Bear Ham

bearhamThe berry patch I was walking in had more bear scat in ten square feet than I had seen in the prior several years combined. It was unreal in both quantity and structure – “berries in and berries out” give an apt description of the type and consistency. The scrub brush I was in, aptly named “bear berries”, was flush with fruit. I began to feel nervous – my single shot .410 I had for the grouse opener was not going to be enough for whatever was leaving behind this much scat.

Seeking a better vantage I crawled to the top of a granite boulder. As I glassed the berry patch, looking for trouble and hoping not to find any, I caught a black blob in the distance. “Bear!” I called to my buddy Matt.

“Bear, bear, bear!” I exclaimed, repeating myself like an idiot and like he hadn’t heard me the first time.

Like most of my encounters with bear my vision was that of an ass in the distance running directly away from me. But as the bear ran I noticed two things. First was the speed – I expected that. I have heard for years that bears are fast. But, second, it was the lack of grace that surprised me; the bear reminded me of a fat pug running a 100 meter dash. Give that a moment for the mind’s eye. The fat rolled up and down his sides in a fluid motion – almost seeming to propel him forward in one instance then stretch his skin in another. It was the epitome of a fat fall bear.

Thrilled to have even seen a bear I was soon thinking about all that meat “on the paw” and that I had a bear tag in my pocket. (Left over from a spring bear hunt that amounted to nothing more than a camping trip in the rain) A plan was hatched – back out slow and quite, then come back in a few days and kill this bear. He would be here, the food, the cover and the lack of access nearly guaranteed it.

Two days later a foursome of folks – Matt, my son Noah, Matts daughter Brooklyn and I – made our way up to the berry patch. Matt and Brooklyn would approach from the east. Noah and I would come from the west. The plan was to glass the patch find the bear and see if we could shoot it.

Out hunting for bear I could tell my son was a little nervous. He would not admit it but I think he was a little scared of the idea of bear, not a real bear. I related to him a story about the first time I encountered a bear. I was fifteen years old walking a canyon floor with a buddy during deer season. We rounded a corner and heard the “woof” sound threatened bears make. On our left was a bear standing on her hind legs looking at us. To our right was a trio of cubs. My heart raced and I nearly needed a change of undershorts. We were, essentially, a meat sandwich at that point. We slowly knocked arrows and even more slowly backed out.

The story did not alleviate his fears. Eventually we found a vantage point for glassing the berry patch.

After a few moments of glassing I could see movement in the berry patch not being caused by wind. I focused in on it – waiting for a sign of life. Eventually, I caught a glimpse of black moving in the underbrush. Then I saw a black paw grab a branch full of berries and bring it down – then an ear, a paw, came into view. But never a shot. We had found the bear – now what?

Desperation often causes inspiration. I told my son to whistle. He looked at me with his head cocked to the side “whistle what” he said.

“I am not sure that it matters” I said.

Next thing I knew the creepy four note tune from the Hunger Games was being belted out from next to me. I put my scope on the last patch of black I had seen. Sure enough the bears head appeared then his neck. He was only 70 yards out. I took the shot and the bear disappeared back into the scrub.

I waited a solid five minutes before going into the scrub brush after the bear. As I trudged forward Noah kept falling behind. Before I knew it I was separated from him by a solid 30 yards. “You need to get out of this brush bud” I told him.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because if this bear ain’t dead and it so much as scratched your leg on the way by – I will NEVER live it down with your mother. Just do me a favor and wait until I find him?”

“Kay” he said, suddenly even more nervous.

Eventually I found the bear. Berries falling out of its mouth – it had died gorging itself. That’s how I want to go. He was roughly a six foot bear – a nice size for Idaho. The main issue was just how much he weighed. I eviscerated the bear – making sure to take a look at his liver (spots can be a sign of infection) and hoping to shed a few pounds of the carcass. It was all Matt and I could do to drag the bear out to a road. Eventually we loaded him up in the quad and made our way back to Matt’s cabin.

