The elk were a meager 70 yards away. My father, buddy and I had spotted them from over a mile off and had managed to sneak, undetected, to well within shooting distance. It felt like a hunt that was coming together as I slipped out from behind a tree, aimed my scope to just in front of the elk’s ear, exhaled and pulled the trigger. She fell, never having known another thing.
But I knew something, I knew that I had just made meat that would feed five families. I knew that I had a 350 pound animal that needed cut up and it was getting dark. I knew that, in no way was this animal going to be wasted or treated like anything other than pure culinary gold. Visions of steaks, summer BBQ’s and pemmican floated in my head. This meat was wild, I had struggled for it and I would make the most of it. In the distance I heard the crack of another gun, someone else was making meat too. I was participating in a tradition that stretched back to the beginning of humanity. I was making meat.
Brief History of pemmican –
The history of humanity is a story of calorie acquisition. The foragers acquired the majority of the calories, the hunters acquired the calorie dense meat. In times of surplus food was often preserved and saved for later. Each culture had its own method or style of pre-refrigeration preservation. The ancient Egyptians poached meat in fat then stored it in a barrel in the cellar. The Germanic tribes would burry a ditch full of cabbage until the winter, making sauerkraut. The English would barrel pickle herring, bringing Lent and fish Fridays to the center of the country. The Basque would dry cod that would stack and store for years. In the Americas the native tribes would make pemmican.
Pemmican is basically three things – fat, dried meat and fruit. The native plains tribes developed a high calorie method of food preservation directly linked to the buffalo harvest. The tribes would dry the buffalo meat over a fire or in the sun until brittle. They would then pound the meat until it was nearly a powder, then they would mix the meat with rendered buffalo fat and dried fruit. This pemmican would last for years if stored properly. It would often be a staple part of the diet in the winter – when hunting was hard and foraging even harder.
Pemmican was traded to the fur trappers and explorers that set out across North America. It eventually became a staple part of the diet of many explorers who did not possess the woodsmanship of the natives. Basically, pemmican warded off starvation and provided calories and nutrition for westward expansion.
As the buffalo grew less and less prevalent and food became easier to ship across North America pemmican fell off in consumption. In modern times pemmican has seen a resurgence thanks in part to the paleo diet. Tanka Bars – a variation of pemmican – are a hugely popular high protein food source produced in South Dakota. Other manufactures exist as well, making everything from pemmican bars to pemmican trail mix.
Check out my pemmican recipe below.
How to make pemmican –
The simplest recipe for pemmican is a ratio – 1:1:.5 – one part dried meat, one part fat, .5 parts jam.
For my recipe I use elk jerky, but really any type of wild game jerky would be great. Buffalo meat was historically the most popular but those opportunities are sparse in the hunting world. Deer, elk, caribou and moose all work well for this recipe. The idea is to have a super lean protein that is free of fat that can go rancid. Honestly, I use the jerky that makes it past the winter in my pemmican bars. I have a buddy that loves to make the stuff so I have an extra pound of jerky every year. If you are making jerky for this application make sure to trim it of all fat. Non rendered animal fat will turn bad if left out.
For the fat I will either use rendered bear fat or coconut oil. I have been on a bit of a dry stretch on my bear hunting of late – so I am clean out of bear fat. So my recipe below calls for coconut oil. I could use lard, from the store, for this recipe (and most other recipes do) but I like the idea of using my own gathered animal fat instead of beef fat. The coconut oil I use is the shelf stable stuff that looks like lard and keeps solid until it’s about 80ᵒF. That way, in most of my hunting seasons I know the pemmican bar I made, is still a bar not a goopy mess in my pack.
Another way my pemmican recipe is a little different than most – I use jam or jelly as an ingredient instead of dried fruit. The reason I do this is twofold. First, the jam allows me to flavor the pemmican how I want to. Secondly, the added sugar of the jam is helps my inner sweet tooth cravings. I use my own homemade huckleberry jam for this, but if that is not an option many online retailers have them for sale. Just remember, a recipe is an idea – feel free to substitute huckleberry for blackberry, blueberry, raspberry or even grape jelly. Like with most recipes personal preference comes into play. If you are not a fan of huckleberries substitute some other fruit. Really the goal with making pemmican is to create a high calorie, high energy and easy to carry food you want to eat.
Also, this is not an everyday snack item. Pemmican is a high calorie food meant for those burning a high amount of calories. Like marching across the plains in search of buffalo or up the side of a hill looking for an elk. Consider that elk jerky is about 75 calories per ounce, coconut oil is about 244 calories per ounce, and huckleberry jam is about 75 calories per ounce. So a 2.5 ounce bar would have about 370 calories. That is some densely compacted energy right there!
Will some criticize my pemmican recipe as non-purest? Sure, but I am not trying to be a cultural appropriator. The goal is good food – this is good food.
1 cup coconut oil
½ cup huckleberry jam
1 cup wild game jerky, crumbled or powdered in a blender
Line a medium sized cookie sheet with foil, spray lightly with pan release. Reserve.
Heat huckleberry jam in small pan on stove. Bring to a boil and reduce by half. This step will remove most of the moisture from the jam, allowing it to be shelf stable if desired. Reserve.
Heat coconut oil I the microwave for 1 minute, until hot and completely clear.
In a medium sized bowl add the coconut oil and concentrated jam. Mix well to incorporate. Next add the crumbled or powdered meat in small batches, making sure to mix it well. When all the meat is added you should have a purple/brown mixture that is slightly stiff to stir. Taste the mixture. If you want more salt, add a little more salt. If you want it sweeter, add a little honey.
Pour mix onto the foil lined cookie sheet and spread mixture until it is about ½ inch thick. Try to keep it in a rectangular form, it will be easier to cut and portion that way. When the mix is evenly spread place the try into the refrigerator. This will cause the coconut oil to set.
After 2 hours remove the cookie sheet from the fridge, invert the pan and “pop” out the pemmican onto a clean cutting board. Remove the foil and cut the pemmican into desired portion sizes. I think that about 2-3 ounces is plenty. I cut mine into “bar” shapes and wrap them in parchment paper. I then freeze mine, but this is optional. Enjoy.