One of the older survival foods out there is pemmican.
Pemmican is a mixture of dried meat, fruit, and fat that has been combined into a shelf stable superfood. Some recipes add some flour into the mix or nuts but the basic mix is meat, fruit, and fat.
Venison or bear were the more common meat choices for pemmican in the past but you can use any red meat. Pork and poultry is not recommended because it spoils more readily than red meats. While some people do use poultry meat for pemmican, pork is absolutely a no no due to the risk of contracting trichinosis.
Pemmican offers a lot of advantages as a survival food.
- Lightweight and easy to transport
- Can be customized based on your own tastes
- Easy to make with minimal ingredients
- Shelf stable for many years. Some claim decades with proper storage.
- Valuable source of protein and fat, especially when compared to plant and grain based survival bars.
- Can be made with very basic cooking and food prep equipment
My husband and I raise sheep so I made dried mutton jerky for the meat component.
Here is where my recipe differs the most from others out there. While every pemmican recipe I read stated that you just need to dry the meat until it is crispy and there is absolutely no moisture, I decided to use curing salt and let the meat cure for a few days with spices before drying.
My reason for this is that by curing the meat out and making proper jerky, there is less risk of spoilage and food poisoning. I know that over the years plenty of people just dried their meat on a rock or smoked it without curing and survived but this is the modern world and most people buy meat at the grocery store. That meat has traveled a long way, has been handled a lot, and it has been frozen and unfrozen and then you may have froze it when you got it home.
This allows a lot different routes for contamination.
So if I am going to tell you how to make pemmican with your own dried meat, I want to put in place further food safety than tradition calls for. Consider that curing also increases the shelf life of any meat so it stands to reason this process will help your pemmican last as long as possible, even in hot conditions.
I buy #2 pink curing salt. If you want to go a more natural route, you can use celery powder. Just so you know, celery powder is a natural source of nitrates so you are not avoiding these by using the natural and more expensive version. If you want to avoid nitrates found in cured meats the only way to do, it is to not eat cured meats. The USDA requires that meats “cured” with celery be labeled as “uncured” since it is hard to determine how much nitrates are used.
If you choose to just dry meat in the oven or not use curing salts, at least use a moderate amount of other salt to prevent any bacteria growth. Shaking some salt over your meat strips as they dry will help prevent food poisoning and help flavor your final product.
To Cure The Jerky
It takes a few days to cure meat. To cure the meat, you need to use 1 tsp per 5 lbs of meat. Mix in any spices you want to add. I used some jerky seasoning that was included with my dehydrator.
Here is a link to purchase pink salt for those interested. It is a good thing to have in your preps and a little goes a long way.
I put 5 lbs of ground mutton in a stainless steel bucket and mixed in spices and curing salts. The meat was kept in the fridge and mixed daily until it was a pink and consistent color. It takes about 2 days for this process.
After the meat was cured, I added a little more salt and then formed into patties in the dehydrator. If you have a device called a Jerky Gun, you can do this more easily and get a more consistent thickness than patting them out like I did.
We let it dehydrate for about 24 hours. This time will vary for you based on how thick your strips of meat or patties are as well as other factors. It is critical that you dry the meat until it is bone dry. Any excess moisture is a bad thing.
You can also dry meat in your oven.
Meat strips can be slowly dehydrated in your oven. You may have to crack the door on your oven to let some moisture out. Remember to turn the meat once for best results. It works best if you have a wire rack and something to catch oil and drippings in below it.
Keep the oven on a very low setting. I would not set it above 200 degrees if the oven is cracked a little. Ovens vary so you might have to play around with yours and see what works.
The fruit part is dehydrated blueberries from our farm.
We planted a big blueberry patch years ago. Some are a little small but a lot of them are really big and starting to produce large amounts of fruit. This year they are so heavy with fruit that they are bent over. Matt and I have been picking and freezing them. For pemmican, I dried a few blueberries from last year in the dehydrator.
Dehydrated fruit is easy in any dehydrator. Even the lowest grade dehydrator is capable of drying fruit or you can just buy some cranberries or similar to use in your recipe. You may want to try a blend of dried fruits or different ones to add variety to your pemmican. You might find you like one combo a lot better than the others. Any dried fruit beyond the basics will of course up the overall cost of your pemmican.
You want the fat used in pemmican to be rendered or you are at risk of it going rancid quite rapidly especially under warmer conditions.
Rendering fat is very easy to do, but it does take some time. For pemmican you only need smaller amounts of fat so it should not take too long. I render a lot of fats at once and it takes me all day but I do a lot of other things while it is rendering.
The fat I rendered came from Hickory Nut Gap Farm. If you want lard for cooking and baking, then you can do quite well by purchasing fat from a local farm and rendering it off yourself. Lard that is made for you in the store is either very low quality, hard to find, or costly. Check out this old post I did when I first started out at Backdoor Survival for more in depth info on how to render your own lard and your own tallow several ways. It takes time but the process itself is very easy and you get cracklings too for making cornbread or flavoring veggie dishes!
For those that just want the short version of how to render, here it is.
- Cut pork or beef fat into 1-inch cubes or smaller. The smaller the pieces, the faster the rendering will go.
- Add fat to a heavy bottom pan or use a Crock Pot on low.
- Let fat melt on low heat until totally melted and any small pieces of meat or skin have rose to the top. These are your crackling and they can be used to cook with or for tasty treats for dogs or cats.
- Pour off the rendered fat and use immediately or put in hot jars and put a new canning jar lid and ring on right away. The jar should seal.
The Master Recipe
Some people only use a mixture of ground dried meat and fat. You can do this too but I think the fruit adds a lot to it and it is still a traditional way to make pemmican. People used what they had on hand. If you had something good like dried fruit to use than you did, or if you just had meat, then you used that and rendered the fat from whatever trimmings you had left after preparing the meat to be dried.
