December 9, 2022

Pemmican: An Experiment in Preserving Meat

When I wrote Prepper's Livestock Handbook, I researched off-grid meat preservation methods and came up with quite a few. What surprises me now, is that I didn't think of pemmican. Pemmican is one of those things I recall reading about in grammar school history lessons about Native Americans and the early English and French explorers. I'm not sure why it didn't come to mind when I did my research for that book. 

I was reminded of pemmican when I was watching videos to pass the time while I shelled pole bean and turnip seeds for next year's garden. I subscribe to two historical cooking YouTube channels, and I ran across pemmican videos on both. Off-grid food preservation interests to me, so I did a little more research and decided to give it a try.

What is pemmican? It's dried meat, traditionally made from buffalo bison or venison. After it's dried (typically by the sun or campfire), it's powdered and mixed with melted suet or tallow. Sometimes, it contains dried fruit, but sometimes not. It's shelf stable, which means it doesn't require refrigeration for storage. That makes it ideal for long trips, when hunting or stopping at the convenience store isn't possible. It's a concentrated source of protein and calories, and because it's fully cooked, it can be eaten as is (which is why it's often thought of as a survival food), or as an ingredient in soup, stew, or hash. 

The ingredients are simple: lean raw meat and suet or tallow. Since dried fruit is optional, I opted for a plain version. Here's the process in pictures.

Lean, top round beef roast. It weighed 2.42 pounds.

Cut cross grain into thin strips for dehydrating. No seasoning added.

Dried crisp, which took about 12 hours in the
dehydrator. The dried weight was 0.75 pound.

Pemmican is different from jerky in several ways. One is that it is cut cross grain instead of with the grain. Jerky is highly seasoned and dried until it's pliable. Pemmican is not seasoned and is dried until crisp. 

Cutting cross grain meant it was easy to snap into pieces for the
next step. Here it is in my power blender, ready to ground fine.

Meat "powder." (Actually, more like very tiny fine shreds.)

If suet is used, it needs to be rendered, i.e. melted to remove non-fat bits. If it's made from pig fat it's called lard. If it's made from cow, sheep, or goat, it's called tallow. My blog post on rendering tallow is here. Since I already had it, I just had to melt it to mix with the finely ground dried meat.

Melted tallow is added to bind the meat powder together. The amount
is roughly the same weight as the meat or less. I used my goat tallow.

It needs enough tallow to hold together without being overly
greasy. Gloves were recommended for easier hand clean-up.

Pressed into a mold and allowed to cool.

Turned out of the bread pan mold after a night in my unheated pantry.

Mine was crumbly when sliced. I'm guessing
this means it could have used more tallow.

Of course, we sampled it, and it wasn't what I expected. I watched a number of prepper videos where they sample it and think it's extremely bland and tasteless. Nobody seemed to care for it much and thought it's best use was for survival food. Dan and I thought it just tasted like beef. Not terribly greasy, and it could have used some salt, but the flavor was fine.

I packed most of it into wide-mouth pint
canning jars and then vacuum sealed them.

So, what will I do with it? Modern thinking classifies pemmican as a survival food, to eat as-is in a bug-out or emergency situation when one is unable to cook. For that, I think the addition of powdered dried fruit would help, not only for flavor, but to provide much needed carbohydrates. Historically, however, pemmican making was a food preservation method, and it was cooked, or used as an ingredient. As an ingredient, I found two recipes for it: rubaboo and rousseau (or rechaud). 

Traditionally, pemmican was stored in skins rather than molded as most modern instructions call for (because how many of us have a few storage skins handy?) For my second batch, I added salt (1/4  tsp. per 1/4 pound dried meat) and packed it directly into pint canning jars. 

1/2 lb dried meat + tallow = roughly one pint of pemmican

I can scoop out what I need when I use it.

When we taste tested this batch, we thought that the salt ratio of 1/4  tsp. salt to 1/4 pound dried meat was perfect.

Next time, I'll share how I made rubaboo and what we thought of it. (Click here for that blog post).


© Dec 2022 by Leigh at


Ed said...

Although I haven't done so in a long time, my mom used to make "jerky" quite often as a snack food for trips, especially camping trips. I put jerky in quotation marks because unlike your definition of it, she did cut it across the grain and to my knowledge, never seasoned it. But she mostly made turkey jerky which was quite flavorful and cutting it across the grain made it easier to eat after it was dried. But unlike pemmican, it was only good for a couple months in an airtight container, or at least that is what my memory tells me. I'm not sure how we knew that because we always finished it long before then.

Rosalea said...

Very interesting post, Leigh. I also am very interested in shelf stable stuff, as the thought of solar system failure lurks way back in my brain. Unlike power failures on the grid, it would take some time to get back up and running if some part of our system went down. (The freezer failure earlier this year was somewhat stressful, but we managed a 'work around' until we got a new one.) I've dehydrated meat for canoe trips before, and it worked well, but it is important to remove any fat to prevent it from going rancid. With pemmican, you are adding fat. Is there a chance that it would go rancid over time?

Leigh said...

Ed, I'm not sure what the official definition of jerky is. All the directions I ran across called for seasoning, but who says they're correct???? I did make some jerky too, with marinaded meat, and it is very flavorful, but it's tough to bite off. Blog post one of these days. I'll have to try your mom's method of cutting that across the grain.

Rosalea, solar electric failure is always on my mind too, which is one of the reasons I decided to experiment with this. Frozen food seems to be the least secure way to preserve food, although it's convenient at the time. The other option is canning, which has its own considerations, but if I had extensive freezer fail, that's what I'd try to do to preserve it (or make and can soup!)

