Modern Pioneer - - Front Page - By Clay New­comb



Bears are icons of Amer­ica’s wilder­ness. Their teeth, claws, strength and re­solve to sur­vive sym­bol­ize our vast and rugged con­ti­nent. Their meat is truly Amer­i­can cui­sine. Eat­ing bear meat forges an or­ganic con­nec­tion to Amer­ica’s wild places.

One of the best ways to en­joy bear meat is smoked. Smoked bear is ten­der and juicy, and I’ll show you how to do it your­self, but first, let’s re­view some bruin his­tory.

Black Bears Then

In the 1800s, bear meat was a com­mon dish in the United States. Bears were “mar­ket hunted,” mean­ing that their meat was sold in wild-game mar­kets, which con­trib­uted sharply to their de­clin­ing num­bers at the time. In Arkansas, once known as “The Bear State,” ac­counts of pioneer life re­veal that meat served at the ta­ble was likely bear meat.

Peo­ple hunted bear for profit, sub­sis­tence and to rid the coun­try of a per­ceived ver­min. The oil and fur were valu­able com­modi­ties, and bear meat was worth $10 per 100 pounds. In 1806, bear skins at Wash­ing­ton Post, Arkansas, were sold for $1 and $2 each, and a sin­gle trad­ing com­pany recorded buy­ing 900 in one year. The price was de­pen­dent upon the size and qual­ity of the skins. Con­sid­er­ing other com­pa­nies were buy­ing bear com­modi­ties as well, one could es­ti­mate that thou­sands of black bears were be­ing har­vested an­nu­ally in Arkansas alone.

Bear oil or grease was con­sid­ered high­qual­ity oil that didn’t spoil as quickly as other an­i­mal oils. This com­mod­ity could be sold for $1 per gal­lon, and was mea­sured in ells. An ell—a stan­dard medium of ex­change in the 1800s—was formed from the hide and neck of a deer and was used to con­tain, trans­port and mea­sure bear oil.

Bear skins stretched out to dry in front of homes were sta­tus sym­bols. Po­ten­tially, a 300-pound bear in the 1800s would have been

worth be­tween $12-15, which is equiv­a­lent to hun­dreds of dol­lars to­day, com­pa­ra­ble to a beef steer in our mod­ern econ­omy. Mar­ket hunters will­ing to tol­er­ate a wilder­ness life­style could have made a re­spectable liv­ing hunt­ing bear in the fall. To­day, hunters are happy to get a sin­gle bear in a year’s time, and they put the meat to good use.

“When done cor­rectly, a slab of bear meat hot off the smoker has the tex­ture and fla­vor of beef brisket.”

Black Bears Now

Learn­ing new meth­ods for us­ing wild meat is an im­por­tant com­po­nent of 21st cen­tury hunt­ing. Meat from the mar­ket is ex­pen­sive, and the ben­e­fits of sup­ple­ment­ing freez­ers with wild game in­clude re­duced gro­cery bills, health ben­e­fits and the sat­is­fac­tion of eat­ing what you kill. Ur­ban­iza­tion has sep­a­rated most peo­ple from the re­al­ity of mod­ern meat pro­duc­tion. Be­ing good stew­ards of wild pro­tein ac­quired through sus­tain­able hunt­ing is good for hunters, our fam­i­lies and our public im­age.

Black bears have the widest nat­u­ral ge­o­graphic dis­tri­bu­tion of any big-game an­i­mal, sec­ond only to the moun­tain lion. Orig­i­nally, black bears oc­curred in more places than even white-tailed deer. Bi­ol­o­gists be­lieve there are more black bears now than be­fore Euro­pean set­tle­ment. Con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mates sug­gest we now have 800,000 black bears com­pared to 500,000 pre­vi­ously. Op­por­tu­ni­ties to hunt black bear abound, but many aren’t sure about eat­ing bear meat. When han­dled and cooked cor­rectly, it’s ex­cel­lent ta­ble fare, and pro­vides a cat­a­lyst for din­ner-ta­ble con­ver­sa­tions that domesticated meat can’t.

