Making Pemmican

By | November 11, 2015

The Native People of the temperate and northern regions of America developed a high-energy fast food that is easily transportable and long-storing. We know it as pemmican, or pimikan in the Algonquin languages. The term is derived from pimii, the Cree-Chippewa word for fat. This is quite appropriate labeling, because fat, a concentrated energy source, is the most important ingredient.

We are all generally familiar with pemmican already, as it is basically sausage. It is a mixture of dried shredded or pounded meat, usually ungulate (Bison, Elk, Deer), and lard (solid rendered fat), usually ungulate also, which is combined and compressed into cakes. The popular understanding is that pemmican contains fruit. This is a misconception that may have arisen from the practice of some Natives making a treat for their children by mixing together fruit and dry meat. Historically, a small amount of dried fruit (such as juneberries) was added on occasion, more for flavor than for its nutritional contribution. Indications are that sweet pemmican was probably no more popular than was sweet sausage in the Euro-American tradition.

Pemmican is made by first separating the fat and meat from each other so that they can be processed individually. Meat is best preserved by drying, and fat by rendering. If there is fat in the meat, or vice versa, either could spoil. However, once each is prepared they can be mixed together and the resulting product will have good keeping quality. For travel it is tightly packed in sealed containers (similar to stuffing sausage in casing) so that it will not go rancid.

Fat is more necessary than meat in a northern diet, and is the primary ingredient in pemmican because fat has nearly 2 ½ times the energy of complex carbohydrates (which is starch, as found in grains and tubers), sugars or meat. This is important in travel and cold weather because a lot of energy is needed without overloading the system with bulky foods. Another benefit of fat is that it digests slowly, providing steady energy over a long period of time. Sugars break down rapidly, giving a quick energy peak, then a valley. Carbohydrates fare a bit better, yet nowhere near fat. Meat in excess of what is needed to rebuild muscle is broken down and converted to energy, however it requires more water than other energy foods and may carry health risks.

As a traditional North Country travel and winter ration, pemmican is needed to sustain life and provide energy, sometimes on its own. Northern greenhorn explorers have died trying to live on lean meat. Some Inuit Peoples’ winter diets consist of almost half fat. Recently a woman crossed the continent of Antarctica on foot, consuming pure olive oil for energy.

Pemmican is quite easy to make, and a variety of ingredients can be used. In making pemmican, we are basically disassembling and reassembling the meat. Fresh meat rots quickly; once the flesh and fat are separated and processed, each in the way that works best, they can be reassembled and will remain preserved for an extended period. The most important guidelines to keep in mind are to be sure your meat is lean and completely dry, and to use rendered fat that will not melt (such as the fat of ungulates) while the pemmican is being stored and used.

You can learn more about how to make pemmican in my most recent book, Extreme Survival Meat, A Guide for Safe Scavenging, Pemmican Making, and Roadkill. It provides step-by-step instructions on how to make pemmican, including how to prepare the meat and render the needed fat. This book, especially handy in survival situations, is also an excellent guide for those who want to find and process their own meat without hunting. I hope you’ll check it out – and let me know what you think!


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