When I broke the bear down and started skinning it for a run I noticed just how much fat this bear had on him. On his back rump the fat was over three inches thick. He was building a layer for the winter. Fat in wild game is uncommon – I was going to make the best of it.

I rendered the bear fat, like the old timers uses to do. I made bear bacon, I made roasts, I slow cooked the shoulders in BBQ sauce for sandwiches. The highlight, the reason I go back into the woods each fall and spring with a bear tag and my longbow, is bear ham. I use the big muscle groups out of the hind quarters – I brine them for a week, smoke them over apple and then eat grilled cheese and bear ham sandwiches all winter long. They are flat out delicious.

Bear Meat –

The elephant in the room with bear meat is that they almost certainly carry trichinosis. Bear meat causes 90% of the trichinosis cases in the country, simply because it is not cooked enough. Cook your bear past 145 and you are good. Any lower than that and you run the risk of a food borne illness. Not a fun one either.

Popular outdoor writer and TV host Steven Rinella even contracted it off an Alaskan black bear last year. Trichinosis does not fool around, neither should you or I.

Bear Ham

4 quarts hot water – divided

1.5 cups salt

1 cup white sugar

1 cup brown sugar (or honey)

1.5 oz. insta-cure #1

1/2 cup pickling spice

20 crushed garlic cloves

10-15 pounds of bear hind quarter meat, 3-4 pound muscles each


Note: trim the hind loins of as much fat and connective tissue as possible before attempting the recipe. The cleaner the meat going in the better it will be coming out. Also, the recipe can be used on other game animals as well – I do a variation on this recipe for wild turkey breasts and for venison.

Bring 2 quarts water to a boil in a 4 quart sauce pot. Next stir in the salt, sugar, brown sugar and insta-cure #1. All the solid particles should diffuse into the water. Next add the pickling spice and the garlic cloves.

Add the remaining 2 quarts water, cold, to the hot water. This will drop the temperature of the brine. Transfer the mix, now called a brine, to a large plastic container or non-reactive pot. Add the meat to the brine. Let the meat soak for a week in the refrigerator. Make sure that all the meat is submerged. (I often use a plate and a few cans of beans)

Next remove the bear meat from the brine. Pat it dry and let rest on the counter until it comes to room temperature. Then smoke the bear for about 4 hours or until it reaches 145 degrees. If you are not a smoked ham fan simply bake the ham at 375 degrees until 145 degrees.

Reaching this temp is critical with bear meat since it will kill trichinosis.

When cooked let the ham rest until cool before cutting into it. This will help retain the moisture.

It will last in fridge up to a week thawed. It will last for over a year in the freezer. Slice it thin like deli ham, roast whole for a special occasion…basically just eat and enjoy.

How to Butterfly a Roundfish 

This is a great skill to have – the Butterfly. If you can learn this technique on a trout it makes steelhead, salmon and bigger fish very easy. Below is a picture guide on how to cut up a round-fish (as opposed to the other common shape – the flat fish – think halibut and flounder for those)

First start with a round-fish – a trout, salmon, steelhead ect. Gut the fish and move it to a clean cutting surface.  At the anal fin slice along the spine toward the tail fin.

  Cut so that you expose the skin on the underside of the back of the fish. See below.   Next slide the tip of the blade under the ribs of the fish. Then slowly push the knife toward the spine, working your way up each section of the fish.   Repeat the knife under the ribs slide until the entire half of the fish is “ribbed”  Next slide the knife along the spine, you will feel resistance from pin bones at this point. You will need to simply slice through them, removing them later on bigger fish.  Repeat the process on the other side of the fish.    When both sides are completly cut the bones should come up off the back skin. Cut free the meat that is still attached, careful not to puncture the skin.   Cut off the tail.    Butterflied Trout with bones pulled up. Cut off the head at this point.   Butterflied trout with roe. Yum. Cook with this recipe.   

