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 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 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 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.
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 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.