Pemmican is a traditional dish prepared by native North Americans as a multi-purpose survival ration, capable of being eaten as is or incorporated into soups or other pan-fried dishes.
Settlers from Europe soon made note of pemmican and its long life characteristics, with the food being capable of persisting, completely edible, for months or even upward of a year.
This remarkable capability had long made it the choice of various tribes for long journeys and soon it was being used for the same purpose by settlers in the New World.
So what is the shelf life of pemmican?
If you prepared a batch of pemmican today, you could expect to get anywhere from half a year to 5 years’ worth of shelf life. This depends upon the exact ingredients and method of preparation.
Nailing down a precise estimation is challenging, owing to the many tribal, regional, and local variations on both ingredients and methods of preparation.
Regardless, pemmican has an extraordinary shelf life.
Pemmican remains an entirely viable and useful survival food source today, one that modern preppers would do well to acquaint themselves with. However, like all such emergency rations it does come with a few trade-offs and making the best use of it means learning its pros, cons and quirks. Keep reading to learn more.
Pemmican: What is It?
Today, pemmican is often thought to be simply beef jerky. This is not the case, though you could argue that real pemmican contains jerky as an ingredient. Traditional, real-deal pemmican is a combination of dried animal meat and melted animal fat, usually tallow, but sometimes suet.
Many recipes and variations often include a variety of dried berries in the mix. This has made pemmican an adaptable and comparatively easy-to-prepare ration since you can make it from so many different things.
Way back, well before the United States ever was, explorers from various European countries were making contact, sometimes peacefully and sometimes not, with indigenous Native Americans.
The majority of these tribes made use of pemmican and one form or another because it was extremely energy dense and would sustain them well on long journeys with virtually no worry over spoilage.
In time, these European explorers and settlers were introduced to pemmican properly, giving it a try and various preparations including soups, stews, fried pancakes or patties and even raw or unmodified.
The same qualities that made it so desirable to Native Americans made it desirable to Europeans, and it worked for them.
Today, pemmican is still made in the same way, and is even produced in its genuine form commercially. Now as then, everyone has their own idea of what true pemmican is, and what ingredients do and do not belong in it.
Ingredients, Preparation and Variations
As mentioned above, pemmican has many, many variations both tribally and regionally when it comes to ingredients. Even so, pemmican is a very simple dish and the way you choose to prepare it will probably boil down to your preferences or what you have available.
Either way, so long as you pay strict attention to correct preparation and incorporation of the ingredients you’ll wind up with a big batch of pemmican ready to go.
The road to delicious pemmican begins with dried meat, basically the same way you would make typical jerky. Meat from various big game animals, typically bison, moose or deer, but potentially even various species of fish or even ducks, would be cut into thin strips and then dried over a low fire or by the hot sun.
Natives would wait until this proto-jerky was so dry it became brittle, and the next step they would take was grinding it or sometimes flogging it until it had a consistency similar to coarse flour or powder.
From here, animal fat was rendered and melted, typically into tallow but sometimes even suet would be used and mixed with the dried, powdered meat in equal proportion. No matter what variation of pemmican was on the menu this was always the first step and is the quintessential combination of ingredients.
Optional, but typical, ingredients included ground, dried berries or other fruits; usually blueberries, Saskatoon berries or cranberries. Once the entire mixture was incorporated it would be placed in a vessel or bag and then allowed to cool and harden into the dense bar or chunks known as pemmican.
Once it was ready, portions of the pemmican could be prepared in various ways. It was often eaten raw as a high-energy, on-the-go food, but could be incorporated into a variety of other dishes, including a type of soup called rubaboo, or even fried up like a pancake or hash in a skillet.
Everyone had their favorite method, but no matter which method was chosen the pemmican was always ready to eat upon completion. Further tinkering was only to stretch what supply was available or improve palatability.
So How Long Can Pemmican Really Keep?
Even today, as long as pemmican has been around, people argue like the dickens on how long it will actually keep.
Some folks think it is good only for as little as a few weeks or a couple of months at room temperature. Others avow that it will last for a decade if you don’t do anything else to it. Who is correct?
Is there any historical evidence we can rely on, or laboratory testing? Well, yes and no. It’s complicated.
Even though it has been around for ages, pemmican is still very much considered a niche food today, though it is still prepared by families, and even manufactured on a small commercial scale.
We have many, many historical accounts and anecdotal tales concerning pemmican and its properties, but there is precious little verifiable information regarding long-term storage.
