Hunting And Eating Black Bear

Bear meat was a frequent delicacy in our household during my childhood in the countryside. Grandpa had a fondness for hunting black bears, considering them the prime target among big game animals. Grandma consistently lauded bear meat as the epitome of culinary delight among game meats. With Grandma’s repertoire of mouthwatering recipes, she effortlessly substantiated her assertion.

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as having a supply of naturally sourced, organic meat in the freezer. Following in Grandma’s footsteps, I derive immense satisfaction from showcasing it in gourmet style on the dinner table.

Hunting the black bear

Bear hunting is an endeavor of size and strategy. Fully grown male bears typically weigh around 300 pounds, with trophy specimens tipping the scales at over 500 pounds. Distinguishing characteristics include the hefty, block-shaped heads of mature bears, in contrast to the more pointed and narrow heads of juveniles. Female bears, known as sows, are roughly half the size of males and are often found in close proximity to their cubs, particularly in the spring. It’s crucial to exercise caution to avoid inadvertently targeting a mother with her young.

Bears possess moderate eyesight, but their acute sense of smell and sharp hearing make them formidable quarry. Stalking is my preferred method for bear hunting, although some hunters opt for the patience-testing approach of “still” hunting from a tree stand. Regardless of the technique employed, success demands a combination of patience and skill, given the animal’s remarkable intelligence.

Bear hunting seasons vary by region, with some areas offering both spring and autumn hunts while others solely provide fall opportunities. Before embarking on a bear hunting expedition, it’s essential to thoroughly familiarize oneself with the pertinent hunting regulations governing the specific region, including rules, dates, and requirements such as licenses, tags, and firearm restrictions.

While my hunting grounds offer opportunities in both seasons, I favor the autumn hunt due to the availability of leisure time and the allure of utilizing bear lard for culinary endeavors. Bears fattened on fruits and berries during the fall yield sweeter and more abundant fat compared to those emerging from hibernation in the spring. However, aficionados of bear meat assert that lean spring bears offer superior flavor, ensuring a satisfying culinary experience regardless of the season.

During autumn hunts, it’s advisable to avoid bears feasting on fish in salmon-spawning rivers and creeks, as their meat may acquire a fishy taste. Pre-season scouting in summer is invaluable for identifying potential hunting grounds, with favored feeding areas including fields, meadows, fruit-bearing woods, and orchards. Signs such as tracks, scat, claw marks, and pawed-over logs serve as indicators of bear activity, guiding hunters to promising locations for the season ahead.

For spring bear hunting, optimal areas include sunny forest edges where bears may emerge from winter dens in search of fresh vegetation. Grassy meadows and moist woodlands teeming with edible plants provide prime feeding grounds for bears during this season.

Field dressing

field dressing a black bear

After successfully taking down a black bear, your initial consideration should be whether you intend to preserve the head as a trophy or have the hide tanned or fashioned into a rug. Some hunters swiftly decide on this matter upon bagging a trophy animal. If preservation is your goal, utmost care must be taken during the field dressing and skinning process to minimize damage to the hide and to retain the head, tail, and paws intact for mounting purposes.

The key to preserving good meat lies in promptly field dressing the animal after the shot. Heat retention poses the greatest threat to meat quality. Some hunters opt to skin the animal and detach the four legs, leaving the remainder behind in the field, sometimes with the stomach unopened and the entrails intact if they are not desired for consumption.

Field dressing a bear follows the same procedure as with any other large game animal. Begin by making a circular incision around the vent and then proceed up the belly to the chest, taking care to avoid piercing the stomach or intestines to prevent contamination of the meat. Afterward, roll the animal onto its side and remove the entrails from the cavity. To access the heart and lungs, cut the diaphragm close to the ribs in the chest. Absorb as much excess blood from the cavity as possible using paper towels from your pack or available foliage like ferns.

The subsequent step involves skinning the animal. Due to the thick fur of bears, it’s advisable to remove the hide promptly to initiate the cooling process. Lay the bear on its back and extend the initial incision down the entire length of each leg. If preserving the hide, ensure these cuts are straight and neat down to the pads of the feet, leaving them intact. Alternatively, if the hide is not a concern, you can skin down to the ankle and disjoint the feet for removal.

As you proceed with skinning, use your knife to separate the hide from the body. If the hide is destined for a taxidermist, prompt delivery is essential, particularly in warmer weather. Salting down the hide and rolling it up can help prevent spoilage during transportation.

