4 Amazing Benefits of Pemmican (+How to Make it)
Can you imagine the perfect food?
It would have to be incredibly nutritious, versatile, portable, long-lasting, and as compact and lightweight as possible.
Not only that, it wouldn’t come from a lab or a big multinational corporation–it would have a long and proven history of use in a variety of real-world conditions.
And if you follow the carnivore diet, it would need to contain no plant toxins. It would comply with my recommended macronutrient ratios: 80% fat, 20% protein. And it would be packed with nutrients.
Can you think of anything that fits these criteria?
As it turns out, the descriptions above all apply perfectly to pemmican, a traditional Native American and First Nations food.
Keep reading to learn the fascinating history of pemmican, the benefits of eating pemmican, and how to make it at home with a recipe for beginners.
Table of Contents
What is Pemmican?
Pemmican is a traditional, nutrient-rich food invented by Native Americans well over 500 years ago. The word comes from Cree pimîhkân, derived from the word pimî, meaning “fat” or “grease.”
The traditional method for preparing pemmican involves salting and drying lean meat, crushing or pounding it into a powder, then adding hot rendered fat in equal volume to the dried meat. Some pemmican also includes ingredients like dried crushed berries, honey, or maple syrup.
Most of the time, Native people and the Europeans who later adopted the practice of making pemmican would also seal it in sewn rawhide pouches using additional hot fat, then compress it while it was still hot.
After cooling, the parcels of pemmican were a durable, valuable commodity traded between Native tribes and European settlers alike.
Because the lean, dried meat is powdered prior to adding animal fat, the fat coats every particle of meat. Modern accounts indicate pemmican can last up to five years, but some reports indicate under certain conditions it has lasted for over 30 years [*].
Generally speaking, it takes about 3 to 5 pounds of meat to make a single pound of pemmican. In the 19th century, traders noted that a 1000-pound buffalo on the hoof would process down to about 90 pounds of pemmican [*].
Pemmican Nutrition Facts and Macros
Few foods are as energy-dense, long lasting and nutritious as pemmican.
Per 100-gram serving (see Pemmican Recipe for Beginners, below):
- Calories: 575 kcal
- Protein: 26 grams
- Fat: 52 grams
- Carbohydrates: 1 gram or less (without berries)
This complies perfectly with the 2:1 fat grams to protein grams that I recommend.
The History of Pemmican
To grasp the utility and value of pemmican, it’s helpful to first understand its history.
No other food has been tested as widely by so many people living in harsh conditions as pemmican, and there are numerous historical examples of its value as both a trade commodity and a necessity for adventurers and explorers.
This is the exact opposite of most foods we consume today. Brand new concoctions, created by big food companies that line their pockets and get you sick.
History of Pemmican Before European Settlement
Dried meat such as jerky, biltong, qwant’a, kilishi and uppu kandam is popular around the world. In traditional societies people usually eat these lean, dried meats by dipping them in animal fat, or alongside animal fat.
Most likely, pemmican came about when someone realized that it would be more portable, efficient, and convenient to simply combine the meat with the fat.
Based on historical accounts, the idea of pemmican dates back at least 500-600 years, but it could well be thousands of years old.
While there is no consensus as to when pemmican first originated, at the time of European contact, it was incredibly popular among Native peoples from what is now Texas all the way up to Manitoba, Canada.
Native Americans and First Nations people traded pemmican between tribes, and would often travel long distances to obtain it if they couldn’t make it themselves.
Along with it being a form of tradeable wealth, Native people used pemmican in at least three different ways: for travel, as a way to survive food shortages due to austere conditions, and for special occasions.
Not surprisingly, that meant there were different types of pemmican depending on the region, season, and purpose.
- Summer pemmican, made with meat dried in the sun or smoked over a fire
- Winter pemmican, often “frost-dried”
- Fine pemmican, made with finely-shredded buffalo meat and marrow fat, and free of bone fragments
- Fish pemmican, in paste form due to the fact that fish fat is an oil
- Ceremonial or wedding pemmican, with berries and other sweet ingredients
Although the many varieties of regional and seasonal pemmican endured after Europeans began to immigrate to North America en masse, berry pemmican became more popular after that, and eventually other, less authentic forms of pemmican did as well.
