5 rules to master butchering and cooking wild game
When I went first time with my wife in our wild expedition – was not exactly expedition as I had my first log house back then – my plan was to surprise her with my cooking skills. Short long story, for the first dinner my plan was to cook venison. She replied that she tried before, but was something that she would not try again.
I wasn’t disappointed as I trust my skills and I know the difference between cooking bad and cooking great. More, cooking in the wild gives food a special taste, smell and you can’t compare to a piece of meat you have at the restaurant.
At least, this is what I believe about cooking the old ways.
So, in an effort to breakdown the misstep of “not cooking it right” and “I don’t like wild game” I will tell you below my rules when I cook wild game.
Be thankful for the wild game.
When I talk with other survivalists I end up talking about the hunting part almost every time. I will not start here to talk about this in detail as everyone has different methods and different survival needs. Killing an animal is one thing, butchering it is another thing.
The American Indians and other indigenous groups used all of the animal, utilizing many of the internal organs as food or for other purposes. Finally, take care of the skin of the animal, as the skin itself is valuable. It can be tanned, converting it to either leather or furs for making clothing, shoes and even shelters.
The other thing you’re going to have to know how to do is turn that dead animal into meat, once you kill it. If you don’t do that correctly, the meat could be tainted and dangerous to eat.
Proper preparation of game meat is critical.
Any game meat that is improper to eat can lead to sickness and even death. This is because all animals have a large number of bacteria living in their bodies, mostly in the gastrointestinal tract.
As long as they are contained there, they are safe; but if they contaminate the parts of the animal that you are going to eat, it can be extremely dangerous.
The preparation of small game and large game for use is essentially the same. I’m going to talk about this from the viewpoint of large game, but the methodologies stay the same.
Rule #1 – Aging the game first
Today’s farmed animals live a very different lifestyle than their ancestors or wild counterparts—they are sedentary, eat a uniform diet and are slaughtered before they reach maturity. It is not surprising that it takes a slightly different approach to properly cook a wild animal, and the secret lies in proper aging.
I have heard a lot of talk about aging the meat. Aging is a change in the activity of muscle enzymes. At death, the enzymes begin to deteriorate cell molecules indiscriminately. All of this deterioration and the breakdown creates intense flavor, which improves further upon cooking wild game.
In the past, game was hung until it began to rot—a treatment called mortification—which not only tenderized the meat but heightened the wild, gamy flavor even further. We don’t practice this today because society is accustomed to eating farmed animals.
Hanging a deer in your garage for a week in varying temperatures until mold forms, doesn’t sound too appetizing to me. I usually hang the deer for maximum 48 hours. The idea is to let the deer come out of rigor mortis. When the meat loosens up a little, that’s the moment when you should butcher it.
Be careful and don’t just let meat hang in variable conditions because you heard some guy tell you you should. If you do hang your deer, remove the tenderloins beforehand. They are small and very tender. If you let them dry out, you can loose half the meat on the tenders to crust.
Rule #2 – Don’t throw the organs
I know that there are some folks there that disagree about this part. Most people I meet they are convinced they don’t like organ meats. Of course, most of them never even tried them. Or they eat some liver with onions and that’s all they can remember from eating organ or wild game. For example, when cooked right, the heart is one of the best pieces of meat you ever have.
There are certain parts that I don’t eat either. The lungs, spleen and pancreas are just a few examples of organs that are eaten in many cultures.
But from my point of view the liver, kidneys and tongue are a different story.
In order to use these organs, I’ve had to experiment with many different recipes to make them appealing to my family. With deer liver, I think I found the best option: fresh sausages.
Mazzafegati is a type of Italian liver (wild boar) sausage and cooked on wood fire, you’d never even know it had liver in it. I personally love liver and onions fried in some fat, but getting my wife and kids to eat this dish is a little more difficult.
My latest mazzafegati recipe is simply a winner.