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Processing

When handling a spring bear in warmer weather with less fat content, it’s essential to butcher and chill the meat swiftly. Conversely, for an autumn bear harvested in cooler temperatures, I prefer to hang it for a day or two to allow for bleeding out and stiffening of the meat, as well as for the fat to firm up slightly, facilitating easier butchering. As I handle my own meat, this method suits me best. However, if you opt for professional processing, it will be done according to the standards of the shop and your personal preferences.

The initial step involves removing the fat layer from the meat. A well-fed autumn bear may possess up to three inches of fat, necessitating a large container to store the fat if you intend to render it down into lard for culinary or leather preservation purposes. Alternatively, you can hang it in trees in your backyard for birds or dispose of it, although this would entail significant waste. Removing bear fat mirrors the process of trimming fat from a pig—simply slice it off in strips until you reach the meat layer.

Despite its delicious flavor when rendered into lard, leaving fat on the meat can result in an undesirable taste, particularly after freezing. When grinding bear meat into burger, I remove all excess fat and substitute it with pork fat, enhancing flavor, binding, and suitability for long-term storage.

Rendering down bear lard

There are two approaches to rendering bear lard: one involves melting the fat without water, while the other utilizes water. Personally, I prefer to render my bear lard outdoors in a pot suspended over a fire pit in the backyard, but it can also be done indoors on the stove. It’s important to work in small batches and avoid overcrowding the pan to prevent grease spillage. Keep children and pets away from the melting pot for safety.

Rendering without water: Cut the fat into small cubes and place them in a large, deep, heavy-bottomed pot. Hang the pot over the fire or set the stove burner to medium-high heat. As the fat melts, it will accumulate at the bottom of the pot and gradually fry itself out. When the solid fat pieces transform into crispy bits floating on the surface, the lard is ready. Use a ladle to transfer the cracklings into a metal sieve positioned over the pot of rendered grease, then press any remaining fat out of the cracklings using the back of a wooden spoon. Spread the cracklings on absorbent paper, sprinkle with salt, and enjoy while waiting for the lard to cool. Once cooled, transfer the lard to a clay container, cover, and store in the refrigerator or a cool area.

Rendering with water: Follow the same process for cutting the fat into cubes and placing them in a large kettle. Cover the fat with cold water and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer gently for 4 to 5 hours, skimming off any impurities that rise to the surface. This method is well-suited for use with a woodstove that remains lit in the kitchen. Continue simmering until the water evaporates and the fat is fully rendered. Take care to avoid burning the fat as it boils down to the frying point.

Butchering

butchering a black bear

The process of butchering a bear closely resembles that of butchering a hog. Personally, I prefer to reserve one leg for making ham and then bone out the remaining portions, as it’s easier than sawing through bones.

I divide the meat into steaks, roasts, stewing meat, and trimmings for burger. Meat from the neck and ribs, if not intended for barbecue, is perfect for grinding. The heart can be roasted and enjoyed in a manner similar to venison heart. While some individuals appreciate the liver, I find it to have a slightly stronger taste than venison liver. However, soaking it in milk before cooking can help mellow its flavor.

Packaging the meat

I used to rely on freezer paper, but regardless of how securely I wrapped it, the meat would inevitably suffer from freezer burn after a few months in storage. Several years ago, I invested in a vacuum sealer, and since then, I haven’t encountered any instances of freezer burn—even with packages that have surpassed their recommended one-year shelf life in the freezer. However, I still take the extra step of wrapping my vacuum-sealed meat in brown freezer paper to preserve its color, especially during extended storage periods.

For ground meat and stewing meat, I find that sealing them in ziplock bags suffices. However, for larger cuts where air circulation is crucial, vacuum sealing truly prolongs their shelf life.

A word about trichinosis

Exercise the same caution with bear meat as you would with pork to mitigate the risk of trichinosis—a disease caused by parasites that can inhabit the intestines of various animals. Trichinosis is most commonly associated with pork in domestic settings and bear in the wilderness. Since trichinae larvae are not visible to the naked eye, there is no reliable method to ascertain their presence or absence, emphasizing the importance of careful handling for safe consumption.

Human transmission of trichinosis typically occurs through the consumption of undercooked flesh from infected animals, with most cases stemming from undercooked pork consumption. Given that bear, like pork, may harbor these parasites in the meat, it should be treated with the same precautions and cooked to the appropriate level of doneness.

Bear meat should be cooked until it reaches an internal temperature of 185°F as measured by a meat thermometer inserted into the center of the meat. It should be fork-tender, with no traces of bloody juices present. Freezing is also known to help eliminate trichinae, so allowing the meat to undergo an extended period in the freezer before use is advisable, particularly for ham and sausage making.

