
    kind of animal or even fish and mix it with any kind of oil and flavored with
    any kinds of spices and fruit etc.
    Lets try to take advantage of modern knowledge and select the very best instead
    of following blindly the techniques of historical indigenious peoples.

    Greg wrote on May 12th, 2014
    • don’t be a bodyhole

      Lisa wrote on May 25th, 2014
  18. it taste like bootyhole

    Big Papa wrote on May 12th, 2014
  19. I realize this is years old but I wanted to say how much I appreciate your blog. I will definitely make this since I am not only primal, but also keto. I learned my lesson recently when my neurological problems flared up after a too-high carb eating part of my life. Funny thing is, it was just rice, not wheat or anything, and it wasn’t even 100g/day. Some people like me are born to be wild I guess. Sad that my body had to tell me by taking me out of action for 3 days. Also sad that I didn’t listen the first time my body told me that, last year. Anyway, this recipe is exactly what I was looking for and your website popped up as one of the top hits for “pemican.” I simply am unable to eat any kind of “protein bar” because I can’t even tolerate 10g of carb in a meal. It’s a real hassle since I have a major fatigue problem and making a fresh meal 3 times a day is merely a pipe dream at this time. I always have to cook ahead and have portioned/prepared things ready or I just don’t eat. This recipe will really help.

    Lisa wrote on May 25th, 2014
  20. After reading through all the many suggestions for what fat to use and various additives, I have to say: I finally have something to do with all that delicious rendered duck fat in my fridge!!! Yey! Also I plan to use a tiny amount of LSA as a binder (per Sandra Cabot MD). I can’t tolerate any direct addition of carbs though. In theory the cranberries sound the best because all that fat is pretty bland and the sharpest taste will be the most obvious I think. I wonder if anyone’s thought of adding vitamin E for preservation? I’m all excited to try this, thanks!

    Lisa wrote on May 25th, 2014
  21. Can you use ghee or clarified butter in the place of rendered animal fat? I would imagine so, because like rendered animal fat, it’s essentially just pure saturated fat, but would it taste weird or be unpalatable?

    Hunter wrote on June 15th, 2014
  22. I found this article very interesting and did some more googling on Pemmican. According to the following document, http://www.traditionaltx.us/images/PEMMICAN.pdf, it is important to not heat lean meat above 120 degrees will compromise the nutritional value of the pemmican. Just providing more information on a fascinating subject. Thanks for turning me on to this.

    Siridivi wrote on August 4th, 2014
  23. Thanks for this post mark. I am currently reading “The Fat of the Land” and I am fascinated. Im interested in pemmican because as a full time college student and full time worker I have absolutely no time to cook meals! And because I detest fast food I have been starving, and loosing weight. Pemmican seems like the perfect way to get some adequate nutrition while on the go. Im going to order some off us wellness meats and hopefully make some of my own…one day.

    Raquel wrote on August 9th, 2014
  24. ​Try an EPIC Bar​. They don’t say they are pemmican but that is what the ingredients and the taste lead me to believe. They are distributed out of Austin, Tx and the number on the package is (512)993-4774. I bought them at Whole Foods and am partial to the Beef, Habanero, Cherry. There is also a Bison and a Lamb version. Cal 190, Fat 11g, Carb 10g, Protein 13g. They are very satisfying.

    Carolyn wrote on October 7th, 2014
  25. I think this is the solution I’ve been looking for for long (+7 day) backpacks. We need something that can survive being at the bottom of a bear canister over rough terrain for over a week.

    ~Wanderin’ Jack

    Wanderin' Jack wrote on November 30th, 2014
  26. My grass fed rendered suet was not hard at room temperature, in fact it is yellow, somewhat graining like leaf lard, and as soft as butter. It also tastes like butter. I get my steers from a family who raise them on pasture up in the mountains. The fatty acid profile of beef changes dramatically with the animal’s diet.

    Liz wrote on December 11th, 2014
    • Are you sure you rendered it so that there is absolutely no moisture? No gas bubbles coming up when you boil it?

      If so, then you used tallow and not suet. Suet is the fat from around the kidneys. It is more saturated than the fat from the rest of the animal.

      Don Wiss wrote on December 11th, 2014
      • I was a chef and later food science major, I have rendered suet many times and suet from this ranch was the first time it came out yellow and soft, like butter, at room temperature. It hardens right up in the refrigerator. There was no moisture left.

        It was definitely not tallow, I am well aware.

        Now I just need to get my hands on high quality suet for rendering, there is nothing like it for pie and pastry.

        Liz wrote on December 20th, 2014

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