I love to cook! And like most folks, I love to eat. One of my favorite things to do with family and friends is prepare a big meal with just about everything on the table being something I grew in my garden or harvested from the field. But when you start to talk to those who have yet to indulge in the bounty of the great outdoors (a.k.a. wild game) you might be witness to some scrunched faces and even an occasional shudder of trepidation. This body language, frequently followed by a verbal, “Ick!” brings to mind the age old question most of us heard at some point in our youth…”How do you know you don’t like it, if you’ve never tried it?”
What we eat, and what we think is edible, is generally dictated by family tradition and the culture in which we are raised. Assuming you eat meat, and unless you are a hunter, most of us are fairly limited in our choices for meat protein – beef, pork, chicken and possibly some fish. But there’s a big “wild” world of potential menu items to be explored. Although, for a number of reasons we don’t have hunting seasons on all wildlife, the reality is, all furbearing mammals and all birds are edible. Additionally, most freshwater fish are edible, as well as most insects. But let’s not get too wild too soon. For the purposes of this blog, we’ll concentrate on some basics for the more commonly hunted species. And if you are a bit apprehensive about trying wild game, here’s something to ponder…If it wasn’t delicious table fare, why are there so many recipes for it? Hmmmm?
In my opinion, and that of millions of other hunters, wild game is pretty darn tasty. If you have experimented with cooking wild game, but didn’t care for the results, it might have something to do with the way it was processed before cooking and/or the way it was prepared. Game animals are often not harvested until they are mature. They tend to get a lot of exercise and enjoy a varied diet, so their flavors can be variable and rich, often referred to as “gamey.” Whereas farm animals are generally sedentary, eat a consistent diet, and are slaughtered and processed before they reach maturity. So cooking with wild game requires a slightly different approach.
Large game animals such as deer should be aged, or left to hang before processing. Aging begins upon death of the animal. It’s the change and breakdown of enzymes, proteins and fats, which enhances the flavor of the meat and tenderizes it. The length of aging is usually a personal preference, but may also depend on environmental conditions. If the weather is warm and you don’t have a cool place to hang the animal, it’s better to process it quickly rather than risk it spoiling and going to waste.
Due to all that exercise game animals get, they generally don’t contain much fat so the meat can sometimes taste dry or tough. Brining or marinating may be in order. Brining is an old-fashioned technique that involves soaking the meat in a saltwater solution to enhance moisture. You may recall learning about osmosis in biology class; brining is basically the process of osmosis. On the other hand, the various ingredients of a marinade break down some of the meat structure to tenderize it. Regardless of whether you brine or marinate, the surest way to turn someone off to wild game is to overcook it. White-meat upland birds need to be basted or poached, but never served rare. Dark-meat birds such as ducks, and red meat game like venison should not be cooked to more than medium rare. Wild turkeys tend to have drier breast meat and tougher legs than a domestic, store-bought turkey. Although I personally have had great success brining and roasting wild turkey and waterfowl, many folks prefer to grind these species into versatile burger, and often use the meat for making sausage.
Another problem in cooking with game meat is anticipating a gamey or off-putting flavor so folks will overcompensate with other ingredients, such as cream of mushroom soup, jalapenos, or bacon. Although I’m not a big fan of jalapenos, I am a huge supporter of bacon (or as I like to call it, “meat candy”), but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Game meat should be cooked and served with flavors that enhance it, not cover it up. If it’s aged, brined or marinated, and cooked properly, there should be no reason to smother or disguise it.
Your average cookbook may not include recipes for wild game, but there are others completely dedicated to the art and science of it. You’ll be more likely to find recipes for game animals in older cookbooks like those handed down from grandma or Aunt Betty. And of course, there’s always the Internet. Go ahead – pick a game critter and type it in. You might be surprised at the wide variety of ways to prepare dove, rabbit, squirrel, etc. Don’t be afraid to experiment and adjust recipes to your own taste. You never know, your new favorite meal just might be Squirrel Fricassee, or maybe Mushroom Braised Quail!
Here are just a few simple game recipes to get you started…
Squirrel or Rabbit in a Crock Pot
NOTE: Squirrel and rabbit can be substituted in just about any recipe that calls for chicken
- 3-6 dressed squirrels, cut in pieces or 1-2 dressed rabbits cut into serving size pieces
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons lemon or lime juice
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
Place squirrel or rabbit pieces in crock pot. Mix all ingredients in a small bowl and pour over meat. Cover and cook on low heat for 7-8 hours. To thicken gravy, use either flour or cornstarch mixed with water. Cook on high until thickened.
Brined Wild Turkey
- 2 gallons of water (or enough to cover turkey completely)
- 1 ½ cups of Kosher or canning salt (NOT TABLE SALT – it will make the brine too salty)
- ¼ cup Worchestershire sauce
- ½ cup brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
Other herbs (oregano, thyme, marjoram, chives, etc.) and/or liquid smoke may also be added to your taste
Bring water to a boil and add all ingredients. Take off the heat and stir until the salt and sugar dissolve. Cool to room temperature. Place turkey in a large food-grade bucket or stock pot (a small, cooler may also be used) and pour cooled brine over the bird to cover it. Store in refrigerator for at least 24 hours and up to 2 days. Rinse well and pat dry. The bird may be smoked, deep fried or roasted till juices run clear.
Marinated Grilled Venison Steaks
- 6 backstrap venison steaks (other cuts may be used)
- ¼ cup apple cider (or apple juice)
- ¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder, or 2 cloves crushed garlic
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- ½ tsp ground black pepper
Mix all ingredients. Place steaks in a shallow bowl and cover with marinade. Refrigerate for at least 2-3 hours. Place steaks on a lightly greased, preheated grill and cook 7 to 10 minutes per side.