The Pemmican Brief

I’ve been wanting to try to make pemmican for some time.  I first read about it in Ray Audette’s NeanderThin.  I half-heartedly tried Audette’s paleo diet for a while and was able to lose a noticeable amount of weight (i.e., my pants were looser) even though I wasn’t very faithful.  I always thought that if I could master the art of making pemmican, then I would always have a good source of protein and energy and that it would help me stick to the diet.

What?  Oh, right, you’re wondering what the hell pemmican is.  Essentially, it is dried meat mixed with rendered animal fat.  Sound scrumptious?  Well, even though it’s made with jerky, it’s probably not the kind of jerky you’re used to.  Most dried meat you would have eaten is the commercial jerky that has been seasoned and loaded with preservatives for the “civilized” (mind you, I use that term derogatorily) palate.  But imagine for a moment, if you will, the best hamburger you’ve ever eaten–or the best steak.  If it was really juicy, it was probably closer to rare than well done and marbled with fat.  So, in theory, pemmican should be a condensed version of a really good hamburger.

The only ingredients in pemmican are meat and fat (and occasionally dried fruit like cranberries, but for the purpose of this experiment, I’m sticking to animal products).  The meat is in the form of jerky.  The fat is in the form of tallow.  What’s “tallow”?  It’s rendered suet.  What’s “rendering” and what’s “suet”?  Suet is basically the fat that the butchers cut off their meat before they put it out to sell.  Rendering is the process of refining the fat into tallow, which I’ll get more into later.

With such basic ingredients, you’d think shopping for this recipe would be a cinch.  Well, it wasn’t.  My local grocery store apparently doesn’t keep their trimmings to sell to the public.  Why would they?  I mean, who eats that stuff?  So, day after day, I would stop in and ask for some suet.  And day after day, I was told to come back the next day at a given time in order to get the suet before it was ground up to be sold for bird feed.  Finally, I talked one of the butchers into saving a pound of suet for me and putting it out for sale so that I could come get it later.

With my suet in hand, then I had to buy the meat.  Now, the jerky is apparently supposed to be as lean as possible.  Since any fat in the dehydrated meat won’t be rendered, it’s susceptible to going rancid.  And nobody wants to eat rancid fat.  Nobody.  Now, I don’t know from cuts of meat, so I had to go out on a limb and just get stuff that I thought would be lean enough (I didn’t dare ask the butcher for help since I’d gone through enough trauma just trying to get the suet).  In the end, I think I ended up getting some “bottom round” that looked pretty lean and was thankfully inexpensive as well.

Now that I had my ingredients, the real fun was about to begin.  The meat needed to be cut into thin strips and dried, and the suet needed to be rendered.

Audette recommends putting your suet in a pan in a 250 degree oven for several hours to melt the fat and let any moisture evaporate out of it.  Getting the moisture out is important because it can cause the tallow to go rancid.  Remember, rancidity is your enemy.  Well-made pemmican can supposedly last indefinitely.  I’ve heard stories [I’ll insert the source here when I find it] of centuries-old pemmican found in abandoned pueblos that was still completely edible–though I don’t know if anyone was brave enough to try it.

Now, I thought I had also read somewhere about people rendering fat by boiling it and letting the impure solids fall away.  Since oil floats on water, the idea is to let the heat of the boiling water melt the fat.  Then the solids fall down and settle in the water.  You have to let the fat cool, and then you can scrape it off the top of the water.  You would need an additional rendering to get all of the moisture out of the tallow, but it sounded like a good first step to use on my suet, since there was a lot of stray meat attached.

So I boiled my fat for about 3 hours, but it didn’t look like it was melting all the fat.  When I thought about it, I realized that my fat wasn’t reaching the 250 degrees that Audette recommended.  I don’t know if that was the problem or not, but I decided to abandon the boiling and put my fat in the oven.  I picked out the stray meat (which hadn’t fallen down to settle in the water) and ate it–it wasn’t the best, but it wasn’t bad.  Then I put the messy concoction in a casserole dish and baked it at 250 for a couple more hours.  The oven method definitely seemed to work better.

