Canning Bear Meat
Pressure canning is a perfect solution for preserving meat.
By Timothy D Fowler - @timothydfowler
The last six months have my non-hunting friends asking increasingly specific questions about how to turn animals into meat. Grocery shortages in the early weeks of Covid-19 alarmed my friends about food security while I was sorting my inventory of bear, moose, elk, deer, grouse, pheasants, rabbits, pike, walleye, and other frozen proteins. They were astounded by my Instagram feed featuring all manner of game presented in delicious ways. Meanwhile, there was no chicken in the grocery coolers to be found and one of the largest beef processing plants in our area was shut down because of an outbreak. It got me thinking about how lucky we hunters are.
Then I remembered the time my freezer got unplugged. If you've ever lost a freezer full of meat, I understand your anguish. Early in my independent life, somehow the freezer became unplugged. A week passed and with it a whole year’s worth of steak, ground and roasts. It was rough. It was a lesson that has stuck with me.
I got to thinking maybe it was time to tear a page from grandma’s culinary playbook and fill my pantry with canned (bear) meat. Today’s pressure canners are safe, precision appliances that will save you time and money over a few years and free up high demand freezer space. Properly canned meat won’t go bad. Because of the slow moist heat, the process is perfect for tougher cuts and all the flavor is locked in the jar. If I would've canned some of that meat back then, we would have been further ahead. My hunting buddy told me about bottled moose and rabbits from when he hunted in Newfoundland. More than half of his hunting meals on that trip were based around meat that was home canned. He reported it delicious. I was skeptical. Recently I canned a batch of meat because my freezer is full to the gunnels, and I have un-punched moose, whitetail, and elk tags, with a high percentage of being successful.
Get the Right Equipment
I have my grandmother’s pressure canner but because of her fear of exploding aluminum and destroying her home and family, the pressure part is decommissioned. Now, I use this as my stockpot. Recently, I purchased an All-American pressure canner, the 15-quart size for $289. It does 7 quarts or 10-pint size jars at a time. Check out the full line of canners at allamericancanner.com. Don’t mess around with canners; get a quality canner. I can heartily recommend All American Canners. Pressure canners run at 10 or 15 psi depending on the elevation of your kitchen. Canning protein and non-acidic foods need the sterilization of the heat that comes only from a true pressure canner. Spend the money! The risk of food poisoning isn’t worth the money you might save.
I was pleasantly surprised at how delicious the canned meat was on our last hunting trip. I emptied the contents of a jar into a carbon steel fry pan over the blazing blue flame of the Coleman 425. As soon as the meat was heated through and the juice evaporated down to a thin gravy, I dished it into bowls, added a thick slice of buttered homemade sourdough and handed it over. I can report it was delicious. Peter, my hunting partner recommended I just eat it plain. He knows first-hand how much I like to mess with stuff. “Just taste the game before you get fancy” was his advice. The just-canned recipe was delicious, but the possibilities for fancy are nearly endless. You can can anything from bears to moose and rabbits to squirrels––using pretty much the same process.
A Simple Recipe for Canning
Start with clean quart mason (or equivalent jars). I put mine in the dishwasher for sanitizing just before I use them. Use new lids for each fresh canning session. The lids have a rubber seal that molds itself to make an airtight seal; once used they cannot be used again safely to seal.
Cut the bear (or pretty much any other game from deer to moose, including bone-in rabbits or hare) into chunks. Because the meat is going to cook under pressure and high temperature for 90 minutes, you can use the toughest most sinewy chunks of trim you can find. Tough as tennis balls chunks are turned tender and yummy in the process of canning. It will all be tender and delicious. Weigh the meat that goes into the sealer jar. My preference is to measure metric because the gram calculations are precise and simple. Add 1% salt by weight. That means for about a pound and a half to two pounds of meat required to fill a jar to one inch below the mouth, you will need 1-2 tsp of salt. The reason I like grams is I used 660 grams of meat and 6.6 grams of salt. Now I know where my starting place is if my guests want more or less salt. My preference is to put salt in the jar but suit yourself. Add half of the meat, half of the salt, the rest of the meat and the rest of the salt. One percent salt seems a bit salty for some of the folks around the campfire, once you condense the liquid, but when you add some veggies, cream and wine, 1% is perfect. You will need to experiment a bit to find what suits you best.
Set up the canner to the manufacturer's directions. All American Canners suggest a light film of olive oil on the gasket-less sealing edge. Fill with water to the recommended level. Top the jars with lids and just tighten the ring until the lid contacts the jar. Place the jars into the canner, put the canner lid on and tighten it down. Turn the heat to high. Start the timer once the steam starts to vent. At 10 minutes add the pressure regulator weight to start steam pressure building. Once the pressure builds to the targeted pressure, set the timer to 90 minutes. Because I live above 1,000 ft altitude, the steamer requires 15 pounds of pressure to safely operate. The pressure regulator rattles occasionally to let off the excess steam. All American recommends one to four rattles per minute or rattling at least once a minute and no more than every 15 seconds. I use my lap-timer on my smartphone to monitor the time between rattles. It requires a bit of fiddling with the heat to make it rattle at least once a but no more than four times every minute. At 90 minutes, shut off the heat and let the canner cool and the pressure dissipates on its own. When the gauge says there is no pressure, remove the regulator and let sit several minutes before removing the lid. Use special canning tongs to remove the hot jars and set on a multilayered cotton towel so as not to temperature shock (and crack) the jars.
The resulting cans will keep almost indefinitely but you may as well use them before the end of the next hunting season.
Recipe for Elk Camp Canned Meat Dinner
Slice two cups of fresh mushrooms, a medium onion and red pepper. Heat a cast-iron or rolled carbon steel fry pan on the woodstove and sauté the mushrooms and onions in three tablespoons of butter. Add two cloves of garlic, smashed. When the mushrooms start to brown and the onions just begin to caramelize, add a can of meat and stir to melt the juice and warm the meat. Add half a cup of 35% cream (coconut milk would be a good substitute here.) and half a cup of red wine and a tablespoon of Dijon mustard. Add the sliced red peppers. Simmer until most of the liquid evaporates and the sauce thickens. Drain a can of baby potatoes and add to the pan. Heat through and serve with thick slices of sourdough bread.
The recipe above is a simple way to expand a quart of canned meat and make a fast camp dinner. There are plenty of options to make canned meat a delicious meal. Add tomato sauce instead of cream and wine to mushrooms, onions and peppers. Or switch it up with some chopped apple, onions and curry. Or opt for a handful of fresh (or dried) herbs and add some instant noodles or minute rice. Think of the canned meat as a base to be manipulated with additional ingredients limited only by your imagination.
Based on the reaction around the wall tent during the last winter hunt of the year, we will be putting canned meat on the menu permanently. My strong recommendation is that you add pressure canning to your culinary repertoire. Your hunting buddies will thank you.