Eating Bear Medium Rare

Addressing Trichinosis with a Sous Vide

While the bison is widely recognized as the iconic American animal, I feel that Ursus americanus deserves more credit for its part in laying the groundwork for early exploration and settlement into the United States. Even the name says it all! Black bears have long been a key component in American history. Along with bison, they were a staple first in the everyday life of many native cultures before Europeans later arrived and similarly hunted bears for all they had to offer. Their hides are tough and durable, their thick fur provided warmth through hard winters, their fat was used for leather goods, candles, soap, and more, and—no differently than why many of us hunt them today—they are a plentiful and sustainable food source.  


We have come a long way since those days of old. Yet with information more readily available than ever before, bears are still subject to the “word of mouth” that surrounds them. It is not uncommon to hear folks strongly voice their opinions about how you shouldn’t or why they don’t eat bear. This is a folkloric concept that bewilders me. How can an animal, once so highly valued for their delicious and nutritionally dense meat, now be considered not worthy of taking by so many within the hunting community?  


It seems there are two primary misconceptions when it comes to eating bear today. The first being that bears are no good to eat, usually described with more expressive language akin to “nasty”, “disgusting”, or my least favorite, “inedible”. If I am being truthful, I almost find statements like these offensive. Nevertheless, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, which are usually based on personal experience. I have personally been eating bear year-round for nearly four years now and have never once had a single piece of bear meat that was off-putting. A major factor to consider is that bears are what they eat, and I think it’s safe to say that a bear from Northwest Montana that has been grazing on spring grasses, summer grubs, and fall riparian berries will probably taste better than their coastal Alaskan, salmon-eating relatives or their urban, trash-eating counterparts found all over the U.S. It is also worth mentioning that a hunter’s due diligence (or lack thereof) when field dressing and processing can ultimately make the biggest difference in the quality of meat. Bears run hot because of their higher fat density and thick fur, and for the same reasons that our forefathers chose these hides for warmth, one should do everything in their power to get their bears cooled off as soon as possible when harvested.  


Mainly I feel that there is a widespread lack of experience and education when it comes to eating bears. Now, thanks to people like Clay Newcomb, in recent years the hunting and eating of bears has seen a rise in popularity and, at the very least, curiosity. I believe our culture wants to reconnect with the old ways like raising or hunting your own food and partaking in activities like rendering bear fat for cooking and making common household items. As a matter of fact, my curiosity about bear fat was a driving factor in why I learned to hunt them in the first place.  


This does lead me to the second most common misconception about eating what  should be considered a modern-day delicacy: that you must cook bear meat to 160°F before eating it. This is complicated, because it is somewhat true, although not entirely. I’ll start with addressing why this has been standard policy when it comes to eating bears. As we all know, our furry friends are carriers of the trichinella parasite. Trichinella is a roundworm that can cause a horribly excruciating illness called trichinosis, with symptoms including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, muscle weakness and joint pain, face swelling, and more. As if this wasn’t bad enough, some of these symptoms may not show up until weeks later and can last up to months or even years. Basically, trichinosis is caused by eating undercooked meat that have trichinella larvae embedded in the muscle tissue of the animal, and when ingested the larvae are emancipated by stomach acid, travel to the intestine, and eventually reproduce. Then, more larvae enter the bloodstream and travel to their final destination: the muscle tissue of the host. They are a nasty little parasite. While it used to be found in domestic pork, nowadays it is mainly found in carnivores like mountain lions and wolves, with bears being the most common culprit for reported cases of trichinosis in the United States today. 


So why on God’s green earth would anyone want to experience that? It seems far-fetched that someone would read about something so cringeworthy and be willing to take that risk, and for most people I think the idea of it is farfetched. It was for me too, but I’d be lying if I said I never thought about eating medium rare bear.  


I hold steadfast in my opinion that bear is worth so much more than the grind pile. I do love bear sausage, but in doing our own processing over the years my wife and I have made bear ham, used necks and shanks for roasts, taken whole shoulders for smoking bear “butts”, smoked bear ribs, and a lot more. Almost all of my bears have been harvested in the fall and, as previously mentioned, their fat is incredibly useful. We use it for baking, searing steaks, cooking eggs, grinding our meat with bear fat instead of pork, and the list goes on. While much leaner than beef or pork, the added fat marbling in the meat of fall bears makes the meat almost like a more robustly flavored beef, and I’ve found that you can substitute bear in almost any dish made with domestic animals. 


