Pemmican is known as the ultimate survival food and is a piece of treasured culinary history in North America. Nicknamed the “bread of the wilderness” and championed by Native American tribes, early explorers, and fur traders alike, what was once a common protein source has taken a back seat to more consumer-friendly meat products like beef jerky and beef sticks.
If you love strong, natural meat flavor and want to experience an old-fashioned way of preparing meat, then pemmican will be right up your alley. It’s also a great way to get additional fuel before and after workouts for muscle growth and tissue repair.
What is pemmican?
Pemmican is a sort of primal energy bar made from a concentrated mixture of fat and protein and was first championed by the Native Americans.
Pemmican is made by taking cuts of lean meat, smoking them, drying them, pounding them into a powder, and then pouring hot, melted fat in with powder and mixing it into a bar or whatever shape you like.
Imagine if you took beef jerky, made it into a powder, and then mixed melted fat in — that’s essentially pemmican!
The word comes from the Cree word pimîhkân, “pemmican”, which itself is derived from the word pimî, meaning “fat or grease” [*]. Native Americans originally used this method on game like buffalo, elk, or moose and used the sun or pit smoke to dry the meat. Then rocks were used to grind the meat into powder before pouring the melted fat directly into a rawhide bag for mixing. Dried blueberries, cranberries, or other wild fruits were often included to add a touch of sweetness as well.
During the fur trade of the 18th and 19th centuries, pemmican was a dietary mainstay. It was also heavily relied upon by European explorers as they ventured through North America. Arctic explorer Vihljamur Stefansson chronicled his consumption of pemmican during his early 20th-century Alaskan explorations, and the history of pemmican in American exploration is rich and delicious [*].
Is pemmican good for you?
When made with grass-fed meat, tallow, and other fresh ingredients, yes! Because pemmican has high concentrations of lean meat and fat, it is considered a high-calorie, high-protein, and high-fat snack. When it isn’t combined with fruit, pemmican is essentially no-carb.
Here’s the nutritional profile for one of our 2.2 oz (62 g) grass-fed beef pemmican bars:
- Calories: 360
- Carbs: 1 gram (slightly more for our honey/cherry bar)
- Fat: 34 grams
- Protein: 17 grams
This nutritional profile makes it fantastic for diets like keto, paleo, and any other low-carb lifestyle. Pemmican is versatile, too. Even if you don’t fall in love with eating the pemmican as a stand-alone product, it is a wonderful addition to stir-frying vegetables or frying eggs — making it easy to fit into any diet.
Assuming you’re using high-quality, grass-fed products to make your pemmican, here are a few other nutritional benefits you’ll get:
Omega-3 fatty acids
Pemmican made from dried grass-fed beef and tallow has a healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids, which are praised for their nutritional benefits and can help with eye health, reduce the risk of heart disease, fight autoimmune diseases, and more [*].
Vitamin E and B
Pemmican has a lot of Vitamin E, which is an antioxidant and helps prevent cell damage, and Vitamin B, which promotes red blood cell growth and health [*].
The grass-fed beef and tallow used to make pemmican have lots of healthy minerals like iron, potassium, magnesium, zinc, selenium, and phosphorus, which can aid in a variety of processes like providing oxygen to muscles, boosting cell growth, nerve function, and more [*].
5 ways you can make pemmican at home
While buying grass-fed pemmican is the easiest way to try it, if you’re the cooking type then making pemmican at home is also possible. You can either dry the meat yourself or buy jerky, depending on how far along your process you want to start.
Before we go through some recipe options, here’s a bit of advice from the US Wellness Meats butchers:
In general, about 5lbs of lean meat will make around 1lb of dried meat, so keep this ratio in mind when buying your ingredients, and people have different fat-to-meat ratios they like — traditional pemmican is around 1:1 but modern pemmican recipes can go up to 1:6 and beyond.
Also, rendering fat can take much longer than you expect — sort of like caramelizing onions. So start early and don’t forget to drain the fat after it’s rendered. This will improve its shelf-life.
1. Traditional pemmican
Traditional pemmican uses game meat like bison or venison for the meat powder and fat. This recipe recommends grass-fed beef tallow and meat of your choice and offers a lot of great insight into the process [*].
- 4-5 pounds raw grass-fed meat fresh or frozen
- 4 cups grass-fed tallow
- berries, seeds, and/or nuts (optional
- sea salt optional
- coconut flour optional
- almond meal optional
- raw honey optional
- Thaw meat until slightly frozen.
- Place the slices either in a dehydrator or an oven that can be set very low (150 °F/ 66 °C). Dry for 12-18 hours.
- Use a food processor or a mortar and pestle to powderize the dried meat.
- Pulverize and add dried berries to the meat powder (optional)
- Add salt if preferred.
- Warm up the fat on the stove until it is liquefied.
- Mix the fat slowly into the meat powder.
- Add honey if you want it to be sweeter or flour to dry it out if the mixture is too moist.