In the mean time, I cut the meat into roughly 1/8 inch strips to put in the dehydrator.  I cut some of it with the grain and some against the grain to see if it made any difference in the drying process.  My dehydrator settings indicated drying meat at 155 degrees, so I went with that. 

With the rendering of the fat and the dehydrating of the meat, my house smelled like I was making a really good pot roast.  I forgot to note how long it took for the fat to render and for the meat to dry.  Each process got interrupted (I decided to try my experiment while I was in the middle of cleaning up the house for my son’s first birthday party), so I probably wouldn’t have had decent data, anyway.  I’m going to guess that the drying took about 10 hours in my dehydrator

The jerky

The rendering took about that long as well since I had so much moisture from the failed boiling experiment to get rid of.  Some of the recipes I read recommended rendering twice, and I decided that I should do that as well just to make sure all the water was gone.  After the second rendering and filtering, my tallow looked pretty and yellow and clear when melted.

The tallow

The next step was to grind up the jerky.  I’ve never been good at using food processors or blenders to grind up dry food.  I tried to grind up some nuts once, and I ended up with a lot of nut-buttery fine stuff shoved into all the nooks and crannies at the bottom of my blender that kept the blades from ever getting to the other nuts.  I had a pretty similar problem with the jerky.  Basically, the only think I could figure was that I needed to grind up very small amounts at a time (basically, just enough jerky bits–torn up by hand–to cover the blades).  I used the “grind” speed at first since that seemed logical and then switched to “shred” later on to see if that was equally logical.  (I don’t really understand the naming convention behind blender buttons.  They’re just fancy names for different speeds, right?  So instead of going from “super slow” to “wicked fast” they go from “blend” to “frappe”?)  Anyway, each time I ground or shredded a small batch of jerky, I had to use a knife to work loose all the packed-in jerky at the bottom under the blades.  Even with the tediousness of my lame skills with a blender, it didn’t take too long to finish up all the grinding and shredding. 

The ground jerky

The next step then was to mix the ground up jerky with the tallow.  All the recipes I encountered indicated a 1:1 ratio for these ingredients–by weight.  Audette indicates in his jerky recipe that 6 pounds of fresh beef will give you one pound of jerky.  His pemmican recipe calls for one pound of dried jerky and one pound of suet (pre-rendering).  Now, I think that I had one pound of suet–at least, that’s what I asked the butcher to give me, but it did have a lot of meat still attached that would have thrown off the weight.  And I know that I had 4 pounds of raw beef. I didn’t weigh out my dried meat or rendered fat to see how much of each I had, but it definitely looked like I had too much beef and not enough tallow.

Dried jerky and tallow

When it came time to mix the two ingredients, I decided to start with a few handfuls of jerky and add more as I went, so as to make sure that I wouldn’t end up with too dry of an end product.  In the end, I think I did add a little too much jerky.  I don’t know if it’s too dry, per se, but it just doesn’t seem greasy enough.

The Pemmican

The taste isn’t bad.  It’s definitely better than my worst expectations, but it’s nowhere near a good, juicy, medium rare burger.  It’s kind of like, when you make a pot roast, and a few strands of meat get stuck to the edge of the pan and dry out a little.  Plus there’s a texture to it that’s not unlike some kind of brownie.  It’s definitely a strange and new taste that will need to be acquired.  Audette says of the taste, “[it] may be unfamiliar at first, but most people who try it eventually find themselves craving it.”  I can believe his assertion, as I’d kind of like to have some more right now.

Now, this was a thoroughly civilized experiment performed in a kitchen with modern appliances and utensils.  How, then, would one go about making pemmican in an “abo” situation?  (I borrow Thomas J. Elpel’s term “abo” rather than discuss a “survival” situations because I wish to view the situation in terms of sustained feral living rather than a “gotta do whatever I can to stay alive” kind of situation.)