Here are some of my favorite black bear recipes:

1. Bear steaks with fresh spring morels:

This dish is a spring bear hunter’s delight. If you can’t find morels, store-bought mushrooms will do just fine. When morels are abundant, I like to dry them for later use, allowing me to enjoy this recipe with steaks from an autumn bear as well. Serves four.

Ingredients:

  • 4 bear steaks
  • 4 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 4 sprigs of rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon of black peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil
  • ½ cup of sherry
  • 3 tablespoons of butter
  • 1 cup of beef stock or water
  • 2 shallots, peeled and sliced
  • 1 cup of fresh morels (or rehydrated dried morels)
  • ¼ cup of heavy cream
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:

  1. Place the steaks in a flat dish and top them with garlic, rosemary, and peppercorns.
  2. Mix olive oil and sherry, then pour over the meat. Marinate in the fridge for several hours or overnight.
  3. Remove steaks from marinade and set aside. Heat butter in a skillet and sauté steaks until golden on each side.
  4. Pour in the stock and reserved marinade. Cover and simmer until meat is thoroughly cooked and liquid is absorbed.
  5. Remove meat from pan and keep warm. Add shallots and morels to the drippings and cook until shallots are soft.
  6. Stir in the cream and seasonings. Cook until thickened. Ladle mushrooms over the steaks and garnish with fresh parsley. Serve with mashed potatoes and peas.

2. Grandma’s old-fashioned bear stew:

Nothing beats a hearty bear stew filled with herbs, colorful root vegetables, and tender meat in rich gravy. Pair it with a biscuit made from bear lard or crusty bread for sopping up the gravy. Serves six.

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Ingredients:

  • 1½ pounds of stewing bear
  • 2 tablespoons of cooking fat (lard, butter, or vegetable oil)
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • ¼ cup of diced celery
  • 1 sweet red pepper, diced
  • 1½ tablespoons of paprika
  • 1 teaspoon of ground black pepper
  • 1½ teaspoons of salt (adjust to taste)
  • Fresh herbs of choice (rosemary, oregano, basil, thyme)
  • 3½ cups (or more) of water
  • 2 cups of cubed potatoes
  • 1 cup of diced turnip
  • 1 chopped parsnip
  • 2 cups of chopped carrots
  • 1 cup of frozen peas
  • ½ cup of red wine (or water)
  • 2 tablespoons of flour blended into ¼ cup of water (or use instant beef gravy mix)

Instructions:

  1. Heat fat in a Dutch oven and sauté meat until it loses its color.
  2. Add onions, garlic, celery, and pepper, and cook until onion is soft.
  3. Stir in spices and cook until absorbed. Add water, bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 1½ hours or until meat is tender, adding more water if needed.
  4. Add vegetables and wine. Simmer for 30 minutes or until vegetables are cooked.
  5. Stir in flour/water mixture and cook until thickened. Adjust seasonings to taste.

3. Spicy bear breakfast sausage:

This recipe is perfect for beginners as the sausages are formed into patties rather than being cased. Makes about 3 pounds.

Ingredients:

  • 2 pounds of ground bear meat
  • 1 pound of ground fatty pork (such as pork butt)
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 teaspoon of black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon of ground marjoram
  • ½ teaspoon of crushed sage
  • 1 teaspoon of garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons of onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon of sweet red paprika
  • 2 teaspoons of whole coriander seeds
  • 1 teaspoon of crushed dried chili flakes

Instructions:

  1. Mix ground meats together in a large bowl, then add spices. Using your hands, work the spices into the meats.
  2. Shape the meat into two rolls, about the size of an English muffin. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
  3. The next morning, slice the rolls into patties and fry in hot oil over medium heat until browned on both sides and cooked through. Drain on absorbent paper before serving. Enjoy!

Concluding

Bear meat offers a unique and flavorful culinary experience for those willing to explore beyond conventional meats. Whether harvested in spring or autumn, black bear meat presents an opportunity to connect with nature’s bounty and savor the fruits of the hunt. These recipes provide a glimpse into the rich culinary heritage surrounding bear meat, inviting cooks to experiment and create memorable dishes to be enjoyed with loved ones.

Recommended resources:

Hunting and eating reptiles for survival

The best DIY Projects for your household to become self-sufficient

How To Make Bannock or Indian Bread, the food of the mountain men

The vital self-sufficiency lessons our great grand-fathers left us

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