All photo credits: Josh Kirchner
All photo credits: Josh Kirchner
If there is one animal out there that I get the most flack for filling tags on, it's black bears. I'm not even talking about the anti-hunting community either. That is a whole different ball of wax. Many times, it is fellow hunters who are telling me things like, "What did you do with it? You can't eat a bear." Every time I hear something like this I cringe. However, once I educate these folks on how good bear meat really is, they are singing a different tune. They can't resist once I start telling them about recipes I use and how they wouldn't be able to tell the difference between bear and beef. That is something that I will stand by day and night too. When cared for and prepared in the proper way, bear meat is exceptional.
Here are some things to "bear in mind" with what I think is the most misunderstood meat.
We've all heard this to some degree. The secret to good table fare doesn’t start in the kitchen but in the field. Bears have a nice thick hide on them and if you don't remove it in a timely manner, you risk the well-being of that precious meat. Keep this in mind on all bear hunts, but especially during early fall hunts when it can be pretty warm out. I have made the mistake before of not getting to a downed bear soon enough. It wasn't pretty once I got the meat home. That was a hard lesson and one that I hope you never encounter. On top of getting the hide off, meat quartered and hanging, you need to take the fat off. Often, during the fall I am skinning not just hide, but fat. There can be a few inches that rest on top of that meat, leaving the meat almost invisible from the surface. Get as much of that fat off as possible in the field so you don't have to do it at home. I actually use that rule for all game meat, not just bears. Game fat is unlike that of beef or pork fat and can taint the flavor altogether.
A side note about bear fat. Once you separate the fat from the meat, feel free to bring some of that stuff home with you. You can render that fat down into cooking oil and use it to make all sorts of stuff. Cookies, pies, etc. I've never done this myself, but have friends who have done it with much success.
Once you get home, it's time to start processing and packaging up your bear meat. Just like when you were in the field, make sure you get all of the fat you can off of the bear at home. There always seems to be some hidden fat that I missed in the field. Spend the time removing any hard connective tissue as well. Once you have done that, it's time to figure out what you want to do with this stuff. With venison or elk, I think most of us are going to lean heavily on our steaks. With bears, I am going to advise that you lean heavily on your roasts and grind. Bear backstraps do make for some good steaks, but you have to cook it well done, unlike venison or elk. More on that later. For this reason, I will cut my backstraps into steaks, keep big hunks for roasts, and grind the rest. You can also cube up those roasts and use them for bear stew, which is fantastic. Now, it's time to package it. To encourage longevity, I will first wrap each piece of meat in plastic wrap very tightly. The more air you can get out of there, the better. From there, I'll put that in a vacuum bag and vacuum seal it. By going through this process, I've never had meat go bad in the freezer. You can check out another great article on this process here.
As far as how to cook this meat, I will tell you that bear shines in slow-cooked dishes. These are some tough animals, which is why I advised against cutting steaks other than from the backstrap. Stuff like chili, tamales, shredded bear, burgers, tacos and stew are going to make you love bear meat more and more. As long as you don’t approach it, thinking it will be similar to venison, you’ll be fine. Remember: they are simply a different animal.
Here is that scary word that a lot of you have probably heard through the grapevine when it comes to consuming bears. Trichinosis is something that we have lived in the presence of for quite some time. It is the reason that your grandma always "overcooked" that pork for the holidays. This parasite is commonly found in animals who consume other animals or carrion. It's a nasty infection that none of you should ever want any part of and is easily preventable. All you have to do is cook your meat until it is well done. A meat thermometer is going to be your best friend here. A safe rule of thumb temperature that I use is 170 degrees. Wikipedia states that trichinosis is killed at 165 degrees in about 15 seconds. I always opt on the higher side and have never had an issue.
Killing these little worms is precisely why cooking bear in something like a crockpot makes so much sense. For instance, if you are making a shredded bear roast, that meat isn't going to shred well until it hits 200 degrees on the inside. And that’s after cooking it for about eight to nine hours. You can rest assured that you aren't going to get sick like this. The bottom line? I wouldn't let the T-word scare you away from eating a bear. It didn't scare you away from eating pork, right?
I hope that you now feel a bit better about going bear hunting and take advantage of the awesome protein that they offer. Not only is the meat great, bear hunting is just plain fun. It's a great opportunity to get out in the spring and stretch your legs out or head out in the fall if you haven’t drawn that elk tag you've been waiting for. I was hooked on bear hunting after the very first hunt I ever went on. Just seeing a bear was breathtaking to me. Once that happened, it was all over, and they've had my attention ever since. Watching them zigzag their way along a brush-choked hillside is entrancing. Most of the time, the country that they live in can be described in one word: epic. This brings me to my last point about bears. Adventure is always expected. I think that is something that we all need and bear hunting offers plenty of it.