Interview – Chef Mark Owsley

Chef Mark Owsley

Coming up in the food scene in Boise I was always told stories of a bad-ass bowhunting chef. He had worked his way up from being a dishwasher to running one of the most respected restaurants in the whole state of Idaho. He did this at a place called “The Gamekeeper”…I mean how could I not love that. Add to that dynamic a chef who was as likely to shoot an elk as he was to serve it and basically Mark Owsley was a Boise legend.

I have had the good fortune of knowing Chef Owsley for years now. But frankly I regret never working for him. Recently Owsley left Boise for a more stable gig in Twin Falls. I caught up with him recently – and here are some words of wisdom.  

Question – Chef in the Wild: So, Twin Falls…how do you like the new digs?

Answer – Chef Mark Owsley: I don’t mind Twin Falls at all. Small town atmosphere and you can be out surrounded by game. Also, you are 5 minutes from anywhere and it’s a good place to stay in shape. You can walk up and down the canyon to get your cardio going.

Q: As the longtime Executive Chef at the Owyhee Plaza hotel you ran the Gamekeeper. Did the name and connection with wild game always ring true from the kitchen?

A: Working at the gamekeeper was awesome. Yes, we always ran wild game specials with lots of options on the menu. We ran: Elk, Deer, Lamb, Ostridge, Emu, Caribou, Aligator and others that I have forgotten. Tried to run Kangaroo one time, but wasn’t a favorite of the public (Too Cute I think).

Q: How did you get into hunting? Specifically bow hunting?

A: I have always had a passion for hunting. From the time I went out with my Grandpa in the late 70s with rifle, or grabbing a bow in 1980 and loving it. I started out using a recurve then moved on to the compound a few years later. Shot my first deer and my first elk with my bow. Now I am primarily a bow hunter. Nothing like being out in the wild, peacefully hiking through the woods with your bow. Even those days you don’t see anything, it is a great day! This is the one main thing I look forward to every year – September.

I also love to play softball and basketball.

Q: When did the connection to wild game and being a chef “click”?

A: The connection to being a chef just kind of fell into place for me. When I was younger working at the Gamekeeper, I wasn’t sure what I was going to be? Having two great chef’s Like John Fisher and Tony Perazzo guiding me helped me reach my decision. Matter of fact, I tried to quit one time in the early 80s and Chef Fisher wouldn’t let me! Kind of cool!!

Wild game also just fell into place for me. Working at the gamekeeper and loving hunting and fishing just means the stars all aligned perfectly for me.

Q: What is the next challenge? Another big bull?

A: My next Challenge would probably be get into better shape. As I get older the mountains get tougher. My goal is always to shoot a bull, if the big one steps in the way then BONUS. Not totally against shooting a cow either.

Q: Closing thoughts about how to treat game or how to cook it?

A: I have found out with bowhunting that you need to take care of your game quickly and properly. Generally when someone says they don’t like deer or elk because they are to “wild tasting”, I would blame that mostly on how the game was taking care of. When bowhunting it is still pretty warm out, get the hide off the animal and get the meat chilled as soon as possible. Keep the meat clean. As far as cooking a good elk steak, don’t overcook it. Medium Rare or a bit less is best in my book.

You know switching over to health care has been a great move for me. Being more conscious of eating healthier isn’t a bad thing. We are always getting comments like: great restaurant quality food, or, not hospital food anymore, best restaurant in town (in our café), I never thought a person could be treated as well as I am treated here. Even though I do miss working at the Keeper, to a point, it is also great to have weekends and evenings off to enjoy family and life. Getting your vacation time without interruptions isn’t bad either. Taking two weeks off in a row has its benefits also (better chance of hitting the Wapiti Rut)

Thanks Randy! Talk to you soon.

>>>>>I also asked Chef Owsley for a recipe that he could share for all the wild game eaters out there. He obliged with a cool dish.<<<<<

Rocky Mountain Elk with Wild Cherry Sauce – recipe courtesy of Chef Mark Owsley.

