Bear sign

bear signI should warn you up front that this blog is not about bears. Rather, it’s about something entirely different. Logged in an obscure nineteenth century autobiography of a cowboy was the mention of “bear sign.” This popular treat was an open-range, western-style version of our modern-day donut.

According to The Old West Baking Book, our cowboy and his friends would make excuses to ride twenty miles in the hard saddle to enjoy the popular pastry. Apparently, bear signs came in a variety of different flavors and forms. Most, however, were assembled without the hole.

Bear signs were also called “oily cakes” and “dough nuts.”

Below is a supposed fail-safe, delicious western recipe for Bear Sign that I found in The Old West Baking Book compiled by Lon Walters.

Frying Time: 3-5 minutes per side  Frying Temperature: 375


1 cup buttermilk

2 eggs, beaten

1 cup granulated sugar

1/8 cup butter, melted

2 tablespoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

4 cups all-purpose flour


In the first bowl, mix buttermilk, eggs, sugar, and melted butter until well-blended. In a second bowl, combine the baking powder, salt, cinnamon and flour. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the first bowl, stirring them together. This mix should be stiff enough to hold a spoon upright. If not, mix in more flour. Knead together lightly for a minute or so, then turn out on a floured board or countertop.

Using a rolling pin, empty bottle, or heel of your hand to roll out to about one finger-width height (a quarter inch). Cut circles out with a small glass and set aside for about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, pour one inch of oil in  large skillett and heat.  It’s hot enough when a bread cube browns in about 1 minute. Slide the circles into the hot oil and brown on one side. Turn over and brown on the other. Set out to drain on a plate covered with paper towels (or a brown bag).

Cover with powdered sugar and eat warm. YUM!

Renee Ryan
Award-winning, multi-published author Renee Ryan sold her first book by winning the 2001 inaugural Dorchester/Romantic Times New Historical Voice Contest. She sold her second book to Harlequin Love Inspired Historical and has since sold nine more manuscripts to Love Inspired and Love Inspired Historical.
Updated: January 21, 2014 — 6:05 pm


  1. Wonder why it has that name. Very interesting! It sounds yummy, I might have to try it.

  2. That does sound good

  3. Susan P, I was wondering the same thing. Who knows what those cowboys were thinking.

  4. Janine, I know, right? I’m under a tight deadline (story of my life) but once I come up for air I plan to try this recipe. Kind of reminds me of the New Orleans Begne…best treat EVER!

  5. I always like trying new recipes so will be trying this one.

  6. Hmmm…predecessor to the modern-day bear claw…

  7. My family has been making our version of this since I was a child.
    We didn’t do it from scratch though….Pillsbury shortcut!!
    2 cans of Pillsbury buttermilk biscuits, pulled apart and cut in half.
    Place in hot oil and brown both sides (as above).
    Remove and lay on paper towels do drain, but only for a minute because you want a little oil left on them so the powdered sugar will stick!
    We used a bowl with a tight lid or a large ziploc bag, filled it with the powdered sugar and added the donuts as they came off the paper towels.
    Then place the finished donut on a fresh plate and when they’re all done…enjoy!
    It’s definitely a 2 person job!
    But that’s what made it fun, since we all hung out in the kitchen, making a mess and eating yummy donuts!
    Cheers All!

  8. I’ve never been comfortable with WHY they call it bear sign and I don’t want to talk about it.
    The dough nuts though…I could totally get excited about them!!!!

  9. I’m like Mary – Bear Sign makes me think about what a bear would leave behind as evidence of his passing – and I doubt it’s referring to scratch marks on trees. Typical male humor. Not much has changed where that is concerned over the last hundred years. As a mom of two boys I can attest to that.

  10. Renee, these look mouth-watering. I’m a sucker for donuts and anything similar. Just don’t look at my waistline too closely. Like Stephanie Faulkner said, I also made these from Pillsbury biscuit dough. Only now, I’ve graduated to the larger Grands brand. LOL Really enjoyed your blog. I may have to make some of these today. I just happen to have a can of biscuits in my fridge!

  11. Hmmm, have to try this recipe!

  12. Oh yeah, Karen just HAD TO SAY IT!!!!

  13. btw Renee, I am so hungry this blog post now rises to the level of a temptation to sin!!!!

    I’m dieting and there is NO DIET IN THE WORLD WITH DONUTS IN IT!!!

    Which is why, I think, most diets fail. Allow a few donuts and people would be able to stay right on them. Of course they might not exactly help you lose weight.


  14. Karen, TOO FUNNY. I had the exact same thought, but you went and said it. Hmmm….

  15. Mary, donuts are not included on a diet???? I refuse to acknowledge this. Refuse, I tell you!!!!

  16. Stephanie, love your recipe. Going to try it after my deadline, but I like Linda’s alternation. If a regular biscuit is good, surely a GRAND is better.

  17. Yum, Renee! Definitely sounds like something I could try since it does not contain yeast and cooking with yeast terrifies me. I can almost taste this. Thanks for the culinary possibility!

  18. I’m going to try making that sometime! Sounds good! Thanks for sharing!

  19. This recipe sounds very much like something my grandpa used to mask as far as the ingredients. After mixing it was dropped by spoon full into the cups of a special pan with a small amount of oil or in his day lard. It was called abelskiver. It was turned after a bit then rolled in sugar. I own one of the pans but it is cast iron and my glass top stove doesn’t recommend it’s use. Perhaps I’ll drag out the camp stove and try it out. Thanks for posting it. By the way the picture looks nothing like the bear sign left behind by the bear my husband and I tracked.

  20. Maybe those cowboys were just hoping to gross out the faint of heart with their name for the donuts so there would be more for them. Ha!

  21. Renee, these sound yummy! Like Stephanie and Linda, I’ve made a version of these for years using canned biscuits. Learned it from my momma who called them The Lazy Cook’s Beignets

  22. I like how you think, Linda! Grands would be a step up, wouldn’t it?!
    Thanks for sharing that!

  23. Wow, this is so cool! It’s always nice to learn something new about life back then 🙂 Loved this post and those things look amazing!

  24. Yum. A lot like fried bread dough. It is made from raised yeast dough and usually deep fried although I usually pan fry it similar to the directions in the recipe you found. I don’t make it very often because it is anything but calorie free. Served hot with maple syrup it is wonderful. I’ll have to try the above recipe.

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