The meat would have to be dried in the sun.  Even if one tried to be more technological and use a reflector oven, I think the temperature would be too high (between 360 and 400 degrees) and end up cooking the meat.  I believe smoke was often used to keep flies and other insects off the meat as it dried, and children of the tribe were often the ones to watch the meat, keep the fires smoking and shoo away the flies [seems like I read this in one or more of the Gears’ novels].  As for grinding the meat, I assume two rocks would suffice.

As for rendering fat in an abo environment, that seems a bit trickier.  If you had some modern cooking equipment on hand–a pan or casserole dish, at least–you could make a rock oven or heat the pan on the coals of a fire.  Without such equipment, thought, I’m not sure how you could heat the fat long enough and allow the moisture to escape.  Chuda’s Kitchen indicates that seal oil was “…placed in a large container [… and …] was positioned on an open fire and allowed to slowly render…”  But what is the “container”?  I think my boiling method would work for separating fat from not suet sources–like the marrow in bones.  You would need to let the “broth” cool enough to scoop the tallow off the top, and then I assume you would need to render the tallow again to eliminate any moisture.

Any suggestions on performing this experiment without the complex comforts of civilization would be greatly welcomed.  If I get some good ideas, I’d like to try this experiment again “civ free”.  As for now, I’m going to go eat a few more hunks of pemmican.

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24 responses to this post.

  1. Dude, this is fucking rad. Thank you. So many questions I have had about pemmican were answered in this. I remember reading some tips in that book The Indian Tipi on pemmican that I didn’t find anywhere else. You may try looking through that. I don’t have it here with me now, but I’ll check it and post again. As far drying the meats primitively, I’ve seen a few people do it at skills rendezvous. I guess the whole process of smoking adds a lot of flavor to the meat as well. Here is a cool link about pemmican by Tamarack Song:
    http://www.natureskills.com/pemmican_recipe.html

    As far as containers go, often the hide was used as a temporary container, this is also demontrated in The Indian Tipi. Basically you tie a hide to some sticks and make a quad-pod, fill the container with water, than put hot rocks into it. Don’t know how well it would work for rendering fat, but it may. This way makes sense to me, kill the animal, take off the hide, set up a rack to hang the hide from as well as the meat you cut off. As you cut the meat and hang it on racks you have a fire going heating rocks, cooking a little of the meat and fat to eat for dinner, then boil the water/fat in the hide and let it cool, pour off the water… Use the hide like a bag and carry the meat & everything back to your camp where you can tan the hide and make clothes or whatever. Each thing connected to the next or other thing. Efficiency of time = maximum leisure.

    Reply

  2. Scout, you’re the man. Once again, you’ve provided me a link to information I remember reading but was too stupid to bookmark at the time.

    Following a link from Tamarack Song’s recipe, I was able to find info on the rendering via boiling process here. Unfortunately for my wild side, they also discuss rendering in civilized containers.

    I like your processing-at-the-kill-site method for drying the meat and rendering the fat. I had thought about using the hide somehow as a container, but couldn’t quite visualize it. So, you could use the raw, untanned hide for cooking? I remember from reading Jean Auel books that you could boil water in a hide for cooking either by using hot rocks or by hanging the hide over the fire–as long as the flames don’t reach above the water level. The water absorbs enough heat from the hide to keep it from burning–kind of like boiling water in a paper cup. I assume that as long as the flames didn’t reach above the oil level in the hide that you could render all the moisture from fat this way as well.

    The Gusts and Grease article you referenced on Dynamite Skills also mentions that the fat was dried by hanging it up, the same way you would dry meat. Kind of a fat jerky, I guess. If you could dry the moisture out of the fat that way, then you might only need to heat it up enough to melt it before mixing it with the pounded meat jerky.

    Hmm, you’ve spurned some interesting ideas for me, Scout. Thanks for the feedback. I’ll definitely check out the Tipi book.