2. Dried salmon and blueberry pemmican
If you have access to fresh salmon or are feeling a more fishy mood, then this dried salmon and blueberry pemmican is fantastic. This recipe also recommends bacon and a few extra steps to make it more of a delicious experience as opposed to strictly survival food [*].
- 300 grams fresh Chinook Salmon or 100-150 grams of dried fish
- 60-75 grams dried berries
- 100-150 grams rendered fat or bacon grease, room temperature, as needed
- ⅛ teaspoon salt, or more, to taste
- Pulverize the fish into a fine powder.
- Pulverize the berries into a fine powder.
- Mix together.
- Render your fat to remove any impurities. Let sit until room temperature.
- Slowly stir the fat into the powder.
- Add salt, pepper, dried mushrooms, and dried herbs if desired.
- Taste and adjust as necessary.
3. Blended jerky pemmican
If you don’t want to dry your own lean meat, another option is to use high-quality jerky. This recipe lets you still make amazing pemmican with slightly less prep [*].
- 1 lb jerky
- Dried berries (optional)
- 8oz to 1 lb beef suet
- Salt (optional)
- Render the suet.
- Blend the jerky and berries.
- Mix together.
- Strain the fat.
- Slowly add fat to the powdered mixture.
- Season as desired.
- Form into bars or balls and store.
4. Venison jerky and cranberry pemmican
This recipe has a higher ratio of fruit and is closer to a meat granola bar. The venison and cranberries look amazing together and the bear fat makes this taste even more traditional [*].
- 1 lb venison jerky
- 1 lb rendered bear fat or substitute with other high-quality animal fat
- ½ lb dried cranberries, blueberries, etc.
- ½ lb pine nuts or substitute with cashews or walnuts
- Process dried meat, nuts, and berries into powder.
- Cook down fat.
- Strain fat.
- Mix fat into the berry meat mix.
- Add any salt and seasonings as desired.
- Form into bars and store.
5. General pemmican
This recipe works for almost any meat, fruit, and nut combination. Take a look through, see what you have access to, and go from there [*].
- 1⁄4 pound (110 g) of dried fish or red meat (such as salmon, deer, beef, or caribou)
- ½ cup (75 g) of dried berries (such as saskatoon berries, blueberries, or cranberries)
- ½ cup (100 g) of rendered fat or bacon grease
- ⅛ teaspoon (0.7 g) of salt
- ⅛ teaspoon (0.3 g) of freshly ground black pepper (optional)
- Choose the desired meat and berries.
- Grind dried meat and berries into a powder.
- Weigh and make sure ingredients are equal.
- Warm the fat.
- Stir fat into powder.
- Form into logs and wrap with aluminum foil.
How to store pemmican
Does pemmican last forever?
Pemmican was used in the old days due to its unlimited shelf life. The thing is, only completely air-dried pemmican will have a shelf life of this length. Most pemmican sold has more moisture, and while the shelf life is good, it won’t last forever.
For example, we use a Cherokee recipe, but the reason we have limited shelf life is our meat processor is unable to grind air-dried pemmican. Their processor leaves slightly more moisture in to avoid damaging their grinding equipment. The Native Americans removed all the moisture, and that’s why their product was shelf-stable.
The amount of moisture you leave in is also a choice in texture and taste. While old recipes last longer, they are also tougher and harder to enjoy. That’s why many pemmican-makers, including ourselves, choose to make what we call “everyday” pemmican. It is an excellent combination of fat and protein intended for ease of eating on the go, as a meal replacement, or for extra energy.
If you want to make pemmican that lasts years, then you should make your own by air-drying your own meat and sticking to the traditional pemmican recipe above.
Suggested storage ranges for pemmican
Your preference for storage will determine the pemmican’s shelf life. We suggest the following storage guidelines to our customers:
- Store pemmican bars and pails in the freezer for up to 2 years
- Store pemmican bars in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks
- Store pemmican pails in the refrigerator for up to 7 days
- Pemmican bars with sea salt are ok for a weekend camping trip without refrigeration
Do I need to cook pre-made pemmican?
Pre-made pemmican does not need to be cooked or heated. Some people prefer the firmer consistency when the bars are pulled directly from the freezer and allowed to thaw for 5-15 minutes. Other people eat the bars at room temperature. It’s entirely up to you!
The bottom line on pemmican
Pemmican is a rich bit of Native American history and is still a delicious and fun way to make energy-packed protein snacks. When made with grass-fed, all-natural ingredients it has a variety of healthy nutrients and is low-carb — making it ideal for keto diets, paleo diets, or anyone else looking to build more natural meat into their diet.
If you’re looking to try some for the first time, US Wellness Meats is the perfect place to start.
Order some grass-fed beef pemmican today and get hooked on this delicious high-fat snack!
Nathan Phelps is a writer, ethical foodie, and outdoors-aficionado hailing from Nashville, TN. He splits his time between helping sustainable businesses find new customers and managing his ever-increasing list of hobbies, which include playing guitar, baking bread, and creating board games.