Cooking Wild Meat
Cooking with wild game isn’t hard. There are a few things to keep in mind to make your wild game taste delicious. Here is a few tips for how to prepare wild game to cook.
- Keep Wild Game Cold and Clean
- Brine Your Waterfowl
- Rest Wild Game After Cooking
- Age Larger Wild Game for Better Flavor and Tenderness
- Don’t Overcook Wild Game
- Remove Most of the Wild Game Fat
- Marinate Wild Game for Tenderness and Flavor
FRYING WILD GAME
Frying seems to be a simple process of heating some oil and throwing some meat in. There is a little more to it than that if you want tender, juicy, and most importantly meat that is delicious and desirable. So many times when people fry their game whether it be turkey, fish or squirrel the outside becomes golden brown and they serve the meat half done. Fish are a little more forgiving in that it is a white meat and will cook through quickly so it will be done just in the time it takes to brown the batter provided you cut the pieces into bite size morsels which is how I cook fish. If you fry your fish as a whole fish or fillet then read on as these tips will pertain to your fish as well.
LISTEN TO THE SIZZLE
My favorite way to fry is to listen to the sizzle. You can tell how hot your meat is getting based on the sound of the sizzle. It starts when you add the meat to the skillet. Never add so much meat that the sizzle diminishes too much. If you add the meat too fast you cool the oil and that causes the batter to soak up the oil causing your batter to take on an oily taste.
Add the meat while the heat is on high and maintain the sizzle. Once all the meat is in the oil and the oil has, what I call a fast sizzle, wait just a minute and then with the first piece you placed in the skillet begin to turn your meat to allow the other side to brown. Once the sizzle comes back up to a fast sizzle turn the heat down and cover. The cover will trap heat and help to cook the top side of your meat along with the bottom. Listen to that sizzle. It will increase with the cover on the skillet so you will have to turn the heat down a little to maintain a slow sizzle.
Lastly be sure to check and turn your meat often. This allows you to monitor the browning process, but more importantly it alternates the temperature applied to your meat and this helps to slowly cook your meat without burning the batter.
The reason I prefer to listen to the sizzle is because the sizzle tells you the temperature of your meat. If the sizzle is going crazy that means your batter is too hot and being the most fragile you have to maintain a good temperature to not burn it before the meat gets cooked. I think that the biggest reason people talk about the toughness and the gamey taste of wild game is their cooking process. Either they cook venison too long or they cook squirrel and rabbit too quick and that can be all the difference in a great tasting wild game.
GRILLING WILD GAME
If you’re a hunter you probably love to cook. Cooking allows you to continue the harvest throughout the year. If you don’t take advantage of the harvest you should. These tips for cooking wild game can help keep that memory alive longer. Not to mention you can make some really delicious dishes. As hunters we have cherished the fire and the smell of cooking wild game still arouses those primitive instincts when cooking with fire.
The grill is our modern day campfire and the place where “the feast” takes place. The grilling of meat is “in our genes”. The smell of smoke and grilling wild meat evokes conversations along with perceptions of fulfilled hunger. Lean wild game must be grilled with more care than domesticated meat that has much more fat. There’s less tolerance for overcooking. Try to grill just tender cuts and keep it around medium rare. Example: For venison keep internal temperature between 130 and 140 degrees
COMMON MISTAKES ON HOW TO PREPARE WILD GAME TO COOK
- Adding too much salt
- Not removing the fat from wild game
- Slicing wild game too thin for cooking
- Cooking wild game too long
Adding too much salt can pull moisture from your wild game cut. The lack of moisture in wild game is why it can become dry and tough very easily. Try not to add to much salt to your wild game to help retain this moisture.
Wild game is already lean which means it is dry from the start because it doesn’t have the fat that say beef does. The fat in beef is marbled throughout the cut and melts out and coats the meat as you cook. With wild game the lack of ample fat only causes what is there to cook up in smoke leaving the pan dry. Ultimately this creates a dry piece of meat. This is why we help wild game out a little by using bacon and butter to to keep the cut from drying out. Another great way to keep your wild game juices intact is to sear the cut hot and fast then turn the heat down to get it up to temperature. Wild game is best when cooked to a medium rare temperature of between 130 and 140 degrees for venison and other big game animals.
