Pemmican Recipe

Pemmican Recipe –  The Indigenous Sausage

(from tape transcript)

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. The second part of this article contains a pemmican recipe.

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.

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 rancidify.

The popular understanding is that pemmican contains fruit.  This is a misconception. Historically, a small amount of dried fruit (such as juneberries) was on occasion added, more for flavor than for its nutritional contribution. Indications are that it was probably no more popular than is sweet sausage in the Euro-American tradition.  The practice of adding fruit to pemmican became commonplace with nonnatives, who in my estimation were probably accommodating their acculturated taste for flavor additives in their sausages.

Fat is the primary ingredient in a pemmican recipe because fat has nearly 2 1⁄2 times the energy of complex carbohydrates (which are 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 (see bottom of page).

Fat is more necessary than meat in northern diet.  As a traditional North Country travel and winter ration, pemmican 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 (a liquid fat) for energy.

Make Your Own

In this pemmican recipe, 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 for it, they can be reassembled and will remain preserved for an extended period.

This pemmican recipe is quite easy to make and a variety of ingredients can be used.  Following is my step-by-step preferred method; feel free to substitute meats and fat sources.  In doing so 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.

  1. Dry the meat.Choose a warm, dry, sunny period and start early in the day to take full advantage of available drying time.  I prefer large chunks (like thigh and shoulder) of meat that are already quite lean, like summer venison.

    If such is not available, clean all visible fat and connective tissue from the meat, then slice as thinly as possible, preferably across the grain (dries faster that way) and place on a drying rack in full sunlight. If yours is a warm dry climate, you may be able to keep your slices 1/4 inch thick and get them dry in a day.  If your area is humid, slice as thinly as possible.

    It’s best to get the meat dry in one day, to lessen the chance of spoilage. Test for dryness by bending each piece, particularly where thick. Those needing more drying time will be rubbery; those dry enough will be brittle and crack. Take them indoors so they do not reabsorb moisture overnight.  They are best kept refrigerated.

    If conditions are not ideal for drying, use a supplemental fire. What you are creating here is jerky, which can be stored and consumed as-is, but it is not a complete food because it does not contain fat. Do not try to live on it!  Natives will either use jerky as an ingredient in a complete meal, or will use it in their next pemmican recipe.

  2. Grind the meat. Use a commercial grinder, or pulverize, as Natives would.
  3. Render the fat. editor: here is link I found to help with that)
  4. Combine meat and fat, in a ratio of about two parts meat to one part fat.
  5. Pack in airtight containers Cleaned intestine, bark, glass or plastic containers can be used.
  6. Store in a cool, dry, dark place. This is the end of the pemmican recipe!
A word of caution: Pemmican is a concentrated food that is best consumed sparingly, when you are active, and not for an extended period of time. Consumption of hard fat can be unhealthy for sedentary people, and protein overconsumption can overload the body with uric acid (which may lead to gout) and calcium oxalate (the mineral which forms kidney stones).  Ketones may also build up in the system, causing kidney damage. (A sign of protein overconsumption is ketone breath, which smells like nail polish or overripe pineapple.)
Tamarack Song has been a student and teacher of the traditional outdoor skills his whole life. He is an author and director of the celebrated Teaching Drum Outdoor School.