Preparing Your Bear for the Freezer is Easy If You Follow This Expert’s Advice!
By Dick Scorzafava
Bear Hunting Magazine
May/June 2009 Issue
Congratulations! All your hard work has finally paid off and you have your bear. Now the crucial work begins; preparing the animal for the table. Bear hunting is getting increasingly popular every year, but sometimes the meat gets wasted because of improper handling in the field. Nutritionally, the meat from a bear ranks right up there with domestic pork, but provides a much healthier source of nourishment. Bear meat that has been duly cared for in the field and cooked in a manner to enhance its distinctive flavor will hold an extraordinary place in any kitchen (especially my wife’s, the gourmet cook).
The first job is to make sure the bear is correctly field dressed and cleaned before it is removed from the kill site. Many hunters fail to do an adequate job of field dressing and that causes problems when the meat is processed for the freezer.
The meat must first be stored properly following the hunt by hanging the carcass in a cool, dry place. Pay close attention to the weather forecast and if it predicts temperatures above 40 degrees the meat must be moved into a cooler to hang, or cut up and put in the freezer immediately. I am sure that everyone has heard of aging their meat to perfection, which is a process that keeps the meat just a few degrees above freezing for a few days, just remember warm and hot weather temperatures will ruin the meat. So do not drive the bear around in your pick up truck to show it off to your friends for a day or two, especially if the temperatures are balmy because the meat will spoil.
If the meat is going to be hung to age, it is best to keep it in a controlled environment of 40 degrees and dry. Do not exceed five days. Most people do not have access to a walk-in cooler with controlled temperatures, so try to have the bear in the freezer within two days. I knew a bunch of old timers who would hang their meat for a couple of weeks, but that is not necessary. The purpose of hanging the meat is to let the chemicals that breakdown within the meat lend a hand in tenderizing it before it is cut up and put in the freezer.
Many bear hunters flinch at the thought of having to butcher and prepare their bear for the freezer. Let’s face it, we all are not professional meat cutters. While I am far from being a professional, I do know the basics of getting my bear from the field to the freezer, because I guided bear hunters for years and had to deal with prepping their meat and hides for transporting home.
Butchering a bear is not all that difficult and gets easier the more you do it.
I have actually cut up an entire bear just using my pocketknife, and believe me I would not want to do that again. It took me an entire day and I had to make so many cuts I developed cramps in both my hands. Do not do it the hard way! There are five basic tools used for butchering, and they are usually around in every household. They are a good really sharp skinning knife, a quality wet stone to touch up the knife, a hacksaw (but I prefer a sawsall), a cutting board and rubber gloves to keep your hands clean. If you really want to be efficient and plan to butcher animals in the future I recommend the following tools and equipment. The right tools can make the job much easier and a lot more efficient.
1. Gambrel and a Lift: The lift will let you hang your bear quickly at a comfortable height for skinning and butchering. This way it can be done alone and you do not have to be a weightlifter to get the job done. It can be very difficult to skin and butcher a bear on the ground and the meat can get dirty.
2. Game Saw: I prefer a sawsall for this job, but a hand saw with a fine tooth bone blade will open up the rib cage, split the pelvis, remove the head and quarter the animal.
3. Knife with a Drop Point Blade and Gut Hook: The gut hook is great for opening up the body cavity of the bear, and the drop point on the blade is excellent for basic field dressing and skinning tasks.
4. Boning and Fillet Knife: This should be the primary knife used to butcher the bear. It should have a very slim seven to eight-inch blade because that size is best suited for boning, trimming off the fat and even cutting steaks.
5. Sharpening Stone: A wet stone to keep the knives sharp will make the job much easier and safer.
6. Meat Grinder: Meat mixers and cubers are expensive extras, but a manual meat grinder is comparatively inexpensive, and is an invaluable tool for turning the scraps and tougher cuts into burger or sausage. If you want to make link sausage, make sure to purchase a grinder with a stuffing tube.
7. Rubber Gloves: Preferably, you want to have two styles, a heavy duty pair that are elbow length for field dressing and a tight-fitting wrist-length pair for butchering. Each style can be purchased reasonably in boxes of 50.
8. Plastic Wrap, Freezer Paper and a Sharpie Permanent Marker: If you value your bear meat, double wrap each cut very tightly with plastic wrap and then again with freezer paper. Ideally, a vacuum packer would keep the meat up to twice as long in the freezer.