(Serves 4)

8-2oz Elk Tenderloin medallions

1 oz butter

Crushed Black pepper

Kosher Salt

Pound elk medallions to ¼ inch thickness. Pre-heat sauté pan on medium heat then add butter. Lightly season elk medallions with Crushed black pepper and kosher salt. Place medallions into pan and sear on both sides for about 1 minute. Brown is good, black is bad – for both butter and meat. Pull Medallions out of sauté pan so elk doesn’t continue to cook. Reserve.

Wild Cherry Sauce

20 Fresh Cherries

1 oz Crème de cassis (wild berry liqueur)

4 oz brown sauce (recipe to follow)

4 Mint leaves

Remove pit and ¼ all the cherries. Add cherries to the hot sauté pan the elk was cooking in. Keep heat on medium. Soon as pan is simmering add the Crème de cassis (this may flame up so be careful). Add the brown sauce and simmer for about 2 minutes. Tear mint leaves into small pieces and add to sauce. With the elk presented on a plate, top with the wild cherry sauce.

Hunter’s Barley

1 lb cooked barley (follow cooking instructions on barley container, then rinse and chill)

2 oz small diced smoked bacon

1 oz port wine

1 oz brown sauce

1 oz diced green onions

Crushed black pepper

Kosher salt

Sauté bacon in 2 quart sauce pot until  ¾ done.  Add barley and sauté for 1 more minute. Add port wine, brown sauce, pepper and salt. Simmer for about 3-4 minutes – until thick. Turn heat off and add green onions.

>>>>Note – This would be a great place to use a wild game stock or demi-glace – check out Hank Shaw’s. That is basically what chef Mark Owsley is doing here<<<<

Brown Sauce

¼ cup butter

¼ cup flour

2 cups of water

3 beef bouillon cubes

Melt butter, add flour to make roux and cook for 4 minutes. Add water stirring constantly. Add bouillon and stir dissolved. Simmer 5 minutes until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. If more flavor is needed you can add more beef bouillon if needed.

Bratwurst Recipe

>>>>>Please refer to the more detailed section here for a better “how too” guide on making fresh sausages.

Some might say that wild game has too much flavor for a typical bratwurst recipe. I disagree! These are killer and taste like the old country.

2 pounds Venison or other wild animal, diced

1 pound fat back, diced

1 heavy tablespoon kosher salt

2 teaspoons ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried marjoram

1/2 teaspoon caraway seed

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, optional

1/2 tablespoon chicken base

½ cup ice water

2 hog casings

Soak casings according to directions on package. Place grinder attachments and stuffing machine into the freezer.

Combine diced venison with salt and chill for 1 hour. Using the smallest grate on the grinder grind the fat back and venison into a chilled steel bowl. Add the remaining seasonings and water. With your hands (gloves!) or a mixer incorporate the seasonings.

Next add the sausage mix to the stuffer. Follow the directions laid out above in the “The Stuff” section and proceed to stuff your sausages. Freeze or cook them at this point.

Cook sausages on the grill for about 10-15 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 150 degrees, or 160 if bear, white meated birds or wild hog is involved.

Gear Giveaway and Review

Full disclosure – I was given a FoodSaver® GameSaver® Titanium Vacuum Sealer for review, free stuff affects opinions.

I process and vacuum pack all my game meat and fish – and it saves me time and money. Vital to saving money and not losing game is good quality vacuum pack machine. For those not familiar a vacuum pack machine – they remove air and seal sections of meat (or whatever really) in a plastic bag. This hermitization of the meat from the elements ensures quality and prevents loss from “Freezer Burn.”

When air cannot touch the meat, like when its vacuum packed, freezer burn is basically impossible. I have held meat (accidentally) for about 3 years and it was like I had shot it the month before.

For non-meat related applications vacuum machines work great as well. I have vacuum packed hunting and fishing gear for long pack trips. The stuff that I am not sure I will need but would love to have got sealed up. It took up much less space in the backpack and allowed more room for game to be carried out. A quality vacuum pack machines saves you money, hands down.

