Pemmican and How to Make the Traditional Way.


I see a lot of discussion of pemmican on the internet and quite a few recipes being distributed.  Now pemmican is a great survival food.  It is a concentrated mixture of fat and protein.  It was used by the native peoples of North America.  Upon the arrival of the Europeans  It was widely adopted as a high-energy food. It was widely used in the fur trade and by arctic explorers.

The specific ingredients used were usually whatever was available; the meat was often bison, moose, elk, or deer.  Various berries like cranberries, chokeberries blueberries, as well as cherries and currants, were also used.  The Native Americans mainly used the fruit in ceremonial pemmican.

Traditionally, pemmican was prepared from the lean meat of large game such as buffalo, moose, elk or deer.  About five pounds of meat are required to make one pound of dried meat suitable for pemmican.  Most modern recipes, call for various fruits or berries as well as seasoning to be added.  Traditional pemmican normally was just meat and fat.

The following is a recipe used by the Hudson Bay Company in the early 1800’s.  This is taken from an early employment manual.

“Pemmican: pound a quantity of jerky until shredded.  Cut fresh fat into walnut sized hunks and try out over a slow fire or in an oven.  Pour the hot fat over the shredded jerky and mix into a sausage meat like consistency [a 50/50 mix].  Pack mixture into waterproof bags.  Add dry berries if desired; do not salt.  It takes 5 lb of meat to make 1 lb jerky so pemmican isn’t overly fatty, just concentrated.”

David Thompson in 1810, described pemmican in detail: “dried provisions made of the meat and fat of the bison under the name of pemmican, a wholesome, well tasted nutritious food, upon which all persons engaged in the fur trade mostly depend for their subsistence during the open season; it is made of the lean and fleshy parts of the bison dried, smoked and pounded fine: in this state it is called beat meat: the fat of the bison is of two qualities, called hard and soft;…the latter…when carefully melted resembles butter in softness and sweetness. Pemmican is made up in bags of ninety pounds weight, made of the parchment hide of the bison with the hair on; the proportion of the Pemmican when best made for keeping is twenty pounds of soft and the same of hard fat, slowly melted together, and at a low warmth poured on fifty pounds of beat meat, well mixed together, and closely packed in a bag of about thirty inches in length, by near twenty inches in breadth, and about four in thickness which makes them flat, the best shape for stowage and carriage…I have dwelt on the above, as it (is) the staple food of all persons, and affords the most nourishment in the least space and weight, even the gluttonous French

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Canadian (the voyageurs) that devours eight pounds of fresh meat every day is contented with one and a half pounds per day: it would be admirable provision for the Army and Navy.”

There were three ways of eating pemmican. There was the soup or stew called rubbaboo in which a lump of pemmican was chopped off and put in a pot of boiling water. If it was available, flour was added and possibly wild onions, sometimes a little sugar, occasionally a vegetable and a scrap of salt pork. Frying the pemmican in its own fat resulted in what was called rousseau (or rechaud or richot) and to it also might be added some flour or a suitable wild plant for flavor.

The third method was to hack off a lump and eat it raw, a slow process, since it dried extremely hard, but a satisfying concentrated food for the travelers with no time to stop.

Though they realized its worth, not everyone enjoyed pemmican, no matter how prepared. A party from Boston traveling to the Saskatchewan to see the solar eclipse in 1860 commented that “rousseau is by comparison with the other palatable, though it is even then impossible to so disguise it as to avoid the suggestion of tallow candles; and this and the leathery, or India-rubbery, structure of the meat are its chief disqualifications.

As you can see, not everyone liked the traditional pemmican.  I suspect they ate it more to survive than for its taste.  Today we are spoiled and add various seasoning to it to hide it natural flavor.  It is a good survival food and stores well for long periods of time if kept dry.  The Native Americans did not eat this as an everyday food, it took to much time and effort to make.  Try some and let us know what you think.


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3 thoughts on “Pemmican and How to Make the Traditional Way.”

  1. When I lived in Idaho 50 years ago, one of the local indians gave me some pemmican he had made. Then I didn’t think anything of it, but now I wished I had his recipe

    1. Hi William,
      This might seem like a dumb question. How do you pound the jerky to make the beat meat? With a hammer? What kind of fat do you use? Do you use any other flavorings or ingredients?

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