Saturday, December 4, 2010


When I first decided to make pemmican, I thought the process would be simple: make jerky, pound jerky, render fat, combine. In practice, there were a couple hiccups, but the results were surprising.

In the finest pemmican, the dried meat was pounded until it became a powder. I started grinding pieces of jerky with a mortar and pestle. It worked, but I realized it would take days to process a useful quantity of meat. I eventually found a rock and a solid piece of earth, wrapped the jerky in cloth and pounded it out. You could probably blitz the meat in a food processor and obtain similar results.

With my meat powder made, I ran into a problem:

Marrow separated from the bonesBuffalo Fat

Buffalo fat is almost an oxymoron. The animal is very lean, and there is certainly nothing like the fatback on a pig. To complicate the matter, buffalo is dry-aged, a process that claims what little fat cap there is to protect the meat. It is therefore extremely hard to obtain raw buffalo fat in the quantity required for pemmican.

I had actually come across the solution to this problem ages ago, without realizing it. "The Plains Indians used to crack and boil bones to make grease." It was right there in my notes, but I didn't recognize "grease" as "edible fat."

I had a bag of marrow bones (that is, leg bones cut into two or three inch lengths). To separate the marrow from the bones cleanly, I emptied the bag into a bucket of cold water. After a few hours of soaking I was able to push the cylinders of marrow out of the bones (photo above). Soaking bones in cold salted water, replacing the water as it clouds, is a common way to purge the marrow of blood. I don't have a clear idea why the process makes the marrow slide out of the bones so easily, but it does.

These marrow cylinders can be rendered as if they were pure fat scraps: throw them into a pot with a touch of water and place over very low heat. I soaked my marrow extensively to draw out as much blood as I could, as I thought the blood might somehow taint the fat. I retrospect, I'm not sure this was necessary. After rendering for a few hours, I had beautiful fat with a layer of what looked like curdled blood on top. The blood that I was unable to purge had separated cleanly, and it didn't seem to affect the fat in any way.

I strained out the non-fat components because a) they look gross, and b) they increase the rate of spoilage of the fat.

The next step was to combine the meat powder with the fat in roughly equal parts. Simple enough, though there is an important nuance: the fat must be just, just melted (ie. not too hot). If the fat is too hot, it will cook the meat powder and make it hard and gritty.

My reasons for making pemmican were quasi-academic, and truthfully I wasn't expecting the dish to give a pleasurable eating experience. Of course the flavours of the jerky, smoke and juniper in my case, dominate. Salt is not traditional at all, as it wasn't harvested by the Plains Indians, but by seasoning the meat and fat before cooling, this pemmican was actually damn tasty. The texture was strange, though not unpleasant. It was a bit like a rillette that you don't have to chew.

This is a preparation that you could toy with. For instance: what if the jerky were simply pulled apart and mixed with the marrow fat, so that there was still a characteristic jerky chew? Dried saskatoons would definitely allow you to play with texture.

Pemmican, molded into a puck


  1. First of all - where did you get your marrow bones - I want to make Hergus Fenderson's Marrow Bones with Pasley Salad.
    Second - do you think the salt works by contracting the marrow and rendering our the liquid in it like it does when it is used to cure meat?
    Holy COW! Is all I can say. Damn tasty? A BONUS. I would NOT have expected this to taste good at all, but, as I thought about it - the marrow is delicious when roasted... you rendered it, so lost the caramelizing flavour, but needed to to expel the blood. Then, the jerky was tasty. In this case, one plus one does make two. Bravo, Allan! I (of course) would LOVE to taste it. I would love to taste EVERYTHING you make. This is really important research you are doing. You are probably the only one who has done any of this kind of thing. Incredible.
    Just discovered HOW EASY it was to make paneer - take a read.

  2. PS
    Please answer about the marrow bones?
    ANd - I just got some FABULOUS veal bones today at OSFM from Four Whistle Farms

  3. I've got marrow bones from a few vendors at the Strathcona market, including First Nature Farms, Four Whistle, and Trowlesworthy.

    Meat vendors there often have "soup bones," which are little grab bags of miscellaneous bones, often from ribs and shoulders. Occassionally there is a bag with femur bones cut to the perfect length for serving marrow. If not, I've asked them for femur bones cut into two to three inch segments, which they can usually bring in a week later.

    Your hypothesis as to why purging makes the marrow slide out of the bones makes sense to me. You should write a letter to Harold McGee and have it included in the next edition of On Food and Cooking. Marrow is one topic on which that book has surprisingly little to say...

  4. I too would assume something not so lovely. But rillettes? Of course! I suppose the point was shelf stable [jerky and fat], and high calorie & nutrition. I suppose the fat provides a matrix to introduce other ingredients - as you mention, fruit, or other nutritious/medicinal plants. Nice job giving this a go.

  5. Thank you, Allan! I will talk to Jerry Kitt or Four Whistle Farms. I am eager to roast some marrow bones. The book you lent me is very interesting. I have now read most of it, and want to get cooking!
    Have you made the roasted marrow bones and salad?

  6. I've roasted a few marrow bones in my day, but I've never eaten them with Henderson's parsley salad.

    As an aside: the reason I am so well acquainted with marrow is because at Jack's Grill we used to serve the steak with a marrow bone. The customers almost never ate the marrow.

    The two items that we serve that are most likely to come back uneaten are marrow and fish skin. Ironically they are two of the most pleasurable ingredients I can think of.

  7. "I don't have a clear idea why the process makes the marrow slide out of the bones so easily, but it does."

    check out these references:
    1. molecular gastronomy
    2. fat - the misunderstood ingredient.

    i remember reading in one of those re. the science of fat + bone marrows' nutritional awesomeness.

  8. Thanks Michelle. I've been meaning to check out that Fat book for some time.

    I wonder if anyone who buys me Christmas presents will read this...