The History of Pemmican After European Contact
The earliest known account by a European explorer or colonist witnessing pemmican use occurs in the annals of the Coronado expedition to what is now the southwestern United States in 1540-1542.
But Henry Kelsey, a white fur trader in what is now Sasketchawan, Canada, may have been the first non-Native to make his own pemmican. According to his journal, he hunted buffalo with North American Plains Indians to make his own pemmican as he also trapped furs with them in 1691-1692.
Not long after that, the concept spread among white settlers and trappers who found that pemmican was unsurpassed for its efficiency, nutritional value, and shelf-life. Deer, elk, moose, and buffalo were the most popular animals used to make pemmican, but settlers also used cattle.
People ate pemmican “raw,” cooked it in a stew with vegetables called “rubaboo,” or sauteed it in a frying pan with onions or alone, which was called “rechaud.”
The Pemmican War
Because it was so popular, pemmican became a key commodity that Native tribes used to their economic advantage during trades with settlers and explorers.
The Pemmican War of 1814-1821 wasn’t fought solely over pemmican, but the demand for pemmican was directly responsible for igniting and sustaining the conflict.
Unlike today, the rugged residents of North American in the 19th century understood the value of meat. Instead of a war on meat, this was a war for meat.
In 1814, the governor of Red River Colony, Manitoba banned the trade or sale of pemmican to outsiders due to perceived shortages. The outcome was a bloody feud between the London government-backed Hudson Bay Company and the competing North West Trading Company.
In part because both organizations were unable to legally buy the pemmican they needed for their northward expeditions, existing tensions between the rival companies exploded into a series of armed conflicts that lasted seven years.
And during this time the Métis people, a tribe made up of the descendents of indigenous people and British and French settlers and who had been benefitting from the sale of pemmican, began to attack the Red River Colony directly in protest of the Pemmican Declaration.
More Recent Uses of Pemmican
Authentic pemmican remained a staple among people in austere environments, including Arctic explorers and some 20th-century American navy crews.
As discussed in Vilijamur Stefanson’s classic book The Fat of the Land, pemmican nearly became a standard-issue ration during World War II, but some army nutritionists disagreed.
Essentially, the carb-adapted soldiers at the time found it difficult to achieve the ketogenic state necessary to burn fat for fuel with zero-carb rations [*].
Despite the fact that most people today also eat processed crap instead of real food, pemmican hasn’t disappeared. Plenty of Native cultures have continued the tradition, and it’s also a favorite among sled racers, deep wilderness hikers, and some primal eating enthusiasts.
Read on to learn all the reasons pemmican should never be lost to history.
4 Amazing Benefits of Eating Pemmican
- The Perfect Carnivore Diet Food
- A Highly Nutritious Form of Beef
- Energy-Dense and Portable
- Lasts a Long Time Without Spoiling
#1: The Perfect Carnivore Diet Food
If there was such a thing as a perfect carnivore diet food, it would be pemmican.
There’s no other food quite like pemmican. And while it can fit into any diet where complete nutrition and convenience are both priorities, it’s especially suitable for carnivores .
Pemmican is high in healthy animal fat and contains moderately-high amounts of protein. Most of the time pemmican has around a 2-to-1 ratio of fat to protein by grams, which is ideal for the carnivore diet.
When you eat a very-low-carbohydrate or zero carb diet, your body relies on fat for fuel. Fat is also vital to power your brain, nervous system, skin, membranes, and reproductive organs.
And there is such a thing as too much protein on the carnivore diet. From my experience, fat burning is optimized when consuming more fat. This comes down to your hormonal balance and satiation
As a carnivore, finding compliant foods when traveling is a challenge. I’ve had many forced fasts, stuck on an eight hour flight with only bread and crackers available.
Countless times I’ve spoon fed myself ghee to get enough fat when traveling (let’s just say there have been a lot grossed out people next to me on planes). Pemmican is a great alternative.
The bottom line: pemmican has precisely the macros you need, in the ratios you need them, and it’s easy to carry around and snack on it. What more could you ask for in food?