Rendered fat is supposed to be stable, like natural hydrogenation (but not). I don't have the science handy for why it is and why unprocessed fat isn't, but I know where I might dig it up. That being said, I did note that pemmican was primarily made and used in the northern US and Canada, although apparently soldiers and sailors were given it as a ration too. I dated it before I put it in the pantry, so I'm just going to have to keep an eye on it. (Which is another reason why it's an experiment!)

Mama Pea said...

I, personally, have never gotten into making jerky or pemmican but my husband has always expressed an interest in doing so as a handy food for camping. So I'm sharing this post (pictures add so much) with him and I'm sure he'll find it very interesting and informative. Thanks!

Leigh said...

Mama Pea, maybe he'll be the one to give it a try! Both products are definitely a great way to travel with meat, especially if refrigeration is iffy.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Leigh - Just looked it up (based on a hunch) and like making ghee, rendering tallow/fat removes the water from it, thereby decreasing the ability of bacteria to grow and making it shelf stable (on a macro level, just like dehydration). Do not know anything about the company, but this is the reference I found:

Pemmican has always fascinated me (to be fair, almost any food fascinates me), although I have never had it to my knowledge. The shelf stable aspect of it is very attractive, and becoming more so every day. I do not know if I have any fat around handily for rendering, but I may give it a go (I wonder if you can use rendered butter/ghee instead?).

Jenn Jilks said...

Well done!

Ed said...

Now that you mention it, I'm pretty sure my mom soaked the turkey in a marinade too so there was some seasoning. I was just thinking about those packets of spices you see in the store specifically for jerky.

A lot of her marinades were soy sauce based with minced garlic but I don't recall if that was the type she used for the turkey jerky.

By the way, I just love saying turkey jerky.

Leigh said...

TB, thanks for that! I'll have to look into it more. I've always just taken the stability part for granted.

Having a variety of ways to preserve things is a good idea, especially knowing at least one or two methods that don't require electricity. I admit I was never keen on dehydration, but it's nice that it takes up the least amount of space and stores for such a long time. In the southeast, humidity and insects are our worst enemies. But vacuum packing everything really helps in that department.

Interesting question about the clarified butter or ghee. My ghee keeps really well. The other option is to ask a local butcher for suet. I'm guessing they throw most of it away.

Jenn, thanks!

Ed, there must be hundreds of recipes for jerky, so the flavor possibilities are endless. Most of the ones I've looked at use soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and a variety of seasonings. It would be fun to experiment.

Now, I'm definitely going to have to try turkey jerky! (Can't help but liking to say that!)

Will said...

My only knowledge of pemmican is from the Arthur Ransome "Swallows and Amazon's" children's books, where they use it as a name for corned beef.

Leigh said...

Will, I'm not familiar with Arthur Ransome, but I know that there's a lot to be learned from children's class literature.

Corned beef is something else I'd like to try! I know it has nothing to do with corn, but is cured like some of these other meats. Now I'll have to look into it! Thanks. :)

PioneerPreppy said...

OMG without skins? You ruined it!!! Time to send it me and for you to try again with skins this time for sure!!!

So how do you save the tallow or did you use lard?

Leigh said...

PP, lol! I have to admit that for all of my interest in traditional ways, I'm very happy for some of the modern alternatives. We did process a goat this week, but Dan had dibs on the skin for other purposes. :)

Florida Farm Girl said...

I'm confused. You say that the meat is sliced and then dried, then ground into a powder. Got it. Later on you mention that since it is cooked, its shelf stable. When does the cooking process take place? Does that occur when you mi the melted tallow? My ignorance is showing here, I know, but I notice such seeming discrepancies and it bothers me until I understand. I'm still truly amazed at your resourcefulness.

Leigh said...

Sue, really good questions. It's cooked during dehydration, at low temps. Kinda like slow cooking only without water or broth. So, it's thoroughly cooked when it comes out of the dehydrator, similar to jerky.

Dried foods keep for years, and I'm guessing that the meat powder could by itself too, but the tradition is to mix it with rendered fat (tallow) which will also keep for years. Does that make sense?

Florida Farm Girl said...

I'll go on to say that as a child in northwest Florida, our smoked bacon was stored in rendered lard in five gallon cans made for that purpose. We'd simply go to the smoke house with a skillet, remove the lid and with a long fork remove however much bacon we wanted, whatever lard clung to it was brought along. Then the lid was replaced. We never had a problem with it turning rancid. In later years, the bacon was packaged and frozen.

Leigh said...

Now, that's extremely interesting to me. Living in the southeast, I'm always wondering about the old traditional methods of storing food without refrigeration in this climate. Did you brine the bacon first? I'm guessing that brine, slow smoking, and lard make for good meat preservation.

Florida Farm Girl said...

No, the bacon was only smoked to suit our taste. I don't remember how long but I know it was for many days with a low and slow smoke. My brother may remember. It was then washed or wiped off well and dried well, sliced and packed into the cans and then the lard poured over it. The bacon was totally covered. Also, when we removed bacon, we made sure the remaining bacon was covered by lard. We did brine some hams and pork shoulders but that was a totally different procedure. And we stopped that before we stopped the bacon smoking so my knowledge of the process is sketchy. I know they weighted down the meats so they'd stay submerged in the brine.

Leigh said...

Interesting. So many of the old ways are just dim memories now. But then, there is little call to use them. The pemmican is my first experiment in this kind of meat preservation.

I keep my feta cheese in crocks covered with olive oil. They keep very well that way and the olive oil becomes wonderfully flavored.