When it comes to eating, bear meat gets a bad wrap in hunting circles. But it shouldn’t. Bruins aren’t as tough eating as they look. Taking bears that have been feeding on the right kind of diet can fill your freezer with meat that can have an underlying sweetness—as if caught with their paw in the honey jar. Here’s why you need to try black bear meat now and discover what you’ve been missing.
The best bear I ever ate ambled out of a New Mexican oak mott, as if it were more curious about my squealing predator call than actually interested in eating. Pulling back its tawny, blonde-tipped fur revealed a layer of exquisite fat, the consistency of jelly and white like a piano’s ivory keys. No animal with backfat like that could taste bad, and the meat from this bear was amazing—a sweet, yes, almost nutty, flavor that lent itself well to a whole host of recipes, from simple grilled steaks to slow braises that really pulled out the taste of the acorns it had been feeding on.
The second-best bear I ever ate dropped at the shot, nose first into the high-tide line of kelp and seaweed it was feasting on along Alaska’s southwestern coast. It was mid-May, and considering the bear’s last meal, its meat could have been nasty. Instead, the spring bear tasted as briny as the Bering Sea, almost like a good oyster pulled fresh from cold water. Each bite reminded me of the waves crashing along the rocky beach as my hunting partner and I pulled the heavy beast to the waiting Zodiac.
As you may have deduced from these two examples, the quality of bear meat is the direct product of the animal’s diet, even more so than a corn-fed whitetail or sage-eating antelope. While I personally have never eaten a bad black bear, the records are ripe with gut-churning reports of the salmon-eating bears of fall and their horrible fish-tainted taste. And lest you think that may be based solely on the tales of housewives, consider the state of Alaska which requires the salvage of all edible meat from black bears only during the spring season.
Still, when hunting bears—and we’re talking exclusively black bears here—it pays to consider their diet more than the calendar. That blonde-tipped bear from the Land of Enchantment that ranks above the half-dozen or so bears I’ve tagged and eaten was killed and cut in September. High-country bears shot in the fall are ripe with the flavor of wild mountain berries, and low-country spring bruins are often grassy and, yes, even grain fed, particularly those from the prairie provinces of Canada. Perhaps only dumpster bears, scavenging on the soiled scraps of the crap we humans eat should be avoided.
Of all the different variations bear meat can possess, there is a singular theme accenting all those wide and varied flavors, and that is the meat’s sweetness. Not cloyingly so, like a flower’s perfume, but just an underlying layer as if infused with just a hint of sugar or, to be cliché, honey. The flavor is there on the tip of tongue, or the back, rather, a pleasant surprise in the otherwise meaty bite of every black bear.
The other universal truth about bear meat is its consistency. While an animal exhibiting that kind of power could be expected to have a tough chew, even the biggest bruins are typically tender. That Alaskan bear, a heavy boar measuring more than six feet from nose to tail, had roasts that were practically soft, with lengthy muscles fibers that lent themselves well to a long braise in a low oven. It’s true the surface fat found on bears is exceptionally slippery, but the meat itself is no more greasy than a well-tended pig.
When hunters describe bear meat to the uninitiated, they most often compare it to pork. It’s a misguided notion, however, one that likely comes from the physical resemblance and foraging habits of both quadrupeds. Once the skin is flayed, the idea that pork and bear meat is similar falls away. Though not deep red like the meat of deer, elk, or even cattle, it’s much darker than “the other white meat.” The flavor, too, is also far from that likely secondhand comparison to pigs.
There is one similarity between hogs and bruins, and it’s worth noting anytime the discussion turns to eating bears. Both animals can be host to a virulent parasitic worm Trichina spiralis, best known as trichinosis. While the parasite has all but disappeared from domestic pork, it’s all too common among bears. In fact, of all the cases of trichinosis in humans each year, most, if not all, can be traced to eating bear meat. Luckily, trichinosis is easy to beat: simply requiring the meat reach an internal temperature of 140 degrees and held there for several minutes. That means no medium-rare bear steaks, but anything cooked above that temperature will be just fine.
Although the pendulum is swinging back, game meat gets a bad rap in many social circles, including those inhabited by hunters. And bear meat probably gets the worst, as information, mostly wrong, gets spread second- and third hand by hunters who have never tasted bear meat, let alone cooked it themselves. Those in the know, however, rate the meat of a black bear shot off a berry patch, or in my case, a pile of nuts, among the best.
Although black bears are found all over North America, they have an Old World aura around them. Not surprisingly, bear meat is a natural fit for many Central and Eastern European recipes. In this recipe, a bear roast gets the traditional sauerbraten treatment with a long marinade in red wine and vinegar, with a slightly sugary sauce that pairs with the natural sweetness of the meat.
4 lb. bear roast
11/2 cups red wine
1 cup red wine vinegar
(1 grated, 1 chopped)
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
6 juniper berries
4 bay leaves
1 tbs. black
3 tbs. bacon fat
2 tbs. butter
2 tbs. flour
1 tbs. sugar
¼ cup golden raisins
¼ cup chopped parsley
- Bring the red wine, vinegar, grated onion, carrot, and celery to a simmer in a Dutch oven set over medium-high heat. Tie the juniper berries, bay leaves, cloves, and peppercorns in a small cheesecloth bundle and add this bouquet garni to the pot. Remove the marinade from the heat and let cool completely before pouring over the bear roast. Marinade for a minimum of 24 hours.
- When ready to cook, remove the bear from the marinade and pat the roast dry with paper towels. Sprinkle liberally with kosher salt and let rest. Meanwhile, heat the bacon fat in a Dutch oven and sauté the chopped onions until translucent, about 3–4 minutes. Add the bear roast and brown on all sides.
- Strain the marinade through a fine-mesh sieve and add the liquid to the Dutch oven. Bring the liquid to a simmer, then cover and transfer the pot to a 325-degree oven. Braise for 2ó–3 hours, or until the roast is very tender but not falling apart.
- Transfer the bear roast to a platter and keep warm.
- To make the sauce: Strain the remaining liquid and reserve. Melt the butter in the Dutch oven and stir in the flour and sugar to create a roux. Stir for 2–3 minutes then whisk in the reserve liquid a little at a time. Add the golden raisins and simmer until slightly thickened.
- To serve, cut the bear roast into thick slices and pour the sauce over the meat and sprinkle with chopped parsley. Plate with traditional dumplings or spaetzle and red cabbage.