As the fledgling ideas of this blog were developing while I was consumed with reading all about the Fraser family on The Ridge, I noticed that the use of bear fat was mentioned repeatedly for a number of things. Frequently used as an main ingredient for Claire’s ointments; sometimes used for cooking; sometimes used as a beauty product for Ian. Regardless of its use though, I really wanted to see what all the fuss was about. And last fall, I was lucky enough to find out.
My family owns a small farm and a piece of forested land in western Pennsylvania, and a lot of my family members are avid hunters. My brothers, father, cousins, and uncles spend every spare moment they can in the woods each fall, and for the past few years have organized a bear hunt. This is typically quite the organized event with several guys participating in a drive. And last fall, my cousin was lucky enough to tag a large boar – that’d be a male bear (not a pig). When my brother called me to let me know of their success, my Outlandish brain immediately replied “SAVE ME SOME BEAR FAT!” to which he replied, “You’re nuts.”
Author’s Note on Hunting: While I can’t guess on what your personal opinions are for hunting and hunters in general, I can only offer what I know from my own experience. While not a hunter myself, I can vouch for those that I know – and more specifically those who I’m related to – as being a group of some of the most knowledgeable woodsmen (and women) and conservationists out there. I am a wildlife biologist by profession, and I know that most of the state run wildlife conservation programs are funded primarily on the money collected from the sale of hunting licenses and fees. Many of these sportsmen and women take their sport very seriously and want to see viable, healthy, productive natural areas preserved for generations to come. While some in the sport may get caught up in the moronic blood-lust of an “if it’s brown it’s down” mentality, those are not the people I know. They respect the land, obey the laws, and most importantly, use what they kill. The biologist in me must also mention that the black bear population of western Pennsylvania is doing extremely well, has more than tripled in the last thirty years, and is easily able to absorb the mortalities associated with licensed hunts.
But knowing what I know about bear hunts in general, the chance of being able to shoot one in any particular year is pretty rare. I knew that they’d be saving the meat to eat, and I wanted to plead my case to save me a little bit of the fat when the butchering was over. My whining was obviously successful, and I was delivered a few slabs of the white stuff a bit later.
While I waited for my frozen delivery of fat, I did a bit of online research to find out what I was supposed to actually DO with the fat. What I found simply amazed me. People who know bear fat, go NUTS for bear fat. Apparently it’s the best thing you can ever use to make a pie crust (who knew?). It’s fantastic to fry food (Ok. I’d believe that.). People stockpile and store it for months and simply can’t get enough of it (zombie apocalypse). So I had to assume that it couldn’t be all that bad, right? And when you think about it, a healthy bear headed into the winter months is COVERED in a layer of fat sometimes INCHES thick. Pounds and pounds of fat.
Surely bear fat must have been something widely used/stored by early American settlers and I was more determined than ever to give it a go. But I’d never done any kind of fat rendering and was more than a bit skeptical of my stomach’s ability not to take one look at it, gag, and decide to leave the actual fat rendering to works of fiction. I’d heard that bear meat was in general stinky, and didn’t taste good, especially that from a male bear. And I assumed that the fat of a bear would be even worse. Thank HEAVENS, I was wrong. No smell at all. And the bear roast that I had was fan-tas-tic!
And with most of my fears set aside and a settled (non-queasy) psyche ready to go, here’s how it went:
First step, prepare the fat for rendering – which essentially means melting – by making sure the fat is clean of all fur, skin, muscle, vessels, and the like (gross). The point behind all of this prep is that you want the fat to be as taste-free as possible. If any meat /blood is cooked with the fat, it would begin to take on the flavor of the meat, so clean fat is what you’re aiming for.
Pardon this for being a bit gross, but I was a bit surprised at just how tough the fat actually was. I was expecting more of a globby mess (like chicken fat, I suppose), but the bear fat was very tough and held together by quite a bit of tissue (which I’m sure there’s a name for and I just don’t know it).
After the fat was cleaned, I cut the slab into cubes about an inch squared.
Some instructions that I found cautioned not to cook the fat too quickly. Again, you want the rendered fat to be as flavorless as possible, so slow cooking/melting is best. Some sites also suggested putting a bit of water in the pot to help to slow the melting process down, but I decided to forego the water and just give it a go. I cooked the fat in my enamel covered pot over low heat, for about an hour.
A common snack food that I see in the grocery stores here in the Shenandoah Valley is pork rinds or “cracklin’s” – the leftover bits from rendering pork. And would you just look, I made my own bear version of the very same. Was I going to try them? No way. Fried fat/skin just isn’t my thing. But I suppose with enough salt and a cold beer, one might be convinced to give these a try.
I honestly wasn’t quite sure that I’d rendered all of the fat I could get, but because I was quite concerned that the fat would start to cook too high, I thought an hour of rendering was a good enough place to stop. (My concern was based primarily on the presence of my dogs underfoot alerting me that a.) I was cooking meat and b.) please share some.)
Through the strainer / sack cloth it went. I poured the fat into glass jars, which I then covered and stored in my refrigerator. Unfortunately, there is a meaty/greasy smell to it. Nothing terribly off-putting, but it definitely does have a smell. I plan on using a bit of water next time to see if that helps to slow down the cooking and reduce the meaty smell.
Lastly, I’m not sure how much of a shelf life the fat actually has, as I’m sure it can go rancid after a while. The cooled fat is actually white and very much like vegetable shortening. My personal recommendation is to only render as much as you plan on using over the period of a month or two, keep that grease refrigerated, and leave any remaining fat slabs frozen until you have a need for them.