Napoleon famously observed that an army travels on its stomach, and the army of fur traders and pioneers who opened up North America's western frontiers was no exception. They quickly learned to make pemmican, a staple of the Native American diet and a sturdy, long-lasting emergency food. Preparing your own pemmican, either for historical interest or as a camping and hiking food, is a straightforward process.
Cut lean beef, or -- for a more authentic version, bison or venison -- into strips no more than 1/4 inch thick. Dehydrate them on the trays of a food dehydrator until they're as stiff and leathery as a dog's rawhide chew, turning them occasionally. This takes several hours. Alternatively, dry the meat on a sheet pan in your oven at a temperature of no more than 180 degrees Fahrenheit, with the door propped open slightly for moisture to escape. Because of the time involved, it's usually best to do this a day or two ahead.
Purchase shredded suet from your local butcher or retain and dice a slab of fat trimmed from the meat you've dried. Render the fat gently in a Dutch oven over low heat on your stovetop, or in your oven at a temperature of 250 F. Strain out the solids, and refrigerate the resulting purified fat.
Prepare several cups of wild berries, whichever varieties grow in your region, by carefully stemming them and then drying them in your food dehydrator. If you don't have a dehydrator, dry them on sheet pans in your oven or purchase dried blueberries, cranberries, cherries or other fruit. They'll need to be dry to the point of brittleness, so "boughten" fruit might require a few hours in a 200 F oven to reach that point.
Weigh the dried meat, if you have a kitchen scale, and record that number. Cut the meat coarsely into pieces; then process it in your blender or food processor into a fine, stringy powder. Set it aside in a bowl; then do the same with your berries. If you have a scale, weigh quantities of berries and fat that are equal to the meat. If you don't have a scale, it's okay to estimate by hefting each bowl in your hand. The quantities needn't be precise.
Scoop the cooled, hardened fat onto your work surface and knead it lightly until it's pliable. Add the meat and knead it into the mixture; then do the same with your berries. Season the mixture with salt and fresh-ground pepper, tasting it periodically, until its flavors are well-balanced. If your berries are tart, you can add honey or maple syrup to counter the acidity.
Shape the pemmican into cakes or logs, and wrap it tightly in plastic film wrap for storage. Alternatively, pack it into sterilized Mason jars for secure, rodent-proof storage in a remote cottage or hunting camp.
Tips & Warnings
- The finished pemmican will keep for months or even years if stored in a cool dark place, but it can become rancid rapidly if the fat is not well-strained. Some cooks allow the fat to settle and then strain it a second time through multiple layers of cheesecloth to remove any fine impurities.
- You can use prepared jerky as your meat, if you wish, though the finished pemmican might be saltier than you would prefer. For the best results, choose a quality brand with moderate salt levels.
- One recipe in Canada's storied, long out-of-print "The Northern Cookbook" specifies "bone grease," or rendered marrow fat, which is especially rich and buttery in texture.
- Your local butcher might not stock shredded suet, but he certainly can order it for you as needed.
- The finished pemmican can be eaten as-is as a sort of primitive energy bar, warmed until soft and then spread on bread or crackers, or used as the base for a stew or hash with potatoes or biscuits.
- Photo Credit Geoarts/iStock/Getty Images
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