1 cup finely ground dried blueberries (you can substitute any dried fruit you have)
2 cups finely ground dried red meat (I used sheep jerky)
6 tbsp pork lard (You can use other fats such as rendered beef fat)
I ground up the meat and the blueberries using my $30 blender. It makes a lot of noise when you do this. If you have a food processor or a mortar and pestle, you can do it that way. Grind it as fine as possible. I had to use the ice crush button on my blender and then the smoothie button.
All ingredients were measured using a standard Pyrex glass measuring cup as you would for baking. You can also just use the measurements on your blender and add dry meat until you have two cups of ground meat and then add dried fruit and blend until you have a total of 3 cups in your blender.
The dry ingredients were mixed in a bowl and the melted fat poured on top and blended in. I had to wait a few minutes for it to soak in and start to get harder before I formed the balls of pemmican. If you want to make bars, you can smash it into a casserole pan, cover, stick in the fridge for a few minutes and then cut into bars.
The ratio of fat to dried ingredients can vary some.
The end result should be a ball or bar that stays together. You can add more or less fat than what I did. You can add different ratios of favorite dry ingredients to get the pemmican that tastes best for you. The limit for how much fat you can use occurs when pemmican is too sticky. You should be able to pick up pemmican and not have your fingers get really goopy.
You can add any shelf stable spices to pemmican to customize it to your taste. Here are a few to consider.
- Additional salt
- Steak Seasoning
- Mrs. Dash
Nuts and Nut Flours
If you like almonds, pecans, walnuts, or peanuts, you can grind them up and mix them into your recipe. This will change the amount of fat you need to mix in somewhat. I would advise to pour and mix in fat a little at a time until you can make a ball of pemmican that sticks together. Remember that you can always adjust the dry component to make up for adding too much fat. This is not a complicated thing to make, and it is hard to mess up unless you don’t dry your ingredients out properly.
The taste of my pemmican is something I want to experiment with further. I do not think I added enough salt and spices to start out with even though I added a sprinkle after I formed my pemmican on the cookie sheet. I definitely recommend adding some steak seasoning to your pemmican. While the flavor was not bad, it just lacked seasoning. With the right spices pemmican, would be something I would consider eating on camping trips or even just when busy around the farm.
You should be fairly generous with the seasoning and make sure to include extra salt. The fact is that salt is something that we take for granted now but could be harder to get during a long emergency or SHTF scenario.
There is a lot of potential for a variety of styles of pemmican and the only way to know what I like the best is to try out a few more variations.
Pemmican is a good source of nutrition for those that need softer foods.
For those that have a hard time with solid foods and/or have trouble with their teeth or gums, pemmican offers a way to get sustenance. Consider how many survival foods are gritty and tough for a moment. Even a Kind granola bar is gritty enough to be uncomfortable to eat if you have any dental issues.
Even young kids could get this down if fed in small amounts. Since everything is ground, you could use this for baby and toddler food in a survival situation.
The calorie count in pemmican varies depending on your recipe. Beef steak for example, has 100 calories per oz while lamb only has around 80 calories per oz. This is wet weight examples. Adding high calorie nuts or extra fat will increase the calorie count of your pemmican. An ounce of lard contains roughly 255 calories. Venison steak is listed as having about 40 calories per ounce so pemmican made from it will be lower in calories unless you add extra fat and other ingredients that are high in calories.
I did a little research and found that others that have made pemmican from beef, fat, and fruit estimate that a 4 oz serving contains 700-800 calories. That is probably a pretty good estimate when compared to the calorie counts I found for individual ingredients.
How long does pemmican last?
The shelf life of pemmican depends on how it is sealed and stored as well as the average temperature. If you notice anything like mold on it or it smells or tastes “off” then it is better to be safe than sorry. Some fats go rancid faster than others. Extra salt can help pemmican stay good longer but will increase thirst if consumed in great quantities.
While spices can be added to pemmican, you need to be careful about what you add to pemmican beyond meat, fat, and fruit. Dairy ingredients for example do not have the shelf stable characteristics that are desirable for pemmican. You might get away with adding some to pemmican that you plan on consuming in the near future but I would never add dairy to any pemmican meant for long term storage and survival.
I am not as quick to tell people that something will last 20 years or longer that has meat, fat, and fruit in it. A lot of people do claim that pemmican could be edible even 50 years down the road but I have a feeling even if it was, it wouldn’t taste that good. For me, I would consider pemmican part of my food supply for up to 5 years. This considers best taste. Also as long as it is not a truly post apocalyptic scenario where you cannot get meat and fat for many years, you will be able to make more and keep a fresh supply on hand for lean times, especially during the winter months in tough climates.
Suggestions For Storage and Best Shelf Life
Vacuum Seal Your Pemmican
Vacuum sealing your pemmican will ensure that you keep out bugs and will protect it from moisture and other potential contamination. Sometimes when I buy vacuum seal bag mix packs, I wind up with a lot of pint bags left because a lot of foods require the larger bags. A pint size vacuum seal bag is great for portioning out pemmican since it is such a concentrated source of nutrition. This also allows you to keep your food supply protected better because you don’t have a big package open at any given time.
Adding a moisture absorber to each vacuum seal bag will offer additional protection.
Store your vacuum sealed pemmican in an opaque container to protect from light, rodents, etc.
Light is not good for the shelf life of food. Rodents and vermin can become more of an issue during a long emergency or survival situation. Vacuum seal bags can vary in thickness but not matter how thick they are, they are plastic and that means anything sharp can lead to a hole and contamination. Getting tossed around a bit can also break seals.
Have you made pemmican? What is your favorite recipe? Have you ever used it when on camping trips or in a major survival situation?