Let’s face it; cooking with wild game often takes a little more tender loving care than the stuff plastic-wrapped in Styrofoam, but you already trekked through the woods, carried your harvest out of the woods and processed it or paid for processing; so, what’s a little extra work anyway?
Let’s also admit that many of our first attempts at cooking wild game were, to put it lightly, not good, reducing our culinary capacity henceforth to the classic jalapeño popper or burger covered in condiments. And while I love a dove popper and venison burger with BBQ sauce, there is something to be said for cooking game to perfection and allowing the natural flavors to shine.
“Like most beginner wild game cooks, my early days of going from field to table were rough,” veteran hunter and wild game chef Josh Dahlke said. “The most common mistake – one that I was victim of – is overcooking it.”
“Because of their meager living, wild critters tend to be very lean, and less fat content means firmer, denser meat that quickly loses its moisture and turns into a hockey puck,” Dahlke said.
The difference in taste between a perfectly cooked venison backstrap and one that was just slightly overcooked is especially noticeable and applies to all game. It’s probably why some people decide, ‘I don’t care for wild game.’
But cook your harvest properly, and you will be rewarded and understand why wild game dishes have become increasingly popular.
Whether you’re just beginning your gastronomical journey with wild game, an intermediate or you want to simply expand your cooking repertoire, there are some easy techniques and things to remember that will ensure harvests are delicious and worth all the effort put forth. Below we highlight some pointers to making you harvest delicious, in addition to some tidbits specific to species.
The work doesn’t stop after you pull the trigger. To ensure your game retains the best quality and flavor, field care is essential. After the shot, getting it cleaned out and cooled is paramount. If shot placement was not ideal, and particularly if it hit the digestive tract, proper handling is crucial before the meat is saturated with digestive fluids.
Know Your Processor / Process Yourself
While most processors take pride in their work, sometimes they are known for taking shortcuts that can ultimately affect the quality and taste of your meat.
“Finding a reliable butcher who can guarantee you're getting your own meat is important, but even better is to butcher your animals so you know how they're handled from start to finish,” Dahlke said.
While more work but more rewarding, processing game oneself is the method all top wild game cooks prefer, keeping quality, sanitation and taste at the forefront when processing, in addition to butchering cuts some processors don’t offer, like a French rack.
Invest in a Thermometer
A simple but often overlooked way to make sure your game is cooked to perfection is using a thermometer. Many of us are guilty of just guessing when the meat is done just by the touch. With wild game, though, you want to cook just until it reaches its ideal temp. Using a thermometer eliminates any guess work, and they’re pretty cheap.
“Like Michael Jackson said, ‘Just beat it,’” Dalhke emphasized. “Using a meat mallet or tenderizer tool is a game-changer, especially on the tougher cuts.”
Tenderizing your game in this way will break up the tough muscle fibers that can often make wild game seem too chewy. While you can tenderize any cut you want, this often works best for tougher cuts, such as using steaks from a roast.
As Dahlke mentioned earlier, due to their nature, wild game animals have denser meat that retains less moisture. Brining your game is a great way to infuse both moisture and flavor. Brining can be achieved by submerging the meat anywhere from an hour to multiple days, depending on the size. A typical brine consists of kosher salt, water and sugars, but a quick Google search will provide you with many flavor options and recipes for your particular cut and meal you are preparing.
Similar to brining, marinating your game is a great way to infuse flavor into the dish. There are a myriad of marinades and marinating methods to choose from, from sweet to salty and from 30 minutes to 3 days.
Below, Dahlke provides some additional tips and information for cooking and prepping common game meats.
“Wild turkeys consume a diverse diet of nature's finest ingredients, and you are what you eat. A wild turkey is much more flavorful than a domestic bird, so play on the psychology of your dinner guests prior to serving your prized gobbler. Of course, it also behooves you to prepare the bird in a manner that won't make it too tough. Pan or deep frying wild turkeys is very difficult to beat, but remember not to overcook it. Instinctually, you'll want to fry wild turkey like anything else you throw in a pan full of oil, but just like a good venison steak, wild turkey meat is best cooked to a lower temp to maintain moisture.”
“Like most red wild game meat, waterfowl suffers dearly if it's overcooked unless you're using a slow-cooking technique. When roasting, pan frying or grilling waterfowl, it's important to cook it to a maximum temp of medium rare. Waterfowl is notorious for getting condemned among the most "gamey" animals, and most argue the strong flavor can be greatly attributed to the birds' blood. It never hurts to brine your waterfowl in some type of liquid/salt solution (additional spices optional) prior to cooking.
“I've found that most ungulates should be butchered and prepared with the same basic principles: shoot a relaxed animal, field dress it and cool the meat ASAP. Pronghorn, however, stands out from the herd. It's critical to – more than any other big game animal I've encountered – remove the innards from a pronghorn as quickly as possible. For some reason, it seems the digestive matter or gases in a pronghorn tend to permeate the muscle tissue (meat) faster than other animals.”
“The most formidable part of hunting wild pigs is what happens after the shot. Let's face it: pigs are ... pigs. Most pigs are filthy and stinky on the outside, so working on them can be daunting. Avoid cross contamination by keeping a clean knife while butchering. Once you get past the external barriers of a wild pig, you'll uncover a frame full of the rich pork. Like any wild game animal, feral hogs are leaner than their domestic counterparts. This means it's critical to utilize a cooking process that allows you to retain existing moisture, and add even some extra moisture throughout. Consider a meat injector when cooking wild hogs.”
Upland birds: “Get the guts out. Don't let birds bake in your game bag all day. Opt for plucking and you won't be disappointed when you finally roast your bird to perfection. Brining is a great move, and basting during the roasting process will also help to retain moisture.”