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The Basics of Cooking Wild Game

Wild Game MeatAmong the misinformed, big game animals frequently receive the unwarranted distinction of being unpleasant tasting. While mature males taken during rutting season may be a bit tougher and more pronounced in flavor than a young animal, the most important influences on the quality of the finished dish are the handling of the animal immediately after the hunt and how it is prepared. The method of transportation and storage is also important. To guarantee the most flavorful finished product, all big game animals should be carefully field-dressed, butchered, labeled and refrigerated or frozen as soon as possible.

Critical to the successful big game dish is the trimming of the meat. Whenever possible, carefully trim all visible fat, silver skin, gristle and bone from your steaks, chops and even roasts. You can make some pretty good stock out of big game bones, shanks, etc., but don’t do the same with your steaks. If your butcher likes to take the easy way out and slices your bone-in hindquarters across his band saw, get another processor. That one is lazy. Before wrapping steaks, loins and roasts, you should always trim, trim, trim. It will make a huge difference in the way your cooked game will taste.

You may choose to marinate antlered game prior to cooking. My favorite marinade consists of a hearty dry red wine, garlic, and handful of fresh herbs, olive oil and a touch of good vinegar. Be careful not to marinate too long as the meat may actually toughen due to the acidic nature of some marinades. Some meats, like bear, will benefit from marinating, particularly if your guests include neophyte wild game diners.

It is wise to invest in a good meat thermometer to determine the doneness of large game. Experience will allow you to rely on finger pressure to test for the temperature of cooked meat. The less the meat yields to pressure, the more it is cooked. Play with your food. Give the meat a poke from start to finish so that, eventually, you’ll know what a perfectly cooked piece of meat feels like. You’ll discover that the period of time required for the meat to turn from medium-rare to beyond redemption is remarkably brief. Contrary to popular opinion, searing the outside of game meats will not help to seal in flavor and moisture, but it will make it taste better.

Beyond medium-rare, antlered game will quickly toughen. If your guests usually cringe at the sight of rare meat, carve the meat out of sight and cover it with a rich, ruby red wine sauce. Internal temperatures should range from 120 – 130 degrees F (rare) to 140 degrees F (medium-rare). All bear and wild pigs should be cooked to at least 160 degrees F as a precaution against trichinosis.

Those cuts that can benefit from slow-cooking, usually in some type of liquid or stock, include neck roasts, shoulder roasts and any of the tough parts of a very mature animal.

Check with your regional fish and game departments to see if there are any region-specific diseases to watch out for. They may recommend freezing or overcooking some animals as a precaution against transmission of bacteria or disease.

Little Game

Practically any dish that calls for chicken can be substituted with rabbit, pheasant or even wild turkey. The difference will be the cooking time. Little game takes less time to prepare than chicken because it is so very lean. Exceptions include older rabbits, turkeys and other large game birds. The meat gets darker and tougher as they spend more time flying and running away from us. If your bird is a tough one, you’ll probably want to slow-cook it in a braising liquid.In addition to the aforementioned animals, “Little Game” also refers to woodchuck, squirrel and beaver. As a rule, the younger ones eat better than the older ones. They are not only easier to skin and clean, but they are more tender and delicious. Unless you are a collector of mounted big little game (an oxymoron), avoid taking them if you have a decent chance of finding smaller animals.

It is universally recommended that you wear rubber gloves when cleaning rabbits to avoid exposure to the bacteria, tularemia, which cause flu-like symptoms in exposed humans. The disease can be transmitted by exposure to the skin and through eating an infected rabbit. It is also wise to cook rabbits thoroughly as the disease cannot be killed by freezing.

“Tularemia is uncommon in rabbits, but be aware of the possibility that cottontails could be infected with this disease.

The liver and spleen of a rabbit carrying tularemia will be swollen, with the liver covered with hundreds of tiny white spots. A few, larger spots about the size of a pencil eraser are symptomatic not of tularemia but of tapeworm. Rabbits showing symptoms of tularemia should be buried. Those with just a couple of the larger white spots can be eaten safely, but the viscera should be buried or placed in a trashcan so that dogs can’t reach them.