An old timer told me years ago that you must have a basic understanding of the how the bear’s skeleton holds the body together before you can butcher any animal. Deconstructing a bear’s carcass is actually extremely simple because nature has provided a virtual connect-the-dots type of drawing. Start at the place where the meat meets the bone and you cannot go wrong. The process can seem intimidating at first, but after you get a few animals under your belt you will have the hang of it. Just follow the natural breaks between each muscle group. The rear legs of the bear are jointed and fit into a socket in the bear’s hip. The front legs fit onto the chest mainly by muscles and tendons, and the leg bones inside the animal are flat. The balance of the bear consists of ribs, neck and the spine.
The first step of the butchering process is to take the saw and cut the entire carcass in half, length-wise. Try sawing the carcass as close as possible to right down the middle, but do not worry too much if the cut is not perfect. No one will ever notice. Before going any further wipe off all the small particles of bone that the sawing produced with a clean, damp cloth. I said damp, not one soaked in water. Use a dry cloth to pat the meat dry.
Now you can remove the rump from the bear. Remember that the rear legs are jointed and may take a few minutes to locate that joint so do not rush it. When you locate the joint, cut completely around it and remove the ham-shaped rear leg.
Keep in mind that the toughest meat on the leg is on the lower end so it is best to use the upper portion for round steaks and the lower section for pot roast. Carefully cut the steaks into the thickness desired with the knife, and then use the saw to cut the bone. The steaks will be much more appealing to the eye if they are cut to a uniform thickness, cut them as straight as possible. Also keep touching the knife up so it cuts smoothly. Remember, you are cutting and not sawing the meat. The steak that has a smooth cut versus a jagged cut looks much better when the job is finished.
Take it slow, paying attention to how the muscle groups are formed and you may find it fun and rewarding. Who knows, you may even offer to butcher your friends bear.
The next step in the process will be to remove the back straps or the loin. They are the sections that run down both sides of the bear’s spine. Keep in mind that this is the choicest prime cut of meat on the entire bear. Slowly run the knife blade down the edge of the top of the spine bones from the rear all the way to the top of the neck. Then cut even with the bottom of the spine bones (vertebrae) and this will produce a long and narrow piece of meat, one from each side of the bear. I prefer to cut them into two pieces for each loin as this will make it easier for freezing and cooking.
The back straps can also be cut into chops with the spine intact if so desired, but it is much more time consuming. If chops are desired it is a good idea to remove the ribs before starting to cut the chops. Remove the ribs whole, one side at a time. Some people prefer to remove one rib at a time but I personally like the looks of a full rack of ribs on the grill and the table. Start by cutting each chop the desired thickness with the knife to the bone and then use the saw to cut the rest of the way through.
To remove the front legs follow the round part of the leg up to where it enters the chest cavity, then start cutting with the knife between the leg and the chest muscles. As soon as you feel the bone start to flatten out, lift the partially removed leg and cut the remaining meat around the flat portion of the bone from underneath the chest. It is best to cut the front hams into two pieces and use them as pot roasts.
Lastly trim the meat from the neck and leg joints for use in stew or sausage. Also remove as much of the less desirable cuts from around the chest, spine and other areas for the same purpose. We want to use as much of the bear as possible for processing meat for the table and not be wasteful.
I always use at least one rear leg to make some jerky because my kids really love it. There are several manufacturers that sell jerky-making kits that come with everything needed except the meat. They are available from most sporting goods stores and several mail order houses. Keep in mind any meat used for jerky should be cut as thinly as possible and be totally fat free. It is better to use a smoker or dehydrator if you have one available because using the oven takes hours and the temperatures must be kept very low.
It is also nice to make up a little batch of sausage from the bear meat. Pick up some sausage casings, and swing by the local grocery and pick up some beef or pork fat. Bear meat is too lean to make good sausage on its own so mix in approximately 25% fat when you are running it through the meat grinder the first time. Then run it through the grinder again when you are putting it into the casings with the spices of choice blended into the mix.
If you do not have casings, you can make sausage balls by rolling the meat into, well, balls, or you can make sausage patties by rolling the meat into balls and then flattening them out. Either way they are delicious!
It is critical that the meat be wrapped properly. Again, I stress that each cut should be wrapped twice, tightly in plastic wrap before the final wrap in quality freezer paper to prevent freezer burn. But its best to use some type of vacuum bagger for the ultimate freezer wrap because the meat will stay fresher twice as long by using this process.
Also use a permanent marker to date and identify each cut of meat. When the butchering process is complete you can expect to end up with a little less than 50% of meat compared to the live weight of the bear.
Why not try butchering a bear this year? It is really not that complicated of a job, as long as you take it slow and easy and learn how all the bones fit together. Always keep your knifes sharp and think about your cuts before they are made. Remember, butchering a bear is like a lot of things in life, it can be a little scary until you get started. Good Luck!