Sunday, May 10, 2015

Adventures in Making Pemmican!

Along the ox cart trails in the 1800s, a source of food relied upon for survival was something called pemmican. It was used not only by the Metis, but also by the Voyageurs, the Dakota and Ojibwe. In fact, it was invented by Native Americans.

It has two basic ingredients; dried meat and rendered fat. Berries, nuts and honey were often added to give it some flavor.

In my novel Ox Cart Angel, Claire and her father take pemmican along on their journey. Since I mention pemmican in my talks about the ox cart trails, I thought I ought to make a batch to see how it tastes.

Here's how I did it. If you try it, too, I hope you'll learn from my mistakes!

First, I found this recipe on the web that was originally printed in a newsletter for voyageur re-enactors. I altered it a little and used sunflower seeds instead of peanuts, and I didn't make as much as the recipe called for. The important thing to remember is that the basic ratio of dried meat to rendered fat is 2 to 1.

Here are the ingredients I used:

Three bags of suet and three pounds of lean ground beef

Honey, dried apple, dried apricots and sunflower seeds

First, I had to learn how to render fat, so I found some good info here. Basically what you do is cut up the suet into chunks and toss them into a crock pot. Set it on low.

Then wait.

And wait...


It takes many hours. I had mine in the crock-pot for a solid seven or eight hours before I finally felt it was ready to be filtered. I poured the contents of the crock-pot through a strainer to get rid of the remaining chunks of fat, and then re-strained it through cheesecloth to get out the rest of the little buggers. What remains is tallow, which is yellow in color when in liquid form, and a creamy white when solid.

It hardens quickly at room temp, which is fine. I made way more than I needed, but tallow can be used for frying, making candles and even soap. I set this aside, because next came the drying of the meat.

As far as meat goes, I chose beef, since it's easy to obtain. Elk, deer and bison can be used, too. The recipe I used warns not to use pork or bear meat. So beef it was.

A quick way to dry meat is to spread it thinly on jelly roll pans. Set your oven to 180-degrees and leave the meat in there overnight.

Here's a big mistake I made; I didn't line the pans with tinfoil. Lining the pans with foil would've saved a lot of time and aggravation, because without that, once the meat was dried, it stuck to the pans like cement! I spent at least half an hour scraping the dried meat off. A foil liner would've prevented this.

Here's the meat after it's been dried (and in my case scraped) and crumbled.

I ate a little piece of it and could discern no flavor. It was like munching on a thin piece of crumbly wood. 

Next, turn the crumbles into powder. At first, I used a mortar and pestle, but that took forever. Luckily, I remembered that we have a Cuisinart! That made everything much faster.

Powdered meat!

I used the Cuisinart on the dried apple and apricots, too.

One thing I thought about as I made the pemmican...we sure have it a lot easier than the Native Americans and pioneers had it when making this. They obviously couldn't just buy the meat pre-ground from the store, or the suet neatly packaged. 

They didn't have a crock-pot in which to easily render the fat, or a stove that they could set and forget in which to dry the meat. They also didn't have Cuisinarts!

Anyhow, since I had rendered the fat the day before, I had to turn it back into liquid form. To do this I simply put it in a pan and heated it over the stove at low heat. You don't want it to start smoking, because that will give the pemmican a nasty flavor.

When the tallow turned to liquid (took about 15 minutes) I poured it onto the dried meat and hand mixed it. I tossed in some of the dried fruit, sunflower seeds and honey as well.

Hand mixing at its finest!

Once that was done, I spread it into a pan so that it was about the thickness of brownies. Some people portion it out into muffin tins, which is a great idea, too.

And voila! Pemmican!

The great thing about pemmican is that it can last a long time at room temperature. Months and months and months. You can refrigerate it, too, to make it last even longer. It is a high energy food - lots of protein! It's great for taking on hikes or eating before workouts.


How does it taste?

To be honest, it doesn't have a lot of flavor - at least the pemmican I made. It doesn't taste bad, but just...kind of like cardboard with a little honey thrown on top. I think I should've added more fruit bits, and instead of apple and apricot, I should have used fruits with a little more kick, like blueberries or cherries.

This was my first time making it, though, and I'm sure there are folks out there who can make it much better! It was fun to try.

Just a warning - rendering fat permeates your house with a certain lingering odor. Not terrible, but it ain't potpourri, either.

So there you have it! Pemmican! If you try making it, let me know. I'd love to hear how it turned out!

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