April 06, 2021
Let’s face it. The men and women who settled this country were more adventurous and resourceful than most of us will ever be. They built lives in harsh settings, where the only way to survive was to find many uses for what you could forage, grow, or hunt.
Not so with us. Even hunters, who generally have more interest and aptitude in self-sufficiency and the ways of the “Old Ones,” have let too much of this wisdom die out. (Plenty rightly belong to history: I’ll take antibiotics over a mercury-laced “purgative” any day.) But hunters have a lot to learn from our ancestors. Which brings me to bear grease.
Peel the hide off a black bear, and you’re rewarded with a thick layer of white, creamy fat. Instinctively, we know this is a good thing, but many of us are unsure of what to do with it. Some assume it’s like the fat on a deer or elk—that is, having a strange, waxy texture and an off-putting taste when cooked, so it’s best trimmed and tossed. But the fat on a black bear is completely different from fat on wild ungulates. It’s more like the fat on a hog: easy to render and turn into oil and lard with lots of delicious possibilities.
Of course, Native Americans, trappers, frontiersmen, settlers, and our great-grandmothers knew this, making bear fat a prized resource well into the early 20th century. Here are just some of the uses of bear grease documented in historical accounts: leather conditioner, gun lubricant, waterproof boot grease, wood conditioner, lamp oil, skin moisturizer, hair pomade, lard for pastry and pie dough, frying oil, and lard for tortillas and tamales. Although I know quite a few hunters who swear by bear grease to treat boot leather, I’m quite happy to use modern replacements for most of these jobs. (Although I’m waiting for just the right occasion to style my hair with bear pomade, trying for my best Ulysses Everett McGill, the pomade-obsessed, escaped con played by George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) But for cooking, I’ve yet to find something that can top the flavor, versatility, and uniqueness of rendered bear fat.
You need to save the fat on your next bear. First, one quick caveat. Bears are omnivores, so the flavor of bear meat and fat can vary widely based on what they’ve been eating. A bear killed in the fall after gorging on salmon all summer can unfortunately taste like fish—and not in a good way. I’ve killed and eaten quite a few bears, and I’ve yet to have one that wasn’t delicious.
I’ve shot fall bears in the hardwoods of the East and the mountains of the Rockies, where they presumably spent the summer packing on pounds by eating berries, acorns, and any carrion they came across. I’ve taken bears in the spring, lean from hibernation, feeding in Montana alpine meadows, British Columbia clear cuts, and flooded tidal flats in coastal Alaska. The flavor of each bear has been slightly different, but every one produced some of the tastiest meat and fat I’ve ever eaten. In short, I think bear any time of year is highly underrated, and that goes double for their fat.
Turning raw fat into usable grease comes by a process called rendering. It takes some time, but it’s fairly easy. First, when you’re butchering the bear, take extra care to keep it free of dirt and debris, since you don’t want anything sticking to that outer layer of fat that could end up in your rendered lard. Next, trim the thick layer of fat away from the flesh, being careful to make sure you don’t include any bits of meat, which you do not want in your grease. How much fat you get depends on the time of year (less in the spring, more in the fall) and how much weight the bear has packed on. Trim the fat off of the entire carcass, but the majority will be on the critter’s big ol’ rump. You want to cool the fat quickly, just like the way you treat any game meat. Once the fat is cut away in big hunks, you can render it as part of the butchering process, but I almost always wrap it well, freeze it, and deal with it later. This lets me focus on butchering the meat first, and then I focus on rendering whenever I have the time.
Render now or render later; either way, you want to start with the fat partially frozen. You need to cut the fat into small chunks—about an inch square, but the smaller the better—and it’s much easier to do with firm, partially frozen fat than gelatinous room-temperature fat. Once it’s cubed, toss the chunks into a large, heavy-bottomed pot over a medium-low flame. Too high a temperature and you’ll burn it, so low and slow is the way to go. Crack a beer, take your time, and stir it regularly. As the fat gives up its grease, the chunks will bubble away in a frothy white bath. When it’s finished, you’ll be left with small bits, the cracklings, floating on top of clear, liquified fat. It should take about 30 minutes per pound to liquify most of the fat. Use a slotted spoon to skim off the cracklings. If you’re the type that likes pork rinds or chicharrones (and I am), put the cracklings on a paper towel to drain and season them with salt and pepper or your favorite spice mix. (I like Old Bay.) Eat them accompanied with another cold beer as you move on to the final step.
Let the oil cool slightly. Then, using a funnel lined with cheesecloth to catch any remaining solid bits, pour the rendered fat into mason jars. Let the fat cool for 10 minutes or so before putting the lid on the jars. The oil will be a clear, amber color, but as it cools it will become more of a solid, pearly white—similar to traditional pork lard. It’ll keep in a refrigerator for months and a lot longer than that in the freezer. Use it as grease to fry eggs and potatoes, in place of shortening in pie and pastry crusts, or in place of pork lard for homemade tortillas or tamales. Or, if you’re the stylish sort, work it into your hair as an old-timey pomade for a big time out on the town—just be sure to send us a picture to let us know how it looks.
Bear Tamale Pie (Tamale de Cazuela) Recipe
The rich taste of bear meat is perfect for tamale filling, and bear lard makes a fluffy, flavorful masa dough. Forming and steaming a pile of tamales, however, is a daylong process that I feel like doing only on special occasions. This baked tamale pie delivers a similar experience, but is much easier.
- 2 pounds bear meat, cut across the grain and cubed
- 3-4 tablespoons bear lard (or vegetable oil)
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 1/2 tablespoons cumin
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 small onion, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2-4 cups bear broth (or beef broth)
- Juice of 1 lime
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