Pemmican
(A page established by Huw in 2003 and frequently up-dated by Keith in the light of each batch of pemmican made and eaten)

What is pemmican?

Pemmican is a mixture of dried meat and tallow [1] which is eaten cold and which keeps for years without refrigeration under moderate conditions. Its keeping quality is due to its very low water content; without water the bacteria that cause decay are inhibited.

The first recorded use of pemmican was by north American tribes (particularly the Assiniboin of Dakota and the sub-arctic peoples) [2] by whom it had been used for generations. It became more widely known in the 19th and early 20th centuries as a staple for polar explorers [3]. Although it is unlikely that pemmican has been made for long enough to have affected nutritional aspects of human evolution, it happens that pemmican recreates what was probably a dietary staple for one, two or three million years: fatty organ meats from pasture-fed animals which were prized by hunter-gatherers over the lean, feedlot-fed meats most people eat today. 

Pemmican uses suet (from around the organs of cattle). Suet remains reasonably solid at room temperature. The fat composition of suet (USDA figures) is approximately 16:36:3 (SFA : MUFA : PUFA) compared with ratios of 52:44:4 for tallow. The main difference is that tallow has more 18:1 MUFA and less SFA (18:0).

The great thing about pemmican for us today is that enables students, city workers, travellers, bushwalkers and others to eat fully palaeo wherever they are: no washing up, no mess, minimal space, no need for refrigeration. Keep a stash for an emergency.

 

How I make pemmican

First, you have to make some jerky. Freeze around 2 kilos of whatever meat you like ( I use kangaroo or organic beef or lamb) and allow it to thaw a little so that it is easy to slice finely. Cut into strips no more than 1/8" thick, and place on a tray of fine wire mesh.[9] Single layer of meat only. (Caution: if you dry liver, the smell will permeate your house! And the pemmican is not worth the effort.)

Dry it slowly in the oven at 60-80 degrees Celsius [4] or <40 degrees Celsius [5] with the door propped open a centimetre or so to allow the air to flow through and the moisture to escape. Take it out when it is all crisp and dry - should be done in about 12 at 60-80ºC or 48 hours at 40ºC.

Put the jerky through a blender to shred it finely. Do this immediately - while still warm from the drying - or else the jerky will absorb water vapour from the air and so be more difficult to shred and will also lose some of its keeping quality. Shredding the dried meat may take some time if you don't do it immediately after the drying; check it to ensure there are no lumps left as these may become tooth-chipping nuggets in the pemmican. You now have the meat content. In February 2009 I dried 1738g of blade steak to produce 486g of powdered jerky a reduction of mass by a factor of 3.6.

Step 2:  Get some beef suet (again, organic). Remove all meat from it, chop it into little bits (about 1 cm cubes) and put it into a saucepan on low heat. [7] When all the fat has melted and the pieces of suet have shrunk and turned light-medium brown (2-4 hours), pour it through a fine sieve to remove the lumps, cool it off and then melt it again. The purpose of this heating and re-heating is two-fold: to remove all lumps and to evaporate all water. Drain the fat before it solidifies, making certain that there are no lumps left in there (the lumps go really well on a salad or with a stir-fry style meat dish – nice and crunchy. I feed any surplus to my laying hens). The tallow will be clear white or cream in colour, not brown. In late spring, when the animals will still have yellowish fat from the plush spring pastures, the fat will be slightly darker in colour.

Step 3: Add the powdered jerky to the melted suet (which we now refer to as tallow) when it's no hotter than the temperature at which you dried the jerky. Try to keep the ratio between components 5 jerky:4 tallow by weight - so 500g jerky made from lean meat should be added to 400g tallow [6]. I usually seem to go a little over with the fat because there is lots of fat but never enough jerky. For lamb the ratio is different because lamb jerky will already have much more fat than roo or beef. In my first lamb pemmican, I dried meat from two legs of lamb for the jerky and made the pemmican with a ratio of 1.5 jerky:1 lamb suet. [8] The macro-nutrient ratio of pemmican when made with kangaroo meat is 45% protein, 54% fat and <1% water. Kangaroo meat is <3% fat; if you use lamb or any other meat with a higher fat content, the ratios change accordingly.

Step 4: Mix up the hot mixture, and spoon into muffin tins.

Step 5: Put in the fridge and wait for it to solidify. From my experience 60g per muffin pan is about right for a meal. You can wrap each piece up individually in grease-proof paper, but I just store them in a large glass jar in the fridge for longest storage time. They will last for ages outside a fridge, but I figure why risk it.

 

Eating pemmican

People often ask 'How do I eat pemmican?' Good question, as there is little so far that tells you what it's like. Straight out of the fridge, when the tallow is hard (very solid) at the low temperature, the pemmican is harder than any other food you normally bite into, so people trying pemmican for the first time might like to let it rise to room temperature to bite off their first piece. Pemmican won't damage your teeth as it's about as hard as chocolate that's been in the fridge. I eat pemmican the way it was designed to be eaten: as a snack or meal on its own, when I am travelling or if I feel in need of food but would rather not devote the time to prepare a meal. Just bite off a small mouthful, chew it well and swallow – my approach is as basic (as palaeo) as it can be. Others may prefer to dip it in salt or some other condiment, but that's up to your personal preferences.