#2: A Highly Nutritious Form of Beef
Beef is one of the most nutritious foods on the planet. It has almost all of the micronutrients you need to survive.
The combination of muscle meat and fat will provide almost all the nutrients you need. Muscle meat is loaded with B vitamins and minerals like zinc and iron. High quality, grass fed fats have copious amounts of fat soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D and E.
As mentioned in the previous section, the vast majority of your body’s essential organs require fat for optimal function. Not only that, without cholesterol, you literally can’t make the hormones you need to feel and be your best.
In essence, pemmican has all the benefits of grass-fed beef, only better because of the addition of fat. (Note that you can still use grain-fed beef to make pemmican, but it won’t be quite as nutrient-dense.)
The bottom line: one of the biggest causes of the sickness epidemic is nutrient deficiencies. If you’re having problems with your mental health, cognitive function, skin, eyes, or weight, you’re likely malnourished.
Fix it by going carnivore and eating plenty of fat. There’s no better way to achieve that than by making some pemmican.
#3: Energy-Dense and Portable
As you may recall from the section on the history of pemmican, nutrition is only half the equation. The other, equally-important aspect of pemmican is that it’s the most lightweight and portable food possible.
How is pemmican so energy-dense?
Unlike protein or carbohydrates, fat naturally contains 0% water by definition. That means a high-fat food like pemmican, which is 50% fat by volume and around 80% fat by calories, contains far more energy by weight than other foods with a higher water content.
And even compared to dehydrated protein (like lean beef jerky) or dehydrated carb sources, fat has 9 calories per gram as opposed to 4. That means on a calorie-per-gram basis, tallow is over twice as efficient as foods that aren’t fat-based.
Try comparing pemmican’s calorie content to a serving of other portable, reasonably energy-dense foods:
- US Military MRE Ration (Average): 625 grams, 1250 calories.
- Beef jerky: 160 grams, 300 calories.
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches: 105 grams, 400 calories.
- Trail mix: 200 grams, 850 calories.
Then there’s pemmican, which weighs just 170 grams for a filling 1000-calorie portion.
Believe it or not, this story gets even better. A lot of people can understand calories, but most people don’t get that what really counts for energy at the cellular level is the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
Compared to carbs, most fats generate at least two and a half times more ATP [*]. In other words, calories don’t provide the whole picture–pemmican is over twice as energy-efficient as most other foods when you use the best measure of energy production.
That’s one of several reasons that calories aren’t the smartest way to account for one’s diet.
The bottom line: whether you’re a soldier, a hiker, or just a person who wants the most nutritious food possible wherever you go without carrying around a heavy cooler, pemmican is your best bet.
#4: Lasts a Long Time Without Spoiling
Pemmican is ridiculously long-lasting for three reasons:
- The meat is thoroughly dried (to the point of crumbling)
- The meat is salted
- Because you pour molten fat over the powdered meat, hot fat coats every particle
Pathogenic bacteria have trouble growing in low- and no-moisture conditions, and salt also inhibits the growth of bacteria that make you sick.
Additionally, the hot molten fat has two useful effects: first and foremost, it has a sterilizing effect. But secondly, it also helps keep moisture out of pemmican, keeping it dry for a very long time.
While modern sources suggest that pemmican may last for up to five years, plenty of reliable accounts from the 18th and 19th century have cited a duration of fifty years or more [*].
Either way, unless you’re a hardcore survivalist, the chances are high that you’ll eat your pemmican well before it goes bad. And if you are into prepping, be sure to make plenty of extra pemmican and preserve it carefully, perhaps even using the traditional method of sewing hide pouches, sealing them with extra fat, and compressing them for storage.
Pemmican Recipe: How to Make Pemmican
If you’ve never made pemmican before, start with small batches of a couple hundred grams or less at first.
You may get it just right on the first batch, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Who wants to waste precious beef and tallow?
Here are some additional tips:
- Grass-fed or grain-fed beef are the easiest choices to get started. Branch out to other meats (elk, deer, moose, etc.) later. As your skill grows, you can also experiment with alternative fats like duck fat or lard.