Bear Meat for the Smoker

When pre­par­ing bear meat for smok­ing, I leave about a quar­ter of the fat on the meat. De­pend­ing on the time of year and the bear’s diet, the meat will likely have a re­gion-spe­cific fla­vor. I’ve heard that the only bear meat that doesn’t taste good is from ar­eas where they eat a high pro­por­tion of fish.

Bears are om­ni­vores, but 85% of their diet is veg­e­ta­tion. In many parts of their range, a high per­cent­age of the re­main­ing 15% is in the form of in­sects. A bear killed in the fall in Arkansas will have gorged it­self on acorns and hick­ory nuts. I find the fla­vor, even in ma­ture male an­i­mals, to be ex­cel­lent. Bear meat is greasier and heav­ier than what you’re prob­a­bly used to, but don’t let that be a de­ter­rent. It’s great meat for smok­ing.

The shoul­der of any wild an­i­mal isn’t con­sid­ered a high-qual­ity cut and can be chal­leng­ing to use. How­ever, it can be put to great use in the smoker. Smok­ing fla­vors the meat and can be used as a preser­va­tive. Bear meat is red with a beef- or pork-like tex­ture; I de­scribe it as “red pork.” In cen­turies past, when gain­ing lots of calo­ries from food was in vogue, calo­rie-rich bear meat was a top choice. Fatty meats have a lot of con­nec­tive tis­sues called col­la­gen. When cooked fast, col­la­gen shrinks and tight­ens the meat, giv­ing it a tough, rub­bery tex­ture. Slow cook­ing melts the fats, ef­fec­tively ren­der­ing it be­tween the mus­cle tis­sues, pro­vid­ing a ten­der tex­ture and juicy fla­vor. When done cor­rectly, a slab of bear meat hot off the smoker has the tex­ture and fla­vor of beef brisket.

Smok­ing Con­sid­er­a­tions

I pre­fer to use hick­ory for smok­ing bear meat be­cause of its rich and bold fla­vor. It’s also a na­tive tree that grows on my prop­erty. How­ever, on this bear shoul­der, I wanted to try mesquite wood pur­chased from a lo­cal gro­cery store. When smok­ing meat, lignin in the wood

car­ries the fla­vor into the meat through the aro­matic smoke. Ad­di­tion­ally, wood cel­lu­lose breaks down, is trans­ferred to the meat through smoke and caramelizes the out­side of the flesh to cre­ate fla­vor.

The smoke ring is an im­por­tant part of all smoked meats. This is a dis­tinct pink sec­tion of meat usu­ally in the first ¼ inch. Don’t let the pink color de­ceive you into think­ing it isn’t cooked; it is. The ring in­di­cates that the fla­vor of the wood pen­e­trated the meat, and it looks great, too. In sci­en­tific terms, the smoke ring is formed by iron mol­e­cules ox­i­diz­ing and turn­ing the flesh pink. The ring will be shal­lower or deeper based upon how long you ex­pose the un­cov­ered meat to di­rect smoke. Good smoked meat will have a smoke ring.

As you’ll see in the method I de­tail on the fol­low­ing page, I typ­i­cally only leave the meat on the wood smoker for about two to four hours. Why? Con­ve­nience. It’s eas­ier to keep the oven at a steady tem­per­a­ture than to mon­i­tor the smoker con­stantly. The meat will re­ceive its mouth-wa­ter­ing smoke fla­vor dur­ing this time, and a great smoke ring will have time to form.

Af­ter a cou­ple of hours, I take the meat out and place it in the oven in a cov­ered pan for the re­main­der of the cook­ing time, which also pre­vents the meat from dry­ing out.

SMOKED BEAR SHOUL­DER RECIPE In­gre­di­ents and Tools

For this recipe, you’ll need salt, pep­per, onion pow­der, bar­beque sauce, a wood smoker, alu­minum foil, a bear front shoul­der, a dis­pos­able alu­minum turkey pan, 10 pounds of char­coal and 10 pounds of mesquite or hick­ory wood.

“Eat­ing bear meat forges an or­ganic con­nec­tion to Amer­ica’s wild places.”