Yet with as many ways as we have eaten bear, I knew I would never be satisfied eating well-done bear steak. Aside from backstraps and tenderloins, I refused to process bear steaks like I would deer or elk. This bothered me, but the risk of trichinosis outweighed the benefit of truly tasting bear for what it is; at least it did until a few years ago when my brother approached me with the idea of cooking bear steak via sous vide.  


“What the heck is a sous vide? Absolutely not,” I initially told him. But out of respect for his intelligence and culinary background, I at least let him make his case. He explained to me that the method of sous vide involves vacuum sealing food that is then placed in a water bath with a machine that precisely regulates the water temperature for extended periods of time. I still didn’t understand what he was getting at until he mentioned the most important piece of information: ‘The FSIS Compliance Guideline for the Prevention and Control of Trichinella and Other Parasitic Hazards in Pork Products’. In 2018, the USDA directed the Food Safety and Inspection Service to publish an updated guideline concerning tested temperatures for effectively eliminating trichinella in pork. He then directed me to the temperature chart in the guideline: at 144°F trichinella is eliminated instantly, at 142°F it’s one minute, at 138° it’s two minutes, at 134°F it’s six minutes, at 130°F it’s 30 minutes, and so forth.  


Then it clicked. It was like the lightbulb had finally turned on and in that exact moment, I felt like we were two scientists on their way to discovery. He was proposing using the precise temperature regulation of sous vide to accurately sustain the proper temperatures of getting rid of trichinella. His proposal was backed with real scientific testing, and although the idea of it was theoretical, it did make sense.  


While I could not hide my excitement at the possibility of eating bear cooked less than well-done, I was still skeptical of such a crazy idea. I started firing off questions like “how accurate is it? What temperature would we try? Is the parasite different in bears? Who pays the medical bills?” We continued to discuss and research over the next few days, and at the end of the week I grabbed some tenderloin from a recent bear and made the three-hour drive to his house. When I arrived, there was excitement with an underlying nervousness in the whole matter. We decided to set his sous vide at 144°F, let it cook for five hours to be safe, and agreed that this was an experiment that our wives would not be participating in. If successful it would be a game changer, but if not then we were potentially due for months of illness. Around the five hour mark, we took the tenderloin out, took the temperature of the meat, seared it in bear fat, sliced it, and tried our first bite of medium rare bear steak.  

It was game changing. Words cannot accurately describe how glorious it was to truly taste bear for what it is: the slight sweetness of huckleberry, the juiciness of marbled fall fat, the tenderness. It is something I will never forget. I tell folks it will change your life when you try it this way, and I say so because it truly changed mine. In our household, we eat bear steak cooked around 140°F or so nowadays, probably once a week. We process not only backstrap and tenderloin, but now we take the hindquarters and cut sirloin steaks, eye of round, bottom round, and the like. We cut flank and skirt steak as well. Eating primarily fall bears, I leave a thin fat cap on as much of our steaks as I can for flavor and a texture more like beef. The opportunities that using a sous vide has opened for us has truly enhanced our culinary fare and I promise you, I could never go back. I have seen the light. 


I do want to clarify that there is a method to this madness, and the details here matter. I would recommend letting the meat thaw out before it goes into the sous vide, and I would also not put the vacuum sealed package into the water bath until the water has reached the set temperature. Still-frozen meat and cooking before the water has reached temperature will result in less accurate cook times, particularly if you want the end product cooked at less than 144°F. Also, it is imperative that you use a meat thermometer and check multiple parts of the meat before searing and serving. I cannot stress this enough! We check the temperature of our bear steaks every single time without exception. Lastly, give it time. The FSIS chart is based on not only temperature, but temperatures sustained for certain amounts of time. The only way to be confident that the meat has been sustained at the desired temperature for the appropriate time needed is to just let it be for as long as you can. The plus side of this is that the longer a cut of meat is in the sous vide, the more tender it gets. 


While we have been eating bear this way for years now, I strongly advise proceeding with caution and in doing so, remember that you are taking your own risks. I am no food safety expert, but we always make sure we are leaving as little room for error as possible and have enjoyed medium rare bear for years without incident. Bears are fascinating creatures, and I truly feel they deserve to be valued in the same way as deer, elk, and any other big game are. When processed and prepared as such, the diversity they can provide in the kitchen is absolutely rewarding. My hope is that we as hunters will revisit the value once placed on them and when we do, we can all reap the benefits.