Humans tend to be a forgetful species. Our constant need for advancement has us continuously creating new technologies that we feel make our lives easier and more convenient. Yet many of these things we have set aside in favor of “innovation” are not gone but are simply outside of the vision of the masses, hidden in the shadow of our ever-growing technological hubris. Things only seen and remembered by old-timers rocking gently on porches speaking fondly of “the good old days.” And, of course, by hunters. Hunters are among the few people left who recognize, re-discover, and re-utilize those useful and often amazing aspects and practices of the old world that so many have forgotten which keep us connected to our past. Perhaps chief among these practices that is recently being reclaimed among the hunting community is the rendering and utilization of bear grease.
The Fat Of The Land
The use of bear grease – or bear oil as it is often called in our everyday lives – goes back hundreds of years and has played a vital roll in human evolution. Without it, our ancestors may never have survived tough winters, may never had been able to keep and preserve metal tools, and may never have expanded and opened our world and our country into what it is today. Bear grease has dozens of different uses and was so valuable that it was used as currency by early settlers. The seeking of it and trading of it led Native tribes, colonial farmers, and mountain men alike to explore and discover new lands. American frontiersmen like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett both worked as bear grease merchants. Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln used it as fuel for their lamps during the darkest nights. And countless early Americans used bear grease to cook their food and feed their families. In short, bear grease helped to shape and build America into what it is today. In our modern and “enlightened” age, many hunters seem to have forgotten this fact, and after harvesting a bear leave all of that precious fat in the woods with other parts of the carcass they deem as “useless.” This is a travesty! Bear fat still has many uses for us, and remains as one of the most precious rewards of the hunt. All you have to do is know how to render bear oil and how to use it.
How To Remove Bear Fat
From the moment they emerge from their dens in the spring to the moment they crawl back into them for the winter, bears think of little else other than eating. Needless to say, no matter what time of year we harvest them, bears almost always have a lot of fat on their bodies. The first step in transforming this fat from useless putty into nourishing and magically useful oil is identifying and separating the good fat from the bad fat. When skinning and dressing a bear you’ll encounter two types of fat on the carcass. The snow-white thick fat just under the skin that is usually thickest along the ribs and around the bears hams, and the slightly yellowish darker fat around the entrails and laced throughout the meat. The white fat is the good stuff and it should be carefully set aside for your own use. The darker fat, though it can be rendered, usually is more water based and less flavorful and can be discarded.
To gather the good fat, remove the hide and then, using a sharp knife, begin to fillet chunks of fat off of the muscle meat. Try your best to keep it clean as you can, either placing the chunks in game bags if you’re butchering in the field, or a clean bowl if you’re butchering at home. Bits of dirt, sticks, and other detritus from the surrounding area tends to stick to the fat if it’s not handled carefully and can make for an off-tasting – if not entirely ruined – final product. You’ll want to cool the removed fat as quickly as possible by placing the large chunks either in a cooler, the fridge, or the freezer as fast as you can as it goes rancid quickly. Once the fat has been removed and stored, you’re ready to begin rendering it into bear grease.
How To Render Bear Fat
The first step to rendering bear fat once it has been removed from the carcass is to partially freeze it. Bear fat at room temperature is incredibly soft and greasy and basically has the texture of Jello, making it extremely difficult to work with. Partially freezing it and keeping the fat cool while you are working with it firms it up, giving it a texture along the lines of a fillet of fish and is much easier to cut and grind.
Once the bear fat has been frozen, remove it and cut into small once inch cubes. When this is done, you can start the rendering process right away, but it is better and easier to either dice the cubes into small pieces or run them through a meat grinder as they are much easier to melt down from there. To melt it down, add the fat to a cooking pot and place it on the burner at a low temperature, from 200 to 300 degrees. The hotter you cook it the quicker it will begin to liquefy, but going too hot will burn it, so low and slow is definitely the way to go. Stir the fat continuously with a wooden spoon to prevent it from sticking and burning, until almost all the solid pieces of fat have liquefied. Once that happens, set it aside to cool.
When the liquid bear fat has cooled enough to handle, pour it into mason jars for storage, straining the oil as you do. Use a fine mesh metal strainer or better yet, a length of cheese cloth stretched over the mouth of the jar to remove any errant chunks of dirt, burned tissue, or other impurities. The jarred bear oil can now be stored in the fridge or root cellar, ready to use at your leisure.
Using Bear Grease
Over time, the hot oil in the jars will change from the beautiful amber color to a white solid state roughly the same texture and color as Crisco known as bear grease. It has dozens of uses. Bear grease can be used as a cooking oil, adding flavor and fat to otherwise dull dishes. It can be rubbed on boots, tents, and jackets to make them waterproof. It can be used to sharpen knives and axes, and even as gun oil or machinery lubricant.
Bear grease is odorless and tasteless, yet somehow still retains some sort of flavor. A mystic flavor that comes from being a part of the bear – an animal that stands as the very symbol of the wild. Making and using bear grease today is a part of reclaiming the very foundation of human survival, and stands as a symbol of the hunter and living in harmony with the natural world. A thing that, though gone from most of the world, will never be forgotten by those of us who hunt.