SMOKE WILD GAME MEAT
BUILD A RETAINING WALL
5 WAYS TO OBTAIN FOOD
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.
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