Pemmican is an old survival food that helped many people stay out in the woods longer or get through a hard winter. Hardtack is a very dry cracker that will last for decades and was a staple food for sailors and soldiers throughout history.
Traditional pemmican is a combination of dried meat that has been very finely cut or powdered and mixed with fat and dried fruit. Spices and salt are added for flavor. Other ingredients could also be added for short-term survival rations. However, use caution when adding ingredients because it can affect the shelf life or even cause food poisoning.
The only meat that must be avoided when making pemmican is poultry because the risk of spoilage or food poisoning is high. Most people use beef to make modern pemmican, but venison and buffalo were widely used in times past.
Beef jerky is expensive. A lot of people dry their own meat in a food dehydrator or oven. Although plenty of people dry meat with just a little salt, the safest way to do it is to use curing salts and then dry the meat. If you use your food dehydrator to make beef jerky, you already know how to do this.
You can purchase lard at the grocery store, but I prefer to render my own. The quality is much higher and if all you can find is high-end pastured pork lard, it is far cheaper to render your own fat. You can also render beef tallow, but the flavor may be a little overwhelming for some, and beef fat is harder to find and more expensive.
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Like anything else, the more work you do yourself, the lower the overall cost of your pemmican. You can catch fruit on sale and dehydrate it yourself for use in your pemmican, or you can buy small packs of dried fruit.
The word pemmican is derived from the Cree pimikan, meaning “manufactured grease.”
The following recipe is a good baseline. You may have to adjust depending on the type of fat you use and the brittleness of the dried fruit you include.
½ cup dried fruit
1 cup dried meat
1/3 cup rendered fat
Add spices to taste; however, if you’re using jerky that is already seasoned, you probably won’t want to add anything.
Grind the dried meat and fruit in a blender, food processor, or even a coffee grinder, if that is all you have. Add spices if desired, tasting to check if the spice level is how you like it.
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I experimented to see how pork lard compared with beef tallow when making pemmican. My conclusion is that pemmican made with beef tallow does not taste as good as that made with lard. It’s edible, but it has a stronger flavor that I just don’t like as much as the pemmican made with lard. I now only use the easier to find lard for all of my pemmican.
Tallow also didn’t seem to hold the pemmican together as well. Others who make pemmican have mentioned that lard goes rancid faster than tallow, so you might decide to use it regardless of the inferior flavor if you want your pemmican to last as long as possible. Personally, I’m fine with any recipe that makes pemmican that will last at least a few years.
Pemmican is a very basic food. You just need a few ingredients and a bowl to mix it up in. If you decide to make your own jerky, it will take longer but you will save money.
I’m a little proud of this pemmican because it’s the first that I made that I thought actually tasted really good and was worth the trouble of making.
1 cup shredded beef jerky
¼ cup raisins
¼ cup dried cranberries
1/3 cup rendered pork fat (aka lard)
The quality of the ingredients has a big impact on how good your pemmican will taste.
So does the cure you use on your dried meat. I used lard that I rendered myself from pigs that were raised in a pasture, not a confined environment. My husband and I raised and butchered pigs for years, and during that time, we occasionally tasted pork that others had raised in confinement, and the difference was remarkable.
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Pemmican is made to be stored unrefrigerated, but you should store it within a moderate temperature range for the longest shelf life. Colder temperatures increase its shelf life. The ingredients in your pemmican are very attractive to animals and bugs, so I advise storing it in an airtight plastic container. A moisture absorber packet can also help with shelf life.
Like any food, the shelf life depends on the ingredients used and the conditions it’s stored in. Pemmican should last at least 3–5 years, but plenty of people have eaten it after decades of storage. If you’re unsure, smell it and maybe taste just a little. Rancid fats and meat typically smell pretty bad, so you should know if it’s bad well before it gets into your mouth.
Hardtack is a very dry biscuit that can last for decades if kept dry and away from animals. Traditional hardtack only has three ingredients: flour, water, and salt.
Other spices can be added if a few basic rules are followed. Do not add any dairy, meat, or animal fat.
I recommend using iodized salt to ensure there is some iodide in your survival diet. Although it’s not a common problem now, lack of iodide used to cause goiters. Your thyroid needs iodide to stay healthy. You don’t need a lot, but it is critical to have some.
These are fairly popular for survival pantries, but they are expensive for what you get. They are the closest thing to hardtack you can buy.
2 cups flour
1-2 tsp salt
Enough water to make the dough pliable (add it gradually)
Mix the flour and salt and add enough water to create a workable dough. Mix in any flavors or spices.
Cook at 250°F until there is no moisture left. Test this by breaking a section in two. You can finish off the drying process in a food dehydrator to get the last bit of moisture out. Hardtack should be completely brittle and lacking in moisture. Break a piece open and if it seems cracker dry, then it is ready.