Based on what research and verifiable testing have been conducted, we know that traditional pemmican prepared today with strict attention to quality control will last anywhere from a year to five years if it is kept at room temperature in a sealed container. That’s a very respectable right out of the gate.
Lucky for us, pemmican can also last even longer when it benefits from modern preservation methods.
The same traditional pemmican prepared in the same traditional way placed in the same sealed container that is refrigerated- or just kept in a cool, dark place- can last at least 10 years, ready to eat. This is frankly remarkable, but there’s plenty of evidence to support this as we’ll get to in a minute.
As I said, it did not take long for people to recognize pemmican’s better qualities, and in the following decades and centuries it was adapted to have a variety of mass-produced survival rations, even issued by the US military, and others, around the world.
Varieties of pemmican that were prepared as emergency issue rations were expected to last multiple decades, with pemmican prepared and then vacuum sealed into a metal container theoretically capable of remaining edible for a century.
That sounds incredible. It sounds stupid, frankly unbelievable! But as it turns out… it’s true!
How Long Will Pemmican Last In Different Conditions?
The ultimate survival food that can provide a person with many calories has one fatal weakness. Moisture is the enemy for anything dehydrated or freeze-dried as reconstitution begins the process of bacteria breaking down the food.
This means that even the slightest bit of excess humidity can get the ball rolling on the grease going rancid.
Products with a lot of meat protein can spoil at room temperature very quickly as a result. The first step in protecting your pemmican is to add different layers separating it from the outside environment.
The dried fruits within the pemmican recipes break down quickly as well. The liquid fat is designed to keep the fruit from being exposed to the air.
Wrapping your pemmican in tin foil is an excellent way to add another layer of protection for a long period of time. Using this in conjunction with an air-tight container will almost guarantee good preservation as long as you can keep condensation at bay.
Using the same paper as your local butcher is another great way to store pemmican as it protects it while mitigating any condensation. They primarily use it for ground chuck from the meat grinder to stop it from spoiling as fast. Storing meat in plastic will cause it to spoil faster than it would in the paper.
Storing it in the refrigerator or freezer is another good way to store it for long periods but be mindful of the thawing process as this may cause texture and flavor issues.
Here is a breakdown of how long pemmican will last in different storage conditions:
|Freezer Storage||20+ years|
|Room temperature||3-5 years|
|Vacuum sealed||Up to 50 years|
Pemmican: For the LONG Haul!
Prior to the onset of World War I, emergency field rations issued by the US military consisted of pemmican, a little chocolate and a salt packet. Even way back then these rations were expected to keep soldiers in duress marching for 36 hours off of a single, small tin, and last basically indefinitely.
One such ration was recently recovered in an excellent state of preservation. In 2019, a YouTuber who has made a career of consuming these essentially ancient foodstuffs and recording the experience opened, prepared and ate a ration manufactured in 1906.
I know some of you are about to fall out of your chairs, but he recorded the entire experience and suffered absolutely no ill effects.
Truly, if there is one survival ration that will genuinely, truly go the distance it has to be pemmican. Don’t believe me? You can check this out, and see for yourself:
Frequently Asked Questions
Ready to dive in and make your own pemmican bars? Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about pemmican and how to make it store for longer.
Fur traders and Native American tribes were eating a pemmican mixture far before we had modern refrigerators and vacuum sealers.
Keeping the moisture away is the first step for longer preservation. Avoiding areas that are prone to getting sunlight and heat are another staple for preserving it.
Pemmican will taste slightly different depending on what meats and ingredients were used. Expect a greasy, meaty taste with a slight burst of sweetness from the fruit. If the fruits were not ripe then the sweetness will replaced with a tart or sour flavor.
Pemmican can be eaten on it’s own or combined with other ingredients to make a complete dish. Onions, and garlic can be added by using a pestle and mortar for a savory flavor. Since it is mostly used in emergency situations more people will just eat it as it is.
As far as caloric intake is concerned pemmican is most certainly a complete food. Up to 300 calories per serving of which is high in fat, protein, and nutrients from the other ingredients.
Pemmican is a traditional Native American food that is rightly renowned for its long shelf life, with most traditional preparations lasting anywhere from six months to one year at room temperature.
If you take some care in storing it, in a cool place and an airtight container, your pemmican could last anywhere from one to 5 years, and vacuum-sealed emergency ration prepared pemmican has been confirmed to last, completely edible, in excess of 100 years!
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.