Trim, Sea­son and Baste

Do your fi­nal clean­ing of the shoul­der, trim­ming off any ex­cess fat but leav­ing some for fla­vor. Lib­er­ally ap­ply salt, pep­per and onion pow­der to the en­tire shoul­der. Then, gen­er­ously baste bar­beque sauce onto the meat. The charred sauce is what gives the smoked meat the “bark” or crust that makes bar­beque taste so good. If you don’t like bark, then don’t ap­ply sauce un­til af­ter the meat is cooked. Many peo­ple like to mar­i­nate meat 24 hours be­fore smok­ing. This is a good idea, but I typ­i­cally don’t wait that long.


For a bear shoul­der that weighs ap­prox­i­mately 10 pounds, I like to cook at 225°F for up to 10 hours. I cooked this par­tic­u­lar shoul­der for 8 hours at 250°F, but I for­feited some ten­der­ness. Lower tem­per­a­tures for longer pe­ri­ods of time typ­i­cally mean more ten­der meat. Us­ing a for­mula of 1 to 1 ½ hours of cook­ing time per pound of meat is a rea­son­able guide­line. How­ever, it’s much bet­ter to use a ther­mome­ter to test the in­ter­nal tem­per­a­ture. Bear meat should be cooked thor­oughly be­cause of the risk of trichi­nosis. How­ever, it’s killed at 145°F de­grees and is no longer a prob­lem. The USDA sug­gests cook­ing pork and chicken to an in­ter­nal tem­per­a­ture of 160°F, just to be safe. I’d sug­gest the same for bear meat. How­ever, the fi­nal cooked tem­per­a­ture of the meat should be around 190°F.

Af­ter the meat has been rubbed with the in­gre­di­ents, place it in a smoker that’s been pre­heated to 225°F. I typ­i­cally use a full 10-pound bag of char­coal—5 pounds in the first two hours and 5 pounds the sec­ond two hours—to keep the tem­per­a­ture sta­ble. If you’re us­ing an elec­tric smoker, this won’t be an is­sue. I put gen­er­ous amounts of wood on top of the char­coal to cre­ate good smoke.


I let this shoul­der cook in di­rect smoke for four hours at 250°F. Then I took it out, cov­ered the pan with foil and placed it in the oven pre­heated to 250°F for an­other four hours (eight hours to­tal). By this time, the smoke

has done the fla­vor­ing; now the meat sim­ply needs to slow cook. On larger cuts of bear, I’d sug­gest cook­ing at 200-225°F for longer pe­ri­ods of time.

Slice and Serve

Af­ter the meat has cooked, let it sit for at least 20 min­utes be­fore you be­gin to slice it. The meat can be sliced against the grain like brisket and eaten with bar­beque sauce. When you cut into the meat, you’ll see a beau­ti­ful, pink smoke ring around the out­side of the meat. It should be cooked all the way to the bone. Some parts of the shoul­der are tougher, and I like to chop it up into smaller pieces for other uses.

Ev­ery­one who’s eaten bear meat cooked this way has been de­light­fully sur­prised; many peo­ple think it’s beef. It’s a great way to spend a Satur­day that ends in a truly Amer­i­can meal.

(top) Use 5 pounds of char­coal and a gen­er­ous amount of wood to start the fire. The char­coal sta­bi­lizes the tem­per­a­ture, while wood smoke fla­vors the meat. (be­low) New­comb smokes most bear quar­ters for two to four hours at 225˚F, then trans­fers the...

(top) For this recipe, you’ll need salt, pep­per, bar­beque sauce, onion pow­der, alu­minum foil, a bear front shoul­der, a wood smoker, a dis­pos­able alu­minum turkey pan, 10 pounds of mesquite or hick­ory wood and 10 pounds of char­coal. (cen­ter) If you like...

Bears were widely hunted in the 1800s, and their meat was com­mon ta­ble fare in many homes. As their cur­rent-day num­bers grow, once again, hunters can take ad­van­tage of the meat, oil and hides these an­i­mals can pro­vide.

Af­ter cook­ing, slice the meat to be used how­ever you pre­fer. No­tice the beau­ti­ful, pink­ish smoke ring on this bear shoul­der. PHOTO BY CLAY NEW­COMB

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