Bear fat. Mystical manna to some, acrid monstrosity to others. To listen to some people, bear fat is a cure-all, a magic fat perfect for cooking, waterproofing boots, making soap or herbal ointments. Listen to others and they will tell you that bear fat is the most disgusting substance this side of the sludge on the floor of a porno theater.
How can this be? How can one substance be both things? It can, and here’s why:
Like pigs, raccoons, ducks, geese and yes, humans, bears are omnivores. And no other sort of critter tastes more of what it eats than an omnivore. I suspect this is because of the huge variety in diet an omnivore can have — a deer pretty much just eats leafy things, while a mallard can eat shrimp, clams, corn, barley rice or bugs (and often eats all of these on a given day). Gourmands swoon over the flavor of acorn-eating pigs from Spain, and I’ve swooned over the flavor of canvasback ducks eating wild celery.
Bears are no different. Shoot a bear that had been eating acorns or blueberries or manzanita and you’ll find that its fat will be as white as snow and virtually indistinguishable from the finest pork lard you can buy or make. Shoot a bear that had been gorging itself on dead salmon and you’ll get weird orangey-yellow fat that stinks like low tide in August.
In the last days of 2012 Holly shot a black bear that we guess had been eating lots of manzanita berries and other wholesome things, because a) the bear was hugely fat and b) that fat was sublime. I rendered out more than a gallon, froze most of it and have been using the bear lard ever since.
If you read enough American literature, especially frontier literature, you will come across references to bear grease. It has been a uniquely North American substance that has indeed been used for cooking, waterproofing (I waterproof my boots with bear fat), greasing machinery, slicking back hair, lighting lamps and who-knows-what-else. But the most breathless prose has always been reserved for bear fat in pastry.
Most bakers know that pork lard makes the flakiest pie crust, and bear fat has virtually the same properties as pork lard: It looks the same, smells and tastes fairly neutral like pork lard, melts at a similar temperature and stores just as well.
I couldn’t find any comprehensive data on the nutritional details of bear fat, and the probable reason is because it’s so variable. There is a fairly hilarious study coming out of the University of Nebraska that did find that the fat in black bears pillaging suburban garbage cans is far higher in unhealthy trans fatty acids than those with little or no contact with humans. Hot Pocket bears, anyone?
At any rate, I like buttermilk biscuits. A lot. So I had to give bear fat buttermilk biscuits a go. I started with a recipe I knew would work: Elise’s over at Simply Recipes. Her recipes are always tested and true. Her recipe goes on to make that classic milk-and-sausage gravy, and while I could have done that with bear sausage, I confess to hating white gravy; I am a red-eye gravy man.
I can tell you that damn these were good! I even hippie’d it up with some acorn flour, too, and it was still great. Flaky as hell, neutral — no “beary” aroma or taste — and well, just some really good biscuits. Don’t have bear fat kicking around? Use regular lard.
- 2 1/2 cups self-rising flour
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup rendered bear fat
- 1 cup cold buttermilk, plus 2 more tablespoons
- 2 tablespoons bear fat or melted butter (to brush on top)
- Preheat your oven to 450°F. Get a baking sheet or cast iron frying pan ready.
- Whisk together the flour, sugar and salt in a bowl. Add the bear fat and mash it into the flour with a fork or a pastry cutter. Work fast so the bear fat doesn't melt on you. You're done when the mixture looks like little crumbly peas.
- Pour in the buttermilk and stir together just until the dough comes together. It should be pretty sticky, but the dough will come away from the sides of the bowl. Don't overwork it, or your biscuits will be tough.
- Cover your hands lightly with flour and pick the dough up and set it on a floured work surface; I use a clean kitchen counter. Don't knead the dough so much as fold it over on itself. Flatten it out into a disc about 3/4 inch thick. Use a cutter or a glass to cut rounds out, setting each one on the baking sheet or frying pan so they are just barely touching each other. Reform the dough until you use it all up. If the cutter gets sticky, dust it with flour.
- Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, or until the tops begin to brown. As soon as they come out, paint with the melted butter. Eat warm.