How to Store Pemmican
(The Legend of the Rawhide Piece)

This article will describe how and why Pemmican storage works, based on history, chemistry, and our own experiences.

If you just want to cut to the chase and learn our favorite recommended ways to store Pemmican, scroll down to the bottom of the page.


The history of the fur trapping industry in the great northwest is full of legendary heroes and valiant escapades. There’s Jim Bridger, the mountain man who used to end his tall tales with “and then, they killed me!” Then there’s Jedediah Smith, who lost half his scalp to a grizzly bear. But you probably haven’t heard of the most rugged character of all, from that heroic era: the legendary “Rawhide Piece” of buffalo Pemmican.

File:Bags and pouches of Sioux.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Buffalo Rawhide Bags - optimal for Pemmican storage?

Yes, the hero of today’s story is a piece of food. But not just any food — it was a 90-pound piece of Pemmican, stored tight in a rawhide bag. This piece of Pemmican went through a lot: it was left outside, in the rain and sun, for years on end. It was neglected. It got wet, it got dry, it got hot, it got cold… and then, years and years later, it was rescued, and the rawhide bag was opened up…

And inside, the trappers discovered a pristine piece of Pemmican. Despite being a decade or three old and totally neglected, it was highly edible, as rich and nutritious as the day it was sealed up in the bag. Obviously, this says a lot about Pemmican’s incredible staying power. But this particular piece is also heroic because it gives us insight into the best way to store Pemmican, for maximum life and power.

Collecting large pieces of Pemmican and other goods, for a Hudson Bay Co. trapping expedition.


It turns out that rawhide storage bags, the traditional Pemmican containers, may be a perfect way to preserve Pemmican.

But why? And how, if we don’t have large pieces of rawhide on hand, can we mimic its effectiveness?


Fundamentals of Nonperishable Storage:
Can Pemmican go bad?

For long journeys or long storage, Pemmican is far superior to jerky and other meat products. But it is possible for Pemmican to spoil, if it is stored improperly.


The 2 Main Pemmican-Spoiling Factors

There are two factors that cause Pemmican spoilage: air and water. Out of these two, air (especially humid air) is by far the most important.

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Stagnant air - never good, neither for people nor Pemmican.


1) Air and Pemmican - Go for “No Air, or Air Flow.”

Stagnant air, which contains moisture and oxygen, will enable mold to grow on nearly any organic surface. That even includes beef tallow, which has potent anti-microbial properties. The main principle of Pemmican preservation is avoiding stagnant air.

To preserve Pemmican, keep these words in mind: “No or Flow.” Here are your options:

-No Air.

You can completely vacuum out all of the air in your Pemmican package — this is ideal. A similar effect can also be achieved with “Oxygen Grabber” packets that have iron that absorbs all the oxygen in an enclosed area.

-Air Flow.

You can store your Pemmican in such a way that air can circulate around the product. This will inhibit or at least dramatically slow down mold growth. However, if oxygen is present, then the tallow can still (very slowly) go rancid (oxygenated), in the presence of heat and especially light.

I have stored several pieces of Pemmican in paper bags and open-ended plastic bags, or in unsealed plastic cups, for months on end, in my kitchen, and the Pemmican has been stayed just as good as day one.


What Is Humidity? | Wonderopolis

Water condensation on glass, from humid air. 
A similar thing can happen to Pemmican.

2) Water and Pemmican - It’s in the air.

If you’ve ever rendered beef tallow, then you know how hard it is to clean up, once it cools down and solidifies. The fact is that beef tallow is extremely hydrophobic. The tallow is is what gives Pemmican a distinct advantage over beef jerky. Jerky, here defined as seasoned and dehydrated meat, is porous — when exposed to humidity, the dry jerky actually absorbs water vapor out of the air and begins to spoil.

Pemmican, on the other hand, is not porous. The rendered fat in Pemmican seals the pores in the dry meat, so that humid air can’t moisten the meat. This is why the Pemmican stored in the rawhide stayed good in the rain, all those years ago - it got wet, but the water didn’t permeate the Pemmican. When the air dried up again, the rawhide and the Pemmican within dried off, too.

Even when, in stagnant, humid environments, mold grows on Pemmican, it generally only ever grows on the surface, where the water and oxygen are. A millimeter or two below, inside the Pemmican, everything is all good.

Bison rawhide - the original Pemmican storage material.



The traditional mode of Pemmican production was to stuff a rawhide bag full of shredded jerky, and then to pour rendered liquid fat into the bag, until it was full. Then it would be sewn up tight with sinew. Once the fat cooled down and solidified, the Pemmican would have almost no exposure to air. It was like an old-fashioned vacuum seal.

Because it isn't waterproof, rawhide is a poor storage material for jerky, which will rot when exposed to liquid. However, as we noted above, liquid water is not much of a problem for Pemmican — the real problem is humid, stagnant air where mold can grow.

Even when rawhide got wet, the Pemmican inside would be fine, because the tallow would repel the water, and the rawhide would seal out the air. 

(Sidenote: the fact that wet rawhide Pemmican didn’t spoil suggests that Pemmican could perhaps be stored well underwater... maybe. As long as the water was cold enough that the tallow wouldn’t begin to soften or melt. We’re experimenting on that…)




Anymore, the USDA doesn’t take kindly to rawhide storage, even for Pemmican. We’re stuck using various types of plastic. Happily, plastic storage can work extremely well. Here’s what we recommend:


Option 1: Keep your Pemmican Vacuum-sealed. (No air.)

Once you open up your Pemmican, vacuum-seal it again, within a week or so. Make sure you get all of the air out.


Option 2: Store your Pemmican with air openings. (Air flow.)

If you don’t have a vacuum sealer: Once you open up your Pemmican, you may place it in a paper bag, or a plastic bag with perforations, so that fresh air can flow in and prevent mold from growing. This works well in a refrigerator, because a) that is an extremely dry environment, b) rodents (hopefully) won’t threaten your Pemmican, in there, and c) the cold tallow will not melt and get the paper bag greasy. (NOTE: do not store your Pemmican sealed, but not vacuumed, in the fridge. See below.)


Option 3: Open up your Pemmican at least once per day. (Air flow.)

If you’re out on the go, and you are gradually eating down a Pemmican brick, you will achieve sufficient air flow if you open the Pemmican package a few times, daily, as you will naturally, if you’re eating Pemmican often. When you do close the Pemmican bag, try to push out as much air as possible.


Option 4 (Bonus Points): Craft a rawhide bag and melt your Pemmican into it.

Métis style. Send us a picture and we’ll feature your epic 19th-century style.



-Do not re-seal your Pemmican in its original bag (or any airtight plastic bag) with stagnant, moist air inside the bag. This is a recipe for mold, for any organic substance, not just Pemmican. This applies even in a refrigerator. (Frozen should be fine.)


Bonus tip (for survival situations):

what to do if you get lost hiking: man in rainstorm

We have examined several specimens of moldy Pemmican. And we’ve found that the mold has not penetrated even a millimeter below the surface of the Pemmican. So, if you’re in an emergency situation, and the surface of your Pemmican is moldy… we totally don’t (wink) recommend that you cut into it and see if the interior of the Pemmican is still fresh and tasty. Again, for legal reasons, we cannot recommend that you check whether the interior of your Pemmican is still fresh and nutritious.


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