Recently, a hunter gave me some bear meat. It was a gift. It was a piece of backstrap, “the best part,” he assured me, wrapped in wax paper inside a plastic baggie that was sharpied “BEAR.” The hunter lives in western North Carolina–Appalachia–which is home to one of America’s most thriving populations of black bear.
As far as bears goes, black bears are among the smallest and least ferocious (warning: “least” does not mean “not”). They weigh around 300 pounds on average. A friend of mine on a Colorado trail once rid himself of an attacking mother black bear by striking her chest with a rock. She whimpered away. Good luck trying that on a grizzly.
Some people view eating bear as unethical. Until recently, in many states, it was not only that but illegal. Killing black bears, once brought to the edge of extinction in this country by overhunting, could land a guy a hefty fine or even a jail sentence.
In the early oughts, when bear populations rebounded in a big way and bears started coming off endangered lists, states with previous bans began issuing permits. Today, 32 out of 41 bear states have hunting seasons, which is said to keep populations in check.
Still, though it used to be common in America, eating bear is hardly mainstream. Tell people you’re preparing a dinner of venison or rabbit and they might show mild amusement. Say bear and they will certainly raise an eyebrow. When I told my mother, a lifelong carnivore, about my dinner plans, she responded, “Yuck!”
Even within the hunting world, bear meat is relatively rare. Perhaps it has something to do with Winnie the Pooh. Or childhood teddies. Or: “Only you can prevent forest fires.”
And it is not particularly easy to acquire. Most states allow one to share bear meat but disallow selling it. Nevertheless, bears, I discovered, are delicious.
They’re decently nutritious, too. A 3-ounce serving of bear meat has 1 milligram more iron than the daily iron requirement for men, according to USDA data. That's 9 milligrams, compared to just 3 in the same serving size of lean beef. It also has 2 grams more zinc.
Protein-wise, bear is neck-and-neck with beef, but compared to other game meats—venison, boar, rabbit and duck—bear is a clear winner. It has 27 grams in a 3-ounce serving to boar’s 24 grams and duck’s 19 grams. It is also the fattiest, which is good news for the amateur cook.
“Most other game meat tends to be fairly lean,” notes Appalachian State University nutritionist Martin Root, Ph.D. “This makes it a bit more forgiving to cook bear meat because even well done, it still is relatively moist with that amount of fat.”
So how should one cook bear? “Whether grilling or stewing, use a good long cooking time,” Root says. Bear, like other game, is a notorious carrier of trichinosis, an infection caused by roundworm, which it picks up from prey. As a precaution, you will want to thoroughly cook the meat.
The USDA recommends an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Symptoms of trichinosis, which arise from a few days to a week after ingestion, include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, muscle pain, and fever. It is treatable with anti-parasitic medications, but it's still not fun or worth the risk.
Online, bear recipes abound across hunting forums and blogs. Many state wildlife agencies, hoping to encourage bear hunting, also share them. There are recipes for bear sausage, bear stew, bear pot-roast, bear kebabs. Many feature bacon. Recipes from both L.L. Bean and the NRA cookbooks come recommended.
I didn't want to risk spoiling my first bear experience with an over-complicated cooking process, so I stuck with the simplest recipe I could find: a YouTube lesson from username Babe Winkelman called How to Marinate and Cook Bear Meat Steak to Perfection.
The marinade was prepared by two women in camo hoodies on the back of an opened truck bed cluttered with camo packs and a crossbow. Kathy, the recipe provider, wore an NRA shirt. It all seemed authoritative.
Kathy’s is a simple marinade: olive oil, soy sauce, lemon juice, Worcestershire, garlic, cracked pepper, mustard. No different, really, from a beef one. You can marinate the meat for half an hour or overnight, she notes.
Throw it on the grill just like you would any other steak: a quick sear, then turn down the heat, cook for seven or so minutes on each side, and let it sit afterwards for a few minutes to retain the juices.
Now the bear is ready to be eaten. (Of course, we also recommend checking the temp with a food thermometer.)
And it was an easy make. Even after a thorough cooking, to where the meat was gray, the bear remained moist and tender. The flames from the grill gave it a fine char. The marinade was wonderful. It paired well with asparagus and a Fat Tire.
Not everyone enjoys the taste of bear. As one commenter under an online recipe noted, “The key...is to add enough other ingredients...until you can no longer detect the bear meat.” Taste can vary based on the animal’s diet—more berries versus more fish.
But I had enough meat for three meals and, while I didn’t particularly adore the first go, by the third it had grown on me. Bear, it seems, is an acquired taste, like bourbon or heavy metal. It is certainly earthy and a little sweet, even. If you find yourself in possession, it’s something to bear in mind.