    Reply

  3. -tap, tap-

    um, i can’t believe you have a wp.
    (i’m so glad you do, & i can’t wait to read it all.)

    now you know I have one, too. :)

    Reply

  4. Thanks for reminding me of pemmican. It’s one of those things that I’ve always wondered about but haven’t gotten around to researching. Rendering tallow is a pretty important abo skill to have I think. Lighting, waterproof camo, soap, pemmican, etc. I need to get on it. I do have a lot of dried meat sitting around right now so now I need to get some suet.

    How much do you think you really need to grind up the meat? I assume you don’t want big hunks, but shredding seems labor intensive in an abo situation.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Rix on 02/28/2007 at 9:50 pm

    Sassmouth,

    As my grinding skills kinda suck, I did have a few smaller chunks left in the mix. I decided to leave them in to see how they affected the taste and texture. When you bite into a hunk of pemmican that has one of these hunks in it, it feels sharp, and my mind immediately thinks “Shit, I’m about to eat a bone.” But once you realize that it’s just jerky itself, then it’s not too bad. I kind of like the feathery/stringy texture of the stuff in the picture of my blender. It presses together pretty nicely at that “gauge” of coarseness.

    I would think, thought, that pounding the jerky between two rocks wouldn’t be that difficult. We’ll probably find grinding things to be a useful skill post-collapse.

    Of course, if you just want to eat your jerky and have your fat, too, you don’t have to make pemmican. Each element should be pretty enduring on its own. (The tallow probably adds to the live of the jerky though by locking out the potential for new moisture to get in.) But I seem to recall reading in some book about Inuits that they dipped their dried fish jerky in seal oil before eating it.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Lumpy Roux on 04/07/2007 at 9:37 am

    I suppose you could, if you absolutely had to, put together the tripod, animal hide fat rendering rig Scout describes, but anyone who has actually handled a raw cowhide, much less a fresh buffalo hide, will tell you its not very likely to work. Its a good idea in theory, but in practicality, hanging a hundred plus pound, eighty square foot, wet hide, from some poles is a lot easier to say than to do.

    Here’s how it is done: You either find or dig a convenient hole in the vicinity of your fire/meat source. The hole wants to be narrower than it is deep so that the surface area is minimized in order to prevent rapid cooling of the water. Next you line the hole as well as possible with dried grasses, leaves and suchlike as are available. This will act as insulation and help to minimize further cooling. You then line the hole with the fresh hide, hair side down, for further insulation. Fill the hide about halfway with water,(remember, you’re going to be throwing in chunks of fat and hot rocks which will displace a lot of water) add your cut up fat (the smaller the better) and start rolling in your hot stones. Since you’re probably going to carry out this operation near a stream, it is very important to NOT use river rock! River rocks are permeated by a residual amount of water, and when heated, the water turns to steam, causing the rock to violently explode, sending razor sharp chips and fragments everywhere! Sort of a primitive hand grenade.

    An alternative way this was done was to build a fire in the hole, heat the earth, let the wood reduce itself to coals, cover the coals with a layer of the excavated earth and proceed as above. This method had the dual advantage of being usable not only as a boiling pit, but after the day’s work was done, could be used overnight as a slow cooker (wet or dry) for the next day’s feast. Processing buffalo from a kill usually was a several day process, in which the whole tribe took part, so they would remain in the vicinity for some time using the boiling pit for rendering during the day, and cooking overnight. Hope this helps.

    Reply

  7. Posted by Rix on 04/09/2007 at 8:32 am

    Lumpy,

    That is some awesome information–very detailed and helpful. Thanks for your input.

    Reply

  8. […] some consciousness of the fact that moisture might cause problems with freshness.  Having made pemmican, I knew that in order to preserve something for as long as possible, you really need to get the […]

    Reply

  9. Posted by Wanderer on 05/11/2008 at 10:14 am

    Awesome write up, I am also interested in the making of pemmican. I know some folks that custom butcher beef a few times a year, so I was able to get my hands on a 40# box of trimmings. Apparently the trimmings are usually just thrown out and we had to pay a small fee to get the buthcer to box them up.

