We might think that ultra-long shelf life foods is something of a modern invention. After all, before the advent of preservatives and state-of-the-art methods of packaging, food just didn’t last that long, right? Not hardly!
Ancient cultures have long made use of food design to stay stable and last through the winter or for long journeys, and one of the longest-lasting ever devised was pemmican.
Invented by American Indians, this combination of meat, fat, and sometimes other ingredients is extremely calorie-dense and, when prepared and packaged properly, it can last a long time.
Today, it’s becoming a popular again for the same reasons. But what we need to know is how long pemmican can last?
Homemade pemmican can last anywhere from 3 months to up to 5 years in storage depending on the exact preparation and ingredients, and the conditions it is stored in.
That is certainly a huge range when it comes to shelf life, and at first you might think that makes it hard to depend on.
But in reality, this immense timetable is because there are tons and tons of different preparations for pemmican out in the world.
Depending on the ingredients and how exactly it is made, it can last a lot longer, or for a relatively short time.
In any case, it’s highly likely that pemmican can serve as a great emergency ration for you or just a long-lasting staple that you can use as the basis for other recipes.
Keep reading and I’ll tell you all about it…
What is Pemmican Exactly?
To be totally clear, when we’re talking about pemmican, I am talking about the real thing, either the stuff you make yourself or purchase from one of a handful of specialty manufacturers still in operation.
Real pemmican isn’t anything like beef jerky or other flavored meat sticks that you sometimes see branded accordingly, or products that just use the term.
Pemmican is basically a mixture of equal parts tallow (beef fat) and dried, pounded and sometimes ground meat. Occasionally it will include other ingredients like dried berries or seeds. That’s it.
Prepared correctly, the resulting mixture, whatever shape it is formed into, is a dense patty or block of fat and protein and sometimes some sugars and carbs mixed in there.
Originally developed by the American Indians as a way to preserve and prolong what food they had as well as a long-lasting and space-efficient field ration for long journeys or expeditions, it was soon introduced to explorers and settlers from the Old World.
But pemmican isn’t just an interesting historical footnote; it has remained today exactly what it was back then, and has even seen service as a purpose-issued military ration for American forces throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
How Does Preparation Affect Shelf Life?
One controversial point surrounding pemmican is how it’s made. And it’s not because the precise method of preparation has been lost to history or anything like that: Owing to written records and also verbal tradition passed down among various tribes, we know exactly how the stuff is made.
And that’s actually the problem: there are tons of regional and tribal variations on how exactly to prepare pemmican, and all of them are different!
Some specify being made with red meat, others specify fish. Some include berries or other ingredients.
Concerning specific preparation, sometimes it’s specified that the dried meat, whatever kind it was, should be ground into a powder-like consistency before being mixed with the tallow or other animal fat.
Naturally, these various recipes and preparations can affect shelf life. Also, the care and diligence put into preparation of surfaces, containers and tools makes a big difference, especially because fat is highly prone to going rancid if contaminated.
In short, simpler recipes consisting of just fat and meat tend to last longer than those with other added ingredients like berries or seasonings.
Additionally, being extremely diligent and sanitizing all the containers and tools used to process the pemmican, and especially the container that holds it while it is cooling, will help to ensure the best shelf life no matter what recipe you’ve chosen.
What’s the Best Way to Store Pemmican?
The best way to store pemmican is in an airtight container, preferably one with the excess air removed before or after sealing.
Assuming you go with a simpler recipe and prepare it properly, using a sealed container and keeping it at room temperature will give you a shelf life of anywhere from 1 to 3 years, typically.
However, pemmican that is only wrapped in plastic, foil, or some other material will only last a few months at most (assuming the material is clean).
Just like any other container you would use for storing meat, the better the container is at keeping out air and moisture the longer your pemmican will last.
You might be surprised to learn that pemmican, despite being an ancient food, is actually quite suitable to modern methods of preservation and storage.
Vacuum-sealed pemmican that is kept cool can last for 10 years or even longer!
What are the Best Conditions for Storing Pemmican?
Ideally, you will keep pemmican in a room temperature environment or cooler. For longevity, cooler is better.
Keeping your pemmican in a room-temperature environment and in the right container will usually give you 1 to 3 years before it starts to go bad, as mentioned.
Keeping that same pemmican in the same container in a cool environment, let’s say around 60°F, can extend your shelf life to 5 years.
Cooler temperatures, as mentioned briefly above, will improve shelf life even more. Note that you can freeze your pemmican to maximize shelf life, but this tends to hurt the overall quality a little bit and you must eat it very soon after it thaws.
Does Pemmican Lose Nutritional Value Over Time?
Slightly, but as long as it is unspoiled it will still be highly nutritious and can provide you with plenty of energy in the form of protein and fat, along with needed vitamins and minerals, though it’s not nutritionally complete.
Again, the exact nutritional composition varies depending on the recipe you use.
How Can You Tell if Your Pemmican is Bad?
Pemmican contains lots of meat and fat, and that means that spoilage due to rancidity is your number one concern, and will be your most common cause of spoilage.
If you notice your pemmican smells bad, has any sort of mold or growth on it, has an “off” taste or if it appears or feels slimy, it’s probably gone bad and you shouldn’t eat it.
Now, while it is true that your food can spoil and give no obvious outward sign that you can detect, generally when it comes to pemmican if it looks good, smells good and tastes good, or at least doesn’t taste terrible, then it is still OK.
You might be surprised to learn that there have been military-issued sealed tins of pemmican dating all the way back to World War I opened as late as the 2000s and eaten with no ill effects.
This is not something I would recommend, necessarily, but it’s good to know that it is possible and pemmican can definitely go the difference when properly stored.
Choose Commercially Available Pemmican for Max Shelf Life
If maximum shelf life is what you are after, consider purchasing commercially produced pemmican instead of making your own.
Pemmican that is made in a factory setting and then sealed inappropriate container will invariably last a whole lot longer than the stuff you can make yourself no matter how careful you are when making it.
Grassland Beef is one such manufacturer, but there are others out there.
Tom has built and remodeled homes, generated his own electricity, grown his own food and more, all in quest of remaining as independent of society as possible. Now he shares his experiences and hard-earned lessons with readers around the country.