- Any cut of beef you can trim will do, but cuts like top sirloin, sirloin tips, top round, eye of round, bottom round, flap steak, or “London broil” are the best deals. Ribeyes and other fatty steaks are fine if you don’t mind extra trimming. If money’s no object, try using filet mignon.
- Set aside at least 10-12 hours to dry the meat thoroughly, and plan accordingly.
- You can perform most steps in the recipe separately at your convenience.
- Make sure the beef is as fresh as possible, unless you’re using aged beef. Smell it before you begin.
- Follow standard food safety guidelines, washing your hands after handling the meat, just to be on the safe side.
- Be sure to use only unprocessed, non-fluoridated salt (“standard concentrations” of fluoride can adversely affect your thyroid hormone levels, induce neurotoxicity, impair cognitive development in children, and throw your enzymes and electrolytes out of balance [*][*]).
Don’t rush your first batch. Be patient. It may take a few tries to perfect your pemmican.
Larger batches are an excellent way to save time and effort once your pemmican-making skills are consistent.
Pemmican Recipe for Beginners
Yield: 200 grams of beef pemmican
Time: About 12 hours total, but only an hour to an hour and a half requires you to actually be in the kitchen: 10-12 hours to dry lean beef, 15-20 minutes to grind it to powder, 60 minutes to render suet into tallow (or 15-20 minutes to heat tallow if you buy it or already have some), 20 minutes cleanup.
Ingredients and Equipment:
- 400-500 grams lean beef (start with 400g)
- 120-170 grams suet or tallow (start with 120g)
- 1/2 to 1 1/2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)
- Oven with trays, dehydrator, or smoker
- High-energy blender, food processor, or mortar and pestle
- Cut any excess fat off the beef (add fat trimmings to your suet if you are using suet).
- If the beef isn’t already sliced, slice it into strips as thinly as you can.
- Rub the salt thoroughly into the lean beef.
- Put the lean beef into your dehydrator or smoker, or onto your oven trays. Use the lowest temperature possible. Pro-tip: put aluminum foil on the bottom of the oven beneath the heating elements to keep it clean.
- Once the beef is dry enough to snap rather than bend, allow it to cool to room temperature. You can weigh the beef at this point, then weigh out an equal amount of cold tallow if you are heating up pre-made tallow.
- While you wait for the beef to cool, render your suet, or heat up your tallow on low-medium heat. To render suet, chop it into chunks, heat it on low-medium heat to melt for about an hour, and skim off any brown or golden chunks that float to the top.
- Powder the dried beef with a blender, food processor, or mortar and pestle. Ground it as fine as you possibly can.
- Strain your tallow (if you just made it), then pour the tallow very slowly over the powdered lean beef, packing the beef down gently beforehand. You can also put down a layer of powdered beef on a glass baking dish, pour tallow, stack another layer of beef, and repeat. (Remember you’re going for a 1-to-1 ratio visually, because weighing hot tallow is not a good idea. Use caution when you handle molten tallow. If you end up with slightly more beef or tallow, set aside the extra and adjust accordingly next time.)
- When the pemmican is partially cool but still malleable, you can form it into cakes or strips, or pack it into containers if you want.
- Allow the pemmican to cool fully, then eat or store it.
- If possible, ask your butcher to slice the beef as thinly as possible! It’s free, saves you time, and you’re far less likely to slice your fingers.
- Once the pemmican is room-temperature, you can eat it. Be patient and don’t burn yourself.
- Wait until it’s cooled down to store it, and make sure the container is thoroughly sealed and airtight.
- Store your pemmican somewhere without drastic temperature changes, which can cause condensation.
If you want more information on pemmican and some suggestions on how to store it, check out this great article from US Wellness Meats.
Conclusion: Add Pemmican to Your Daily Menu
Pemmican is the holy grail of foods, period, but that’s doubly true if you’re a carnivore.
Whether you’re interested in it for the nutrition, portability and convenience, or the remarkable health benefits, there’s no excuse not to add pemmican to your carnivore diet.
Eating pemmican every day can help you understand the simple, time-tested concept of the carnivore diet: meat + water = perfect health.
If you want to continue this journey and start improving your health, check out the getting started with the carnivore diet guide I prepared for you by clicking the button below.