A Note on Nutritional Yeast—I highly recommend adding nutritional yeast because it adds a complex of vitamins that regular flour lacks in sufficient quantities. A few tablespoons in your hardtack will also add a cheese-like flavor.
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I have used this brand for years. It has a great cheese-like flavor, and it’s affordable. One large canister lasts a really long time. Here’s a link to the complete nutritional label, so you can see just how much it adds to hardtack.
Because so many people are sensitive to wheat, I have developed a recipe that uses gluten-free flour. Although I expect the resulting hardtack should last for many years, I cannot guarantee that it will last as long as traditional wheat flour hardtack simply because it has not been tested in the field like traditional hardtack. Also, gluten-free flours may contain ingredients that are not as shelf stable as wheat flour.
3 cups Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free flour
2 tsp-1 tbsp iodized salt
½ cup corn starch
Enough water to make a workable dough (Add gradually, using as little as possible.)
Bake following the instructions for traditional hardtack, 250°F until brittle and dry.
Note: You can also use Xanthum Gum to help the hardtack stick together. Use 3 tbsp if you decide to substitute. You can also use a combination of corn starch and xanthum gum.
Hardtack is exactly what the name implies. Very hard. It’s not meant to be consumed without some liquid. It is usually dipped in water, coffee, or tea to make it soft enough to eat.
Hardtack is a great way to use up flour before it goes stale or gets buggy. Not to say that hardtack can’t get buggy, but that only happens if it gets wet or isn’t properly sealed in a container.
The oldest known specimen of hardtack was baked in 1851. It is displayed at the Kronborg Castle in Elsinore, Denmark.
If you hunt, or know someone who does and they’re willing to sell or trade some meat, you might be able to cut your cost a bit. Supermarkets have to mark things up to make a profit, so even paying a fair price to a friend or hunting buddy can benefit everyone involved.
You can sometimes find marked down meats on certain days at your local grocery store. When I went to the grocery store more often, I noticed that on Tuesdays there was a lot of marked down cuts of meat available. Marked down meat must be processed within a day or two in most cases to be safe, but that just means cutting up your meat and adding the brine within a day of bringing it home as it takes 12-24 hours to brine meat for jerky.
People have found hardtack that was made for soldiers during the Civil War and eaten small pieces of it. Supposedly it tasted like moth balls.
Regardless of the quality of your survival rations, it’s a good idea to have multivitamins on hand to fill any nutritional gaps. Women of childbearing age and those who are pregnant need to be particularly careful about getting all the necessary vitamins and minerals.
There is vitamin C in pemmican but not in the amounts needed for good overall health. Scurvy is a terrible condition that can lead to tooth loss, weakness, and even death, but it’s easy to prevent with a supplement that contains vitamin C. Any decent multivitamin will provide this as well as the folic acid necessary for a healthy pregnancy.
Rancid fat smells really bad so that is an indicator that you should not eat your pemmican. Any sign of mold means that something is wrong and the pemmican should be disposed of.
Around 3500 calories.
If pemmican is just made with meat, fat, and salt then it is definitely ok for dogs and cats. The only reason pemmican would be potentially toxic to dogs and cats is if you add any herbs or fruits they are sensitive to. Grapes are not supposed to be fed to dogs for example but blueberries are ok.
Top row of left to right: Einkorn Wheat Hardtack, Gluten Free Hardtack Made With Cornstarch, and Gluten Free Hardtack made with Xanthum Gum and Cornstarch
Although it is commonly believed that pemmican is a super food and complete on it’s own, I wouldn’t want to eat only that. I think it’s better to have two rations that offer meat, fat, fruit, and bread. Adding a multivitamin will fill any nutritional gaps.
If you want to create a daily ration pack, you can throw some pemmican, hardtack, and a vitamin into a container. However, because pemmican has fats and oils, make sure to store it separately or vacuum seal the hardtack. An alternative would be to use airtight containers and just keep both rations nearby. You could survive without nutritional difficulties for a long time on these basic foods. Having some drink mix or another beverage besides water would make things nicer.
Big changes in your diet can take some time for your body to get used to. If you suddenly had to live on pemmican, hardtack, and a multivitamin, your stomach might not agree with you for a few days. Everyone is different. Some people may not be affected at all, but it’s something to be aware of. If given the choice, it’s best to use pemmican and hardtack to supplement and stretch out the rest of your food supply or when hunting, fishing, or scouting areas.
Also, a gradual shift in diet will be a little gentler for those who are sensitive to such things.
Samantha is Ready To Go Survival's lead editor, a life-long outdoorswoman with a Bachelors in Environmental Studies. She learned the foundation of preparedness from her father who saw heavy combat in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. An avid outdoors woman and survivalist, her articles have appeared in various homesteading magazines such as GRIT, Back Home, Backwoods Home, and Countryside.