Meat Week: How to Smoke a Black Bear Ham

Despite what a lot of hunters will tell you, black bear meat is delicious. I will concede the flavor of the meat depends on what the bear has been feeding on and what time of year it was killed, but I've killed both fall and spring bears and both have been wonderful. Although there are hundreds of great ways to prepare bear meat, I'm now a huge fan of making a whole, bone-in bear ham like this one.

This particular bear, a middle-aged sow, was called out of an oak flat in a deep canyon in northwestern New Mexico this past August. That part of the state isn't especially verdant, so I'm thinking acorns were probably the bear's primary food source. When I saw how much fat the sow had on her, I knew she would be good eating. Because we had to pack her out on our backs, I trimmed a lot of the fat in the field. I kind of regret not bringing more of it out, as what I did render from her was sweet and delicious. I've used it to fry everything from eggs to potatoes--even chicken.

Surprisingly, there aren't a lot of sources out there detailing how to make a bear ham, so I did hours of research, including referencing two must-have books for the wild-game cook--Charcuterie by Polcyn and Ruhlamn, and the meat-making bible from Rytek Kutas titled "Great Sausage Recipes and Meat Curing, 4th Edition."

First, the bear would have to go in a brine. Many ham brines call for InstaCure, which is also known as Pink Salt. I went with Morton's Tender Quick instead, which includes nitrates and nitrates, as well as salt. Here's the recipe:

Brine Recipe

_Ingredients
_- 1 gallon ice cold water
- 1 cup Tender Quick (or about 1 ½ tbs. per pound of meat)
- 2 cups brown sugar
- ¼ cup pickling spices
- 10-pound bone-in bear ham

Directions:
1. Prepare the bear ham by removing the fat cap and much of the other surface fat. (Keep the fat for rendering. Bear fat is great for frying potatoes, making biscuits and even waterproofing your boots.)

2. In a food-safe tub large enough to submerge your bear ham, mix the water with the next three ingredients. Whisk thoroughly until the Tender Quick and the brown sugar is fully dissolved. (Whisking the ingredients into warm or hot water will help the dissolving process, but then you'll have to refrigerate the brine for several hours before adding the bear ham.)

3. Using a syringe or marinade injector, pump the brine into the bear ham at several locations. Be sure to get the needle down the bone while pumping. Add the bear ham to the brine, ensuring it is completely submerged. Place a weighted plate or pan on top of the bear to keep it under the surface of the brine.

4. Brine the bear for 10 days (or one day per pound).

5. After 10 days, remove the bear from the brine and rinse with cold water. Place on a rack set over a sheet pan and Pat dry. Let the ham drain and come to room temperature, about 1 hour.

6. Hang the bear ham in a smoker that's been preheated to 120 degrees. Open the smoker vents and hold at this temperature without smoke for 1 to 2 hours. You could put the ham in a nylon stockinette before smoking, but I didn't have one so I just tied a loop to the exposed bone with some kitchen twine. Add wood chips to the pan and raise the temperature of the smoker to 180 degrees. I used a mix of alder and hickory.

7. Close vents halfway and smoke until the ham's internal temperature reaches 155 degrees. (Note: Do not place your temperature probe on top of the smoker like this. It will ruin it. I know this from experience.) The amount of time it takes for the ham to come up to temperature will vary depending on a number of factors, including outside temperature. This ham took about 10 hours before it was done.

8. A perfectly smoked ham should be pink clear through. If your ham is spotty or gray in places, the cure didn't penetrate. Next time, pump it more thoroughly and leave the ham in the brine a few days longer.

9. And as good as a bear ham is fresh from the smoker, it's even better as leftovers. Here it goes into a ham sandwich with lots of mayo, yellow mustard and, yes, American cheese, for which I have a weakness. And don't forget to save the bone, which will take a plain bowl of ham and beans to wild new level.