This is what I do with the livers of the deers and wild pigs I shoot. Sometimes I use bison meat and liver. You can use domestic pork and and pork liver for this, but I prefer wild boar. Make sure everything is very cold when you make these sausages — liver is very moist, and will bleed when ground.
Start by cutting the liver and the meat into small chunks to fit into your grinder. I use seasonings like salt, black pepper, coriander and fennel seeds that I prefer to first heat them in an iron skillet. These way you will take out the full flavors. What you must do is add some fat (you can use pork fat or even caul fat).
Mix everything with the meat and place in the freezer for about 1 hour.
Grind the meat and mix with your hands some vermouth, pine nuts and some orange zest. When everything is well-mixed, stuff into prepared hog casings and lay down on some baking sheet or newspapers to dry.
Believe me, they will be great with pasta, with any breakfast and as I like to say, they cry for smoke!
Rule #3 – Cooking wild birds whole
Unless you have a master chef skill, I recommend to break your birds down. It doesn’t matter if you cook a duck or a turkey. If you plan to cook tender legs, your breast will be over done and I am sure no body likes that. My suggestion is to cut the breast out and save the legs and thighs separately. Fry them differently and use some fat or seasoning as needed.
As a side tip, if you are not so experienced you can remove the skin and fat from a duck and this can make it taste better. I prefer not, but it’s all about taste and skills.
The remaining carcass is very good to make a soup or stock. The main advantage of breaking down your birds is that you can have multiple dishes or stockpile parts of it.
Rule #4 – Cooking wild game the wrong way
Because there is less fat in wild animals, the moisture evaporates quickly in the pan, drying out the meat, turning it gray and giving it that “gamy” flavor. Dark-meat birds as ducks, and red meat game animals like venison must be served no more than medium-rare. Serving it rare is even better. There is no use in eating it otherwise.
The type of cuts is the main factor that should tell you how to cook it. Choosing the correct cooking method is crucial for a successful dish. Throwing shanks on the grill and trying to cook them isn’t going to work so well. Muscles like shanks and neck are great for outdoor stews because they have a lot of connective tissue which will break down during slow cooking.
Try to learn as much as you can about butchering the meat and you will have a clear view on your meat. And remember, the only way to get better at cooking wild game is to cook more of it.
Rule #5 – Brining is gold
Brining is an old technique that involves soaking meat in a flavorful saltwater solution to enhance its moisture. The proper ratio is 2 tablespoons of salt to 4 cups of water. It is especially good with breast meat and other lean cuts like the loin.
Brining does not break down the proteins in the meat in the way that marinating does. The true purpose of brining is juiciness, whereas the true purpose of marinating is tenderization. It is a good idea to rest a piece of meat once it comes out of a brine, to allow the moisture to retreat back into the meat.
Many people knowing the health benefits of venison forego eating it because they claim that venison has a wild flavor and that it tough and chewy. Marinades are one of my favorite ways to tenderize venison. For an excellent marinade you will need an acid wine or lemon, an oil and herbs and spices of your choice. Not only do marinades add flavor, but the acid will effectively denature your meat which will result in tasty piece of meat.
Then, is just good to cook. If you are out there and have no time for this, a good salt treatment of the meat will make it ready for your dinner. Salt is good if you plan to take some meat to your family after the hunt. It preserves by drawing water out of cells in a process called osmosis. When it does this to bacteria cells, it kills them. So salting meat is a very important part of preserving it, both when smoking and with jerking.
Cooking should be easy and fun. Especially when you like outdoor life.
I believe that the food I cook myself and eaten out there in front of my log house has a better taste. With just a little understanding of the hunting and ingredients you are using, the sky is your only limit. Try to use more of your instincts and don’t be afraid to experiment.
What I learned over the years is to bend to the will of the food. The food knows what it wants to be and it’s your job to bring out what lies within.
Use these rules and you will enjoy your wildlife at its best. Happy hunting and happy cooking wild game!