In past conversations with non-hunting friends, when I’ve mentioned eating wild game, the reaction has often been a sour look and a sneer. “How can you eat that stuff,” they would ask. “It’s so tough, dry and gamy.”
Such a reaction to the mere thought of eating wild game is fairly common and leads me to believe that a significant number of hunters are not properly preparing and cooking their kill. A meal of wild game done right is ambrosial. Done wrong, wild game can be anything from unpleasant to downright stomach-churning. By taking a appropriate measures starting the second you score a hit on a game animal, you can be fairly certain your wild game meal will be a success.
1. Get the guts out ASAP
This is important due to the fact that the digestive organs of an animal will begin to spoil quickly and can thus taint the meat. Additionally, if the digestive organs were damaged when the animal was hit, intestinal and stomach fluids will taint the meat. The best way to prevent tainted meat is to field dress the animal as soon as possible, minimally removing the digestive organs.
The following videos provide a good overview of how to field dress various game animals. WARNING: these are very graphic and not for the squeamish.
Field dressing deer
Field dressing small game birds
2. Keep your kill cool
Keeping meat cool to prevent spoiling can be tricky, especially during hunting seasons that occur early in fall. It’s inevitable that a bird or rabbit left in a car trunk or pickup bed on a sunny 70 degree day in early October isn’t going to taste pleasant. Similarly, a deer allowed to hang for a week when daytime temps are in the 50s or hotter won’t do anything good for the palatability of the venison.
When hunting small game, I keep a cooler with ice packs in my vehicle. I plan my hunting routes so that I can return to my vehicle at least once per hour in order to place any game I may have in the cooler. While it isn’t practical or possible to get larger game animals into a cooler, it is in the best interest of a hunter to have the animal butchered as soon as reasonably possible.
3. Proper freezing = good eating
Game meat can be frozen for longer term storage. It is crucial to seal game in airtight packaging to prevent freezer burn. A large game animal processed by a good butcher will be returned to the hunter wrapped in freezer paper and ready for storage. When processing game at home, meat should be sealed in one of the vacuum sealable freezer bags now available at most grocery stores. Such bags are also a godsend when freezing freshly caught fish.
4. Marinades are you friend
In order to tone down the sometimes strong, tangy flavor of many wild meats, a fruit juice based marinade will often work wonders. In addition to making the meat taste less gamy, the acids in the fruit juice will begin to break down some of the muscle tissue, resulting in tenderization. I am particularly fond of marinating ruffed grouse breast in apple cider, or even hard apple cider overnight before cooking.
5. Add fat and don’t overcook
A common mistake novice cooks make when preparing wild game is to cook it as though it is a cut of beef, pork, or chicken purchased at the local grocery store. Simply seasoning a piece of wild game meat and then just tossing it on the grill or in the oven will result in a dry, “hockey puck” of a piece of meat that is as tough as shoe leather. This is due to the fact that most wild meats are virtually fat-free. The fat inherent to domestic meat is what keeps it from drying out quickly during cooking.
The best way to keep wild meat from becoming a shriveled mess is to add a little animal fat in the form of butter, bacon, poultry stock, or even lard. For example, I’ve found that wrapping strips of game bird breast in bacon prior to cooking yields a moist, flavorful treat. Similarly, it is advisable to use chicken or beef stock as the base for wild game soups, stews, and pot pies.
Some cuts of big game meat will contain enough fat to be cooked without adding more fat, but they should be watched carefully in order to avoid overcooking.
6. When all else fails, slow cook it until it falls off the bone
Occasionally, a game animal will yield meat that is mind-numbingly tough. No matter how long you marinade it, chewing the cooked meat will require major feats of athleticism. When this happens, it’s time turn to slow cooking.
Even the toughest meat will eventually soften when cooked long enough in an enclosed container at a low heat. This is accomplished by placing the meat in an electric slow cooker for several hours. Alternatively, meat can be placed in a Dutch oven or covered casserole dish and be slow cooked in an oven set at 300 to 350 degrees. Game birds and rabbit should be slow cooked in enough chicken stock to just cover the meat. Venison can be slow cooked in beef stock. The meat is done when it can be pulled from the bone with a fork and can then be used in soups, stews, chilis, or pot pies.