 

Any questions? Ask. Read more about pemmican in Ray Audette's classic book Neanderthin.
For more information about rendering suet, see Don Wiss' Paleofood site.

Notes

1. For the purposes of this page, suet is the raw fat from around the kidneys or loins of sheep and cattle. This fat is more saturated than sub-cutaneous fat. (Some people use 'suet' more broadly, but the distinctions we adopt here will help avoid ambiguities.) Tallow is rendered suet. Lard is pig fat in both its rendered and unrendered forms.

2. From Great adventures and explorations by By Vilhjalmur Stefansson [10] and others, 1947, we read "... the food invention pemmican was borrowed from the Plains Indians of the Kansas-Dakota-Manitoba section of North America". (p 596)

3. Stefansson quotes from Arctic explorer Robert Peary's The secrets of polar travel, 1917: "Of all the items which go to make up the list of supplies for a polar expedition, the one which ranks forst in importance is pemmican. It is also the one which starts the most instant interrogation from the average person ... Pemmican is understood to be on [American] Indian origin, originally made of the meat and fat of the buffalo, and its name, from the Cree language, means 'ground meat and grease'. It is said that in the days when buffalo herds were numerous, the Indians made large quantities of pemmican in the autumn hunting, cutting the buffalo meat in long, thin strips, which were dried in the sun and wind, then mixed with buffalo fat, were pounded into a mass.

"Too much cannot be said of the importance of pemmicam to a polar expedition. It is an absolute sine qua non. Without it a sledge party cannot compact its supplies within a limit of weight to make a serious polar journey successful ...

"With pemmican, the most serious sledge journey can be undertaken and carried to successful issue in the absence of all other foods.

"And it is the most satisfying food I know. I recall innumerable marches in bitter temperatures when men and dogs had been worked to the limit and I reached the place for camp feeling as if I could eat my weight of anything. When the pemmican ration was dealt out and I saw my little half-pound lump, about as large as the bottom third of an ordinary drinking glass, I have often felt a sullen rage that life should contain such situations. By the time I had finished the last morsel I would not have walked the completed igloo for anything and everything that the St Regis, the Blackstone, or the Palace Hotel could have put before me."

Stefannson continues (p 600) "... Peary liked flavoring in his pemmican ... and he speaks of a few raisins per pound as a good seasoning."

4. The highly regarded Excalibur food dehydrator has a setting of 63ºC / 145ºF for jerky.

5. On the Paleofood list William from Quebec recommends drying the meat at around 40ºC. His health rationale is that this low temperature does least damage to the beneficial enzymes in the meat. I take a different position: a healthy person would produce all the enzymes needed to digest any given food - they do not need to eat cattle enzymes to aid in human digestion. There is, however, also a palaeo rationale in that 40ºC would have been around the maximum temperature at which plains Indians would have been able to dry meat in the sun. At this temperature, drying takes up to two days in an electric oven at its lowest setting.

6. I made two batches with beef jerky and beef tallow on 2 May 2009. The first was 500g jerky to 350g tallow and the second 500g jerky to 425g tallow. The jerky was lean and the first batch represented the lowest fat proportion I'd recommend. The second batch (500:425) was slightly preferable in taste, though I must add that my taste panel all urged me to put salt in my next batch.

7. How low a temperature for fat? The American plains Indians would have made their pemmican without rendering the fat. This would have given their pemmican a useful life of, say, 7-10 days. Not a perfect technology, but we should not apply the expectations of twenty-first century industrial and retail standards to palaeo foods. Some Amerindians used pottery and this would have enabled them to render fat; rendering fat does not require a high temperature - the lowest hotplate setting will be adequate. On my electric stove, the lowest hotplate setting heats the fat to 120ºC. Back to text

8. In September 2009 I made lamb pemmican with 410g jerky and 375g lamb tallow: that's a bit under half tallow by weight - and about right. Back to text

9. Some people lay the meat on greaseproof paper. I don't recommend this as the greaseproof paper from which it is easy to remove the jerky has a Teflon coating which is toxic (some would say the drying temperature is too low to release the Teflon from the paper into the meat, but I avoid all known contact with Teflon), or else the dried jerky cannot be removed from the paper (well, you can add the paper to the pemmican if you like; it's harmless). For more information of the dangers from Teflon, see the Wikipedia article on Perfluorooctanoic acid.    Back to text

10. A long article written by Stefansson in The Atlantic magazine in 1935 is available here    Back to text


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Page posted 2003. Last up-dated or reviewed after each batch of pemmican; latest update: 10 April 2010