Energy bars are for amateurs.
Jerky is lame.
If you want a real snack for the wilderness, I’ve got something like you’ve never had before. You can make it at home, it’s packed with protein and fat calories, you can take it with you anywhere, and it never goes bad.
You’ve got to try this Native American pemmican recipe.
What is Pemmican and why is it survival food?
Pemmican is a way of combining dried meat with rendered fat to produce the Native American equivalent of a protein bar. Preparing the meat and fat in this way was important for two reasons:
- It preserved the meat and could keep for a year or more. This provided food at times when hunting was unsuccessful or not possible
- The combination of protein and fat provided a high calorie, easy-to-carry food that did not require cooking before eating. A small amount could sustain a person for a long time.
The word “pemmican” stems from the Native American Cree word “pemi” which meant fat or grease.
The fat is an important (and clever!) addition to the dried meat. Not only does the fat add calories (this is survival food so calories are good!) but fat repels water. Over time, the fat will keep moisture out, which is usually what causes foods to go bad. So, by drying the meat first and then preserving it in rendered fat, the resulting pemmican can last months or even years.
The Pemmican War
Native Americans have made pemmican for a very long time (hundreds to possibly thousands of years), but details of it’s use were not recorded for most of that time.
Pemmican is such a useful food, however, that it’s use continued into the 19th and 20th centuries.
For example, pemmican was an incredibly important food for early settlers of the American west and Canada. Between crop harvests, it was one of the few sources of sustenance. In the 1810s, a major feud existed between the two major fur trading companies in the area that is now southern Manitoba, northern Minnesota, and eastern North Dakota.
The governor of this area took sides with one of the companies and banned the export of pemmican from the Red River area. This ban essentially cut the trading posts of one company off from their food source because they relied so heavily on pemmican.
That’s right, there was a whole war named after pemmican.
Pemmican in the 20th Century
Pemmican remained a popular survival food well into the 20th century. By this time, the American frontier was officially closed but another frontier was being explored – Antarctica.
Pemmican was a very popular and important food in Antarctica at this time. Explorers even had their own varieties and made something called hoosh. Hoosh was a kind of stew made from dry biscuits (called sledging biscuits), pemmican, and snow.
Tinned pemmican found in old antarctic camps was found to still be good 50 years later!
When Ernest Shackleton’s crew was stranded during the antarctic winter from 1914-1916, they survived on dog pemmican. Not a single man died during that expedition.
Variations of the recipes
Pemmican can be made in a variety of ways but the essentials are the same – dried meat ground to powder held together by fat.
As you can imagine, various types of meat can be used. The most common Native American pemmican recipe most likely used buffalo but you can use deer, elk, carribo, lean beef, or even fish.
Along with the variations in the meat, there are also wide variations in the flavoring, including berries and spices.
It was common for Native Americans to use all kinds of wild berries to flavor and add some nutrition to their pemmican. As pemmican was common throughout North America, the types of berries used varied regionally.
Native Americans also commonly added spices to pemmican to give it some flavor. The types of spices used likely varied regionally, just like the berries, but probably also varied depending on their availability.
For example, tribes in the north used maple syrup in their foods so they may have used that to give their pemmican a slightly sweet taste. Tribes in Mexico and central America traded allspice which would have given their pemmican a completely different taste!
Interesting fact – Native Americans would not have used honey to flavor their pemmican as the honey bee is not native to North America. It did once exist on North America…14 million years ago. But it did not survive.
Supposedly, when Europeans brought the honey bee to the new world, the Native Americans called it “the white man’s fly” (although, stories like this are hard to verify).
Now you can see how pemmican may have differed greatly between tribes, regions, or even at different times of the year.
Native American Pemmican Recipe
I used thin sliced eye of round beef for my pemmican because I wasn’t sure where to get buffalo meat. I dried it in the oven for 6 hours (dried beyond jerky) on the lowest setting which was about 170 °F.
You need to be able to shred the meat into a floss so make sure it is cut as thin as possible and thoroughly dried.
Next, I shredded the meat using a food processor. This took a little while as some chunks kept sticking to the blades.
Eventually, I got a fluffy floss which is what you need for this Native American pemmican recipe.
I also dried some blueberries using my food processor but decided not to use them because they wouldn’t shred in the food processor. They may have still contained a little moisture which would eventually spoil my pemmican.
I did mix in about two teaspoons of sugar to give it a little flavor (after you add the fat, it might be a little bland).
After shredding and seasoning the beef a little, it was time to add the fat. I used tallow but you can get fat from a butcher (sometimes they’ll give you for free) and render it yourself.
From here, I just had to warm the tallow up to make it liquid. It did not take much heat so do this really slow with low heat.
I added just enough tallow to the meat so that it was cohesive and could be formed using my hands. It’s best to start with a few tablespoons, mix it thoroughly, and then add one tablespoon at a time until you are happy with the consistency.
I chose to press the pemmican into a rectangular container so that once the fat solidified, I could cut it into bars.
Once I had pressed the pemmican nicely and evenly into my container, I let it sit for at least an hour to make sure the fat fully solidified. Then I carefully cut it up into bar shapes and scooped them out of the container.
Feel free to shape or cut your pemmican however you want. I estimated that the pemmican I made contained roughly 2500 calories, so each pemmican bar (I cut out 5) is about 500 calories of protein and fat.
- Lean meat – buffalo meat is traditional but deer, elk, fish, or lean cuts of beef work too
- Fat or tallow
- Berries (optional) – blueberries are common but really anything goes. You can use edible wild berries to give it an authentic taste.
- Spices (optional) – just like with the berries, anything goes but common spices used are sugar, maple syrup, or allspice
- Dry the meat – the meat must not contain any moisture so that it stays preserved for long periods of time. First you must slice the meat very thin. Pro tip – put the meat in the freezer for 20-30 minutes to partially freeze it before cutting it; this makes it easier to slice thin. Dry the sliced meat in the oven on the lowest setting for 6-7 hours or until the meat is slightly crispy and not rubbery any more. Native Americans would lay the strips of meat out in the sun all day.
- Shred the meat – once the meat is totally dry, put it in a food processor or blender until it becomes a fluffy, fine floss. You don’t want chunks of meat in your pemmican. Alternatively, you could use a mortar and pestle. Native Americans would grind the meat between two stones.
- Season the meat – mix in dried ingredients of your choice to add some flavor. Sugar is a good choice but you could also dry some berries.
- Prepare the fat – if using raw fat, you must render it first. If the meat has been rendered or if you’re using tallow, heat it up slowly (doesn’t take much heat) until it becomes liquid.
- Mix the fat and the meat – add just enough fat to the meat so that it is cohesive and can be formed using your hands. You can press it into a container to make a nice shape or just form it with your hands. Once you have the shape you want, let it sit for at least one hour to let the fat solidify again.
Pemmican is not the easiest food to make and it’s not exactly something I would whip up for dinner, but it is an incredible survival food or a paleo snack. Making and eating pemmican is also a step back in time to give you a feel for such an important part of the Native American and early settler diet. Furthermore, there is a lot of flexibility in the type of meat and spices you can use. You can experiment with different variations to find your favorite recipe. Do you have a favorite Native American pemmican recipe? Let me know in the comments!
If you enjoy making your own products from natural ingredients, try one of these 5 Absolute Best Beautyberry Insect Repellent Recipes
You might also enjoy other outdoor foods that don’t require cooking so check out 25 Delicious Stoveless Backpacking Meals to Warm Your Taste Buds