Spring black bear hunting has received plenty of exposure in recent years, but many people still don’t realize the value of bear meat. Some don’t even think it’s edible.
I’ll admit, black bear meat is a little different than the deer, elk, or moose that many big-game hunters associate with a well-stocked freezer. Black bear meat is, however, typically tasty if butchered and prepared properly.
As with any animal, especially omnivores, you can run into bad ones now and then. Bears that have been feeding on salmon and carrion are often not palatable. Even so, black bears don’t deserve the reputation that they are not suitable for the table. Most of the time, when cared for, they make excellent eating. It’s critical to get the animal skinned, keep the meat clean, and trim the excess fat from the meat for best results.
Black bears have dark, rich meat, and depending on the season, will have a significant layer of fat that can be rendered for baking and used for many other purposes. Now, I can’t say it’s the best meat there is. If I’m after a steak, I’d much prefer a rare, 2-inch-thick moose T-bone. But I have found some great uses for bear meat that aren’t overly complicated.
You can get creative with black bear meat of course, but here in Alaska there’s not much call for fancy recipes, and I have three simple ways I like to prepare bear. Remember that bears often carry nasty parasites, but you will be fine if you always make sure to cook the meat to an internal temperature of 165℉. I often go higher than that just to make sure it’s safe for consumption.
Here are my three favorite ways to eat black bear.
1. On the Grill
Although I don’t grill a lot of bear meat, there is one way I’ve come to really enjoy it. I typically will do this when I have a fresh bear that I’m cutting up. When breaking down the bear, I cut the backstraps off and leave the top half of the ribs attached. I use my knife to separate the backstrap from the spine, then use a saw to detach the ribs from the spine, trim off the bottom (belly) half of the ribs, leaving a backstrap attached to a half-rack of ribs. This also works fine with a section of backstrap that’s bone-free.
Seasoning is simple. Just cake all sides of the meat with a dry rub (Ward Danger’s Musket Powder is my favorite), then sear all sides on a raging hot grill or cast-iron pan. I have a Camp Chef grill that allows me to use direct flame and indirect heat. I start with the meat on direct heat at as high a temperature as the grill will allow. I’ll then turn my grill down to about 225℉ to finish it with a smoke. I use a temperature probe (many Camp Chefs come with electronic probes that hook into your grill), and as soon as the center of the meat hits around 170℉, I take the meat off and let it rest.
Slice the backstrap between each rib, and you’ve got a little black bear lollipop. This isn’t the only way to grill black bear; it’s just my personal favorite. The key is temperature, checking the meat so that it’s safe, but not overdone, tough, or dried out. With this method, I usually get an ultra-tender, and very juicy finished product.
2. Irish-Style Black Bear
If you happen to be a fan of corned beef, then you’re in luck. Black bear corns up about as nicely as any meat. It’s also a surefire way to know that it’s going to be both delicious and cooked well enough for safe eating.
The nice thing about corning is it’s flexible. You don’t have to have specialty cuts of meat, and it lends itself to being a low-waste method of cooking. I happen to own an antique Butcher Boy band saw. After freezing hind quarters solid, I’ll knock out bone-in cross sections 1½ to 2 inches thick, all the way down the hind quarter, wrap them, then put them back in the freezer. If you don’t have a saw, don’t fret—this will work with just about any roast or loin.
There are a lot of good beef and wild game corning recipes out there, one of which you can check out in the video above. Most of them involve canning and pickling salt, tender-quick, pickling spice, and some peppercorns. You’ll make the simple brine and submerge the roast in there for up to 48 hours, rotating once daily. Finally, rinse the roast and throw it in a crock pot with a bit of fresh water in the morning. By dinner time, you’ll be able to shred it with a fork. You can make all the sandwiches you want, and even have it with cabbage.
3. Smoked Black Bear Sticks
My favorite way to prepare bear meat is in the form of smoked sausages. I mostly make the thinner hunter sticks. They are good for snacking in the woods or just watching TV on the couch at home.
Although it takes some work and a little tooling to make the sausage myself, I end up with a product that is simple, very low-waste, fast, easy, convenient to eat, and absolutely delicious. Most game processors can make these types of products, but I prefer to do it myself. If you have a meat grinder, sausage stuffer, and a smoker or pellet grill, you can do it too.
I begin while I’m processing the bear at home. Most of the time, I will strip all the quarters, ribs, and any other meat off the bear and cut it into grindable chunks, packed in gallon freezer bags, and freeze until it’s sausage-making time. If you have a good grinder and sharpen your blades, you don’t have to be terribly picky trying to remove every little tendon and tissue, and you can utilize a lot of meat that would otherwise be trimmed away.
Making the sausage (for me, at least) is very simple. I find the Hi Mountain snack stick kits to be extremely easy and delicious. Maybe someday I’ll graduate to my own cure and seasoning mix, but if it ain’t broke, why fix it? You’ll want to weigh your bear meat in appropriate proportions, and I usually add pork fat to make it about 15 percent of the total weight.
Grind the meat and pork, mix together, and then grind again. Then you can add in the cure and seasoning. At that point, you’re ready to stuff the sausage into casings, let it rest, and smoke according to the directions.
Small diameter sausages smoke relatively quickly, and depending on your setup, there can be a little bit of a learning curve, so always temperature check, and start with small batches of sticks. You’ll end up with a great product and a way to use your bear meat that everyone will enjoy.