For the past 5 years I have been using an off the shelf at Target FoodSaver® V2244. This little guy has put up some serious meat. At least one caribou, six+ deer, an elk, three bears, multitudes of steelhead, countless ducks, upland game birds and rabbits. My machine has never let me down, and that quality of the V2244 is the ONLY reason I agreed to test out the FoodSaver® GameSaver® Titanium Vacuum Sealer.

At first blush I looked at the FoodSaver® GameSaver® Titanium Vacuum Sealer and noted that it was kind of huge. Compared to my other vacuum machine it is about triple the size. Now size does not always buy quality but like my father used to say “If its heavy put it down, it is probably expensive.”  It is heavy.

To test the GameSaver®, I decided to just vacuum pack some store bought pork chops. With vacuum machines I always look for air retention. Basically, if all the air does not come out than the machine lacks the proper amount of sucking power. (In this case sucking power is a good thing) It did not lack for power. The chops all had clean edges and not an air bubble in sight.

Next I looked to the seal on the machine –an improper seal will let air inside the bag. Not good. The model has two sealing methods. Basically one line or two of sealing. This feature intrigued me. I could not figure out the reasoning for two seals.

Did FoodSaver® not trust just one seal? It seemed strange, but the single seal seemed powerful enough. The only reason I could think they would add the additional layer is for moist foods. I know vacuuming fish, with my V2244, often needs an additional seal due to the excess water. The water inhibits the sealing bar from making a line across the entire bag, letting air in and damaging quality. Whatever the reasoning double sealing seems like a strange, albeit sometimes useful, function.

fish-GSBlogAnother feature that I was a tad skeptical of was the roll cutting attachment. Inside the FoodSaver® GameSaver® Titanium Vacuum Sealer is a slot that holds a roll of vacuum bag and across the top is little slicer that you drag across to cut each bag. All you need to do is seal one end and then cut the bag to the desired length. Typically the pre-cut bags are substantially more expensive than the roll cut bags. It is a tradeoff – spend a little time and save a lot of money.

With the quick roll and the cutting blade on the game saver, I might actually become a roll bag convert.

While testing out the vacuum machine I noted the quick marinate attachment. It is basically a hunk of Tupperware functioning as a vacuum tube. You place meat inside the tub and put the lid on. Then with a little hose attachment you place in the top of the tub you turn on the vacuum and poof, meat under vacuum. They look like this. The meat accepts more marinate under vacuum, you can get a days’ worth of marination in just a few short hours.

I decided to test the Quick Marinador attachment on a rabbit that I cut up like this.

The chosen marinade was Coors Light. Judge me if you want, but Boise State University was playing BYU on ESPN, I needed a stress reliever. Go Broncos! (Marinade Recipe – ½ Cup Cheap ‘Merica Made Beer, 1 Tablespoon Garlic Powder, Black Pepper).

Next I sealed up the marinating tub and tossed it in the fridge. In the morning I breaded and fried the rabbit with this recipe.Freid Rabbit - GSblog

Results? The most tender and moist cottontail I have ever eaten. No really, it was. I could visibly see the absorption of moisture in the rabbit. The legs were larger and so to the loins. Basically, the pours of the meat had filled with beer and garlic – and it was divine. I took off the lid the next morning and measured only ¼ cup of beer left in the container. A solid ¼ cup of moisture was absorbed by a dinky little cottontail. The additional moisture directly results in moister food. I was impressed.

With large animals the bottleneck point in butchering and freezing is the vacuum machine. The meat is ground, the steaks are cut and the roasts are tied. Everything is waiting to go into a bag and be sealed for the freezer. I do not think that this will be changed with the unit. While it has the power, the roll cutting and the double sealing – it does not have the speed I wish for.

In all the GameSaver is a step up in quality, usability and power from the V2244 that I have grown accustomed to. I can’t wait to see how the new unit holds up over the years, if its lower priced brother is any example than it will have no trouble at all. I will use the FoodSaver® GameSaver® Titanium Vacuum Sealer often, I can tell you that much.

Like this Gear Review? Post a comment AND link to this page on Twitter or Facebook and be entered into a drawing on November 15th for a FREE GameSaver® with Bonus Offer.