Pemmican: the original protein bar and ultimate survival food

Pemmican is thought to be the ultimate survival food of the 18th and 19th centuries. Have you heard of pemmican? It’s a concentrated, nutritious food that was invented by the North American Plains Indians, and can be made today, likely with much greater ease than it was made with three hundred years ago. Even the ingredients haven’t changed in all this time. Pemmican has gained popularity these days with many recipes and how-to videos on the internet, although the recipe hasn’t really changed.

I often carry beef jerky or grass-fed beef “snacks” and other protein bars in my purse if I know we’re going to be doing something that doesn’t allow time for a meal. Those beef snacks have always been part of our camping supplies as a nutritious way to reenergize when a kitchen isn’t available. But pemmican and beef jerky are not the same, even though the main ingredients might’ve come from the same source.

Pemmican is a food made from red meat that has been dried and beaten into a paste, mixed with rendered fat, and shaped into little patties. Jerky is lean meat, cured and preserved with spices, cut into thin strips and air-dried in the sun or an oven.

 

Native Americans depended on pemmican for survival. It kept well and was an excellent food source. As long as it was kept away from direct sunlight, pemmican could last for many years with no refrigeration.

It could be eaten for months or years as the only food source, and no nutritional deficiencies would be present. It’s been shown that people who eat a diet of meat and fat, as long as the animal is eating its natural diet (grass), there were no concerns for weakened bones, scurvy or other ailments. Or at least that’s what they found in the olden days.

It was originally made during the summer months from dried, lean buffalo meat and the fat rendered from the animal. Not only was it a great way to preserve and carry the meat while traveling, it was a highly nutritious food source during the cold winter months when hunting was difficult.

When the early frontiersmen got a taste for pemmican, its popularity sky-rocketed. Hunters, trappers, explorers as well as soldiers kept pemmican as a food source. Soldiers knew that it was a filling ration to consume with nothing else was available, like before a battle or a long march, and that it would sustain them as they carried on with their duties. Pemmican, some potatoes, a little water and a crumbled up hardtack cracker made many a bowl of stick-to-your-ribs stew back in those olden days.

Pemmican was normally made with bison, elk, deer and other game, but it can be made with any lean dried meat. To make it at home and if you’re using beef, for every pound of raw beef, you will probably end up with a quarter-pound of dried beef. You can’t use jerky as your dried beef, because it’s salty, spiced, and cut wrong for creating a powder of the dried meat. You can render your own tallow, or you can use any rendered fat (including bacon grease) or suet, which is easy to come by with the internet at your fingertips.

There were two different kinds of pemmican made in the 18th and 19th centuries. One is a combination of half shredded, dehydrated, lean meat, with half rendered fat (by weight). The other recipe contained 5% less meat, and that 5% was replaced by dried and ground berries.

Course powder of dried beef. Melted suet. Dried berries. A little cooking, because this is not to be consumed as a raw food. Homemade protein bars that will energize and sustain you like countless others for at least the last three hundred years.

Making Pemmican at Home

2 pounds lean ground meat (beef, turkey, venison, etc.)
1–2 cups rendered fat (suet, bacon fat, etc.)
3 cups finely chopped dried fruit
¼ cup honey (optional)
¼ cup finely chopped nuts (optional)

  1. Spread out the ground meat on parchment paper either on the racks of a dehydrator or on a baking sheet. Dry at 180°F overnight or for about 8 hours. You want the meat to be crispy-dry for pemmican, not chewy as for jerky.
  2. Pulverize the meat until it is almost a powder. You can use a mortar and pestle, but feel free to take advantage of a blender or food processor to do the job.
  3. Melt the fat over medium-low heat in a small pot.
  4. Combine the meat powder, chopped dried fruit, and the honey and nuts (if using). Add the liquefied fat a little bit at a time, working in each addition with your clean hands. Keep adding fat until the pemmican holds together when you squeeze a small handful of it. Use only as much fat as necessary to hold the mixture together.
  5. Put the pemmican onto a dish or tray and pat it out until it’s in a layer about ½ inch thick. Chill it in the refrigerator or another cool place until it is solid enough to cut into bars that are about 4 inches long and 1 or 2 inches wide.
  6. Wrap the pemmican pieces individually in waxed or parchment paper and store in the refrigerator or another cool place.

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