The most common route of infection in humans is through a break in the skin, and there’s obviously an opportunity for that to occur during the cleaning of tularemia-infected rabbits. To reduce the risk posed by dressing cottontails, wear rubber gloves and wash thoroughly with soap and water after cleaning the game.”

Little game should be dressed and cooled as soon as possible. You can leave the skin on for protection during freezing, but it is normally removed before cooking. Make sure that the animals are rinsed in cold water and wiped dry with a clean cloth or paper towels before refrigerating or freezing. Reaping the rewards of an upland game bird hunt requires attention during preparation. Upland bird flavors are typically subtle and hardly “gamy”. Very little, if any, marinating is called for. Cooking times are minimal. Of course, you can prepare a quail or grouse dish that “falls right off the bone” by stewing for several hours, but the finished product will taste more like the other ingredients than the bird itself. Tender, juicy game birds should be cooked quickly with relatively high heat after judicious seasoning.

Wild light-fleshed game birds such as quail, chukar and pheasant should be just a tad pink when cooked. Those raised in pens can and should be cooked a little longer. Darker meat birds like doves and Hungarian partridge should be cooked in a similar fashion until firm, but still juicy. If your birds are dry and tough, don’t blame the bird. You probably overcooked it.

With few exceptions, the skin should not be removed from the birds to protect the lean meat from drying out. If you do not like the taste and/or texture of cooked game bird skin, remove the skin after cooking. If desired, cover the breasts with bacon, julienned vegetables or fresh herbs for additional protection and flavoring, especially if the skin has been removed or torn during cleaning. When properly cooked, the juice in the fattiest part of the thigh will run clean when pricked.

If you think that hanging your birds in the cool cellar will make them taste better, you’re nuts. Fresher is better.

Waterfowl

Have you ever notice how all duck parts are not created equally? If the breasts are cooked perfectly, i.e., medium-rare, tender and juicy, then the legs and thighs are tough, stringy and chewy. The next time you prepare whole duck in a traditional manner notice just how many of the duck legs are actually eaten. Many folks cram their waterfowl with an assortment of ingredients with the mistaken notion that oranges, onions, rice and the like will rid the bird of it’s inherent “gamy” flavor. Quite often, the result is just the opposite. Whole stuffed birds will take longer to cook, particularly at the breastbone, because the stuffing must be sufficiently heated to cook the adjacent meat. In the meantime, the flesh which is exposed most directly to the heat will overcook.Trust me when I tell you that stuffing your waterfowl won’t do a bit of good. I’ve proven this fact too many times to count. I’ll roast, bake, broil or broil and whole bird and my culinary competitor will do the same only his or her bird will be stuffed with just about anything you can imagine. Without fail, the stuffed birds do not taste any different than the ones that are not stuffed. Mine cook faster and are invariably more tender and juicy. Don’t take my word for it, try it yourself.

So, how do I cook my ducks? In parts. As I harvest ducks during the season, I separate the breasts, legs and thighs from the body. I use the carcass for making flavorful stocks and I place the breasts in one freezer-safe bag, mine is a Food Saver vacuum-sealer, and the legs/thighs in another bag. I label each clearly with a permanent marker and place them in the freezer. I usually wait until I have accumulated enough duck legs to make a sizable appetizer.

You can always go back to roasting whole ducks, but you do owe it to yourself to give some of my recipes a try. If you can’t easily get your hands on all of the ingredients, don’t be afraid to make a substitution or two. Chances are, your version will be as good or better than my own.

Most importantly, do not allow your duck breasts to cook beyond medium-rare. Once duck breasts get over-cooked they do take on unpleasant flavors and become less tender. If you are worried about some mysterious wild game disease, get over it. If your duck made it far enough for you to shoot at it, it was a very healthy animal. Have you ever tried flying a few thousand miles without an airplane? To prove my point, cut a duck breast in half. Cook one half medium-rare and the other half well-done. Taste the difference. Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

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2 Responses to "The Basics of Cooking Wild Game"

  1. Jax says:

    All great advice. People love to blame the taste of the game on the animal and forget it starts with how you handle it. Don’t handle it correctly after the kill and you can end up with some bad tasting meat. Learn to care for the meat before you go killing it.

  2. Peter says:

    If you know how to prepare it, any meat can have a delicious taste. More caution is required when cooking wild game, but I think that the result is more than satisfying. Thanks for the tips!

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