    I rendered it in skillets on low heat on the stove, took forever. The 40# box took about 12 hours to process and I ended up with a bit more than a gallon of tallow. Towards the end I did think of the boiling method and tried that with the last couple batches, but it did not seem to extract as much of the fat as the skillet method. I hadn’t thought of using the oven, I’ll definitely try that next time.

    I do wonder if there is a more primitive way of rendering that doesn’t involve having to boil the fat in water.

    Reply

  10. Posted by Dallas John SLieker on 08/06/2008 at 4:28 pm

    Hello! I stumbled upon your post after researching Pemmican on wikipedia, then doing a google search for an image of Pemmican.

    I am very interested in old-world foods and survival methods. Your post is very informative, and an interesting read.

    I’m going to make some Pemmican of my own using your methods described here (making sure to get the proper ratio of beef to tallow).

    Thank you very much for the visual aides, and directions!

    Reply

  11. Posted by Hank Fannin on 08/27/2008 at 3:22 pm

    Great site.

    I tried making some Pemmican. It tastes alright but I don’t know about the consistency. It’s kind of mushy, not firm or hard like a health bar.

    Is the way it’s supposed to be or did I screw up?

    Hank

    Reply

  12. Posted by Rix on 08/27/2008 at 4:27 pm

    Hank,

    It sounds like your tallow to jerky ratio was off. Try less tallow or more jerky next time. Or if you want, you could probably add more jerky to the current batch to dry it out more.

    Reply

  13. Posted by Timbre Wolf on 01/04/2009 at 5:48 am

    I was invited by a dream to the Sweat Lodge. An elder, knowing why I was there, consented to let me attend. One of the things that he offered me was the “traditional drinks of the Sweat.” It tasted like . . . brace yourself . . . Pepsi. In fact, it was a Pepsi.

    I only share this because I live in Oklahoma with many tribes. And of the many Native Americans, that I have observed, they like convenience. Even if that means “not so primitive.” Personally, I use the traditional method of rendering the fat – I hope you like this one – a crock pot. I put in as much fat (trimmings) as I can fit into it and set it on high for a while and then flip it to low if it starts to bubble. The structural components of the fat will become crunchy, rather tasteless, and worth nothing while the liquid builds and builds. It’s a nearly effortless way to accomplish rendering.

    Reply

    • Thanks for sharing your method, Timbre Wolf. I have often wondered whether a crock pot would work or whether it would heat up too much. It’s nice to hear how effectively it works. I’ll have to try this next time.

      Reply

  14. Posted by Mirrim on 01/09/2009 at 5:03 pm

    Okay, this is the way my grandma taught me to make pemmican, I have no idea how authentic it is.

    First we ran the lean meat (and almost any lean meat will work Deer, Elk, Rabbit what have you, but not bear or pork) through a crank meat grinder, like the kind you use to make sausage, on its corse setting. Then dried the ground meat in the oven on a cookie sheet (if you use a food dehydrator you need to use the fruit roll-up sheets).

    Render your suet, into tallow (I have used both the oven and the crockpot method and like them both) but it works better if the suet is corsely chopped. I am thinking about trying mutton fat and seeing if that will work.

    Mean while wash the grinder really well *smiles*

    Because once the meat is dried, you run it though the meat grinder again on a finer grind.

    We always added dried fruit to our pemmican, run though the grinder. Usually two parts dried meat, to one part of tallow and one part dried fruit all by weight, usually a little bit of sea salt too. Though we would vary the amount of tallow depending on the season and use. (More for heavy work in cold weather, less for warm weather snacks).

    So thats my two cents on the subject.

    Have fun

    Kelly

    Reply

  15. I’m about to turn my kitchen into a big pemmican factory in preparation for a 19th Century trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. Initially I’d wanted to make it using the methods outlined above–I dried beef on a rack out in the sun and rendered beef tallow on the stove top. But once I actually did the math and realized I was going to need about 140lbs of the stuff I decided to take the easy way out and am buying jerky in bulk and cubes of beef tallow from an ingredient supplier. It kind of feels like cheating but I don’t have enough hours in the day!

