Feature Articles from BHM
May 07 2014
By Clay Newcomb
How to Render Bear Fat
As a hunter, I’ve always had a hard time not utilizing the fat of the bears that I harvest. Most people today see it as nothing more than a waste product that will be effectively recycled by Nature. Usually, it’s left behind. However, a bear’s ability to store fat in excess is one of the most amazing biological feats in the animal kingdom. Every animal has an energy budget and a certain amount of time each year to gather the calories it needs to survive. The bear, in its wisdom, has a unique strategy - eat as much as you can for six-to-nine months and live off the excess the rest of the year. It’s brilliant.
When you hold a slab of bear fat you are literally holding the assimilated nutrients of the food that the bear has been eating. In Arkansas, when I see a slab of cream-white bear fat I know that I am seeing the harvest of the Eastern Deciduous Forest - primarily, white and red oak acorns. In the different regions of North America you can identify a bear’s primary food source. Usually, that food source is iconic for hunters in pursuit of bruins. You can’t fully appreciate the bear without appreciating the wild country that made the bear. Nuts, berries, fish, insects, grasses…it’s all there.
The fat of a bear symbolizes much more than just “fat”. It symbolizes the biological success of a species that was designed to live, adapt to, and thrive in the rugged wilderness that we all appreciate so deeply. The fat of a bear symbolizes success. The feat of harvesting a bear once meant that your family would be well-stocked throughout the winter. It meant that the challenges of living in the Northern hemisphere would be less severe. A bear is a master at gathering calories and storing them. In the same token, those calories can be transferred to the hunter through this ancient ritual we call “hunting”. There was a time when the people in North America were trying to put ON calories, not take them OFF. Bear meat is rich source of organic, healthy caloric content.
The rendered fat of a bear, known as “bear grease”, was once an extremely valuable commodity financially and practically. In the 1800’s, and before, in most of North America there were no regulations on hunting and market hunters harvested bruins in excess. One of the main objectives of these entrepreneurs was to make ‘bear grease’. Bear hunting in many regions of the country was a lucrative business, especially where the bear commodities could be exported effectively to urban markets. One small town in Independence County, Arkansas, named Oil Trough, got its name because of the volume of rendered bear fat it produced. Records show that in the mid 1800’s bear grease could be sold for $1 per gallon and it was measured in “ells”. An ell was a unit of measurement used to contain, transport and measure the oil and it was made from the tanned neck of a deer (Sutton, 2002 “Hunting Arkansas”). The grease had many valuable uses back then and still does today.
Bear grease can be used for any type of cooking that involves oil, including pan-frying meat, and oil in breads and pastries. Bear grease is renowned for its use in making piecrusts! This past Christmas we made apple pie using bear grease – the flavor was excellent and the sentimental value, off the charts.
Bear grease was also used as a waterproofing agent for leather and as insect repellant by Native Americans. As well, it was used to lubricate muzzleloading ball patches and used to oil knives to prevent rusting. A primary use was for fuel in oil burning lamps. It produces a smokeless flame that filled their homes with the nuance of hunt’s past. Adding to its value, bear fat doesn’t go rancid as quickly as rendered pork fat. Today this attribute doesn’t hold much value, but before refrigeration it had great value. Grease was stored in sealed containers without refrigeration and could last for extended periods of time on the shelf. Bear fat that I rendered in December 2012 has been on the shelf for a full year and it is still edible.
There is some folklore associated with the use of bear grease in forecasting weather as well – I’m a believer. It is said, that if you place of jar of grease in a south facing window you can predict the weather based upon the changing appearance of the grease. I have been monitoring my jars for the past several months and am still developing an eye for what to look for. The grease emits bubbles and floating particles at different times. This is associated with barometric pressure and temperature. Many claim they can predict weather with great accuracy by reading the changes. I’m still honing my skills.
If you harvest a bear in 2014, take the time to render down some fat. It’s messy, but it’s fun. You don’t have to harvest every ounce, but at least bring home a few pounds for the Fry Daddy. You can use it as a substitute for cooking oil in any recipe and it will taste great – I’m not kidding. Store the grease in Mason jars and use them as décor in the kitchen. The beautiful amber grease will be a great conversation starter. You can even give small jars away as unique gifts to friends and relatives. I think this is a commodity that every bear hunting household needs. The pictures in this article depict several steps involved in rendering bear fat. This makes for some great fun with the family on a winter evening.