    I like Sassmouth’s idea of a Buffalo Harvesting Workshop–I wonder how many pounds of pemmican I could get out of one buffalo?

    Anyway, I like your detailed discussion and comments on pemmican and I wish I’d found it before I got started. It might have saved me a few hassles!

    I haven’t posted much pertaining to my pemmican factory, but if you want a general overview of the provisioning of my trip you can check it out here:
    http://www.manandmule.com/food/

    BRONZE

    Reply

  16. Posted by Johnbo on 05/02/2009 at 11:37 am

    One thing I have always wondered about is the how you store the suet without a refrigerator. It is my understanding that fresh suet can spoil at room temperature. If you are in a primitive situation without electricity or modern appliances, how do you store the suet until the meat has properly dried in the sun. Since it takes several days to dry, do you need to convert the suet into a big hunk of tallow (assuming it is still called tallow once it has solidified) and then re-melt it when the meat is ready? Would this work with regular fat too?

    Reply

  17. Posted by Rix on 05/04/2009 at 3:55 pm

    Johnbro,

    If you have rendered the suet into tallow, the tallow should keep without refrigeration, as you have removed the moisture in the rendering process.

    Alternately, you can dehydrate suet the same way you dehydrate the meat into jerky and then simply melt it and remove the solids before mixing it with the ground jerky to make the pemmican.

    As for suet vs. regular fat, I did not use “true” suet (typically the term refers to the fat around the kidneys and loins, although it sometimes refers to beef or pork fat, in general) for my pemmican. I just got fat trimmings from my butcher. I would imagine that the nutritional quality of the fat varies depending on what part of the animal it comes from. However, I experienced great success using random fat trimmings. I still have a chunk of pemmican left from the batch I made in this post over 2 years ago, and it has not gone bad.

    Ray Audette reports (can’t remember the source, I may have read it in his book Neanderthin or I may have seen a comment from him on a forum) that he renders the drippings from cooking regular ground beef and keeps it until he has enough to make a batch of pemmican.

    Reply

  18. Posted by Kusawa on 07/24/2009 at 2:39 am

    I am impressed with you pemmican. You’ve inspired me to live out a long time fantasy to attempt it.

    As for the traditional cooking vessels, I found the following:

    “This pot, which is approximately 1600 years old, is one of the oldest made in the province. It was found at a site near the present town of Avonlea where people had stayed while they had killed bison in a nearby pound. Pottery of this style is found throughout southern Saskatchewan and northern Montana.
    The pot is conoidal (coconut shaped), and the surface was paddled with a grooved paddle, leaving oblique grooves on the outside. It is quite large – about 34 cm in diameter and about 60 cm high. Very thick carbonized remains on the interior indicate that it was used to cook several meals.”
    http://www.royalsaskmuseum.ca/research/collections/aboriginal_history/neat_stuff_archaeology.shtml

    “Before traders brought pots and other cooking vessels, the stomachs of butchered animals were used for cooking.”
    http://www.indianvillage.ca/pages/village_interpretive.asp

    “For boiling, the usual method of preparing meat and fish, people used clay-covered woven spruceroot ketttles and caribou stomachs. Farther north, soapstone cooking vessels were used as well.”
    http://www.aurora-inn.mb.ca/culturef.html

    Looks like you have a lot of work ahead of you if you plan to attempt this “civ-free”

    TC

    Reply

  19. Thanks Rix for providing your experiment on pemmican. It inspired me to try my own, and I even documented my experience. I cited your site as a source, and it can be found here: http://cosmoprince.blogspot.com/2009/09/pemmican.html

    Reply

  20. […] The Pemmican Brief. Rix White. February 2007. WildeRix. 7 September 2009 [https://wilderix.wordpress.com/2007/02/28/the_pemmican_brief/]. […]

    Reply

  21. Posted by Lucas on 03/25/2014 at 12:46 am

    Could I use dehydrated beef lungs to make pemmican?

    Reply

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