REMOVE GAMEY TASTE FROM DEER AND OTHER WILD GAME
The fat found on wild game is not tasty, like beef fat. Wild game fat is where much of the gamey flavor you hear about resides so cut it off. Some might argue that you want to taste the gamey flavor to get the full wild game experience but it has been my observation that it only turns people off of wild game so keep those cuts for yourself and those that prefer the “gamey” taste and you will have more friends make it to your wild game cookout.
DON’T SLICE WILD GAME TOO THIN FOR COOKING
Again, as you’ve probably noticed, most mistakes made when cooking wild game revolves around dryness and doneness. That’s because they are the most important aspects of cooking wild game. Slicing wild game too thin can promote dryness. Keep your wild game cuts at least 1/4 inch thick maybe even 1/2 inch at least at first. Once you’ve practiced and realize that it don’t take long for wild game to reach the optimum temperature of medium rare then you can slice thinner wild game and not dry them out. I love my backstrap medallions sliced thin when I’m cooking in butter or on a stick over the campfire. It only takes a minute or two to get them cooked, so be careful.
COOKING WILD GAME TOO LONG
Learning how to cook venison isn’t hard, but it takes a lot of discipline to make it taste delicious. You can’t be watching the football game while your tenderloin medallions recipe is sizzling in the cast iron skillet. Those replays and long passes take longer than you realize and by the time you get back to the stove your wild game dinner has cooked too long and looks like shoe leather. Take cooking wild game as serious as you did harvesting the animal. It deserves the respect and your friends will appreciate it in the flavor and tenderness of your wild game.
So there you go. Plenty of tips for how to prepare wild game to cook so that you can extend your season each year into the kitchen. Learning to process and prepare your harvest is a win-win for everyone involve. It can also bring more people into the outdoor family. They too can enjoy the incredible lifestyle that hunting, fishing, camping and cooking can provide. Do your part.
AGING WILD GAME
Aging deer or any other game meat is vital to tender and tasty wild game. There are several ways to age wild game. So many hunters try to process and get their meat in the freezer as soon as possible. This is a big mistake. I remember my dad getting the deer cut up and packaged the same day it was killed. Sometimes within a couple hours of the kill the processing began. So this is what I was taught as a kid about processing deer. While I still liked the deer we ate it was tough and had a different flavor than the deer that I enjoy today.
When you process and freeze wild game too soon you stop the decay process and lock in the rigor mortis which will make your deer meat tough for sure. Allowing your meat to begin the decay process sounds bad but it is the most important aspect to delicious wild game and helps with tenderizing the meat as well.
After leaving home my love of cooking had me researching and figuring out the best ways to prepare wild game meat for cooking. This included the importance of aging meat for the best taste and tenderness possible. Over the years situations have forced me to learn a few different ways to age deer meat and here they are.
WET AGING DEER MEAT
Wet aging deer meat sounds a lot like the cooler aging process explained below. However, wet aging entails a process that isn’t wet at all. The wet in wet aging deer meat refers to the meat not hanging and drying on the surface which I will explain below in further detail. Wet aging is the process of bagging your game meat and leaving it in a refrigerator to age. After the game is butchered it is then placed in bags to keep the oxygen levels low. Oxygen promotes bacterial growth. Some people vacuum pack their meat for this aging process, but I never have. Like the video below shows I have only bagged my meat in heavy duty trash bags and placed them in the refrigerator.
Obviously vacuum packing the deer meat would be great if that is what you prefer and you have the vacuum gear to do it. I’ve been aging deer in garbage bags for more than 30 years and it works fine. Wrap the meat tight making sure to massage all of the air out the top and your meat will be fine.
GREAT VIDEO SHOWING THE WET AGE PROCESS
AGING DEER MEAT IN A COOLER
I refer to the meat here as deer meat, but any game meat can be inserted in its place. Aging wild game in a cooler came about early on. Actually I was aging deer meat in a cooler before I knew about aging deer meat. Oftentimes I am camping while hunting and found myself icing down deer until the camping trip was over. I did begin to notice the deer meat tasted better and seemed a little more tender and again this was 30 years ago and I didn’t realize that aging the deer in this way was helping with the flavor and tenderness of the meat.
Aging deer meat in a cooler requires you to skin the deer and unless you have a very large cooler you will at least have to quarter your deer to fit. Start with several inches of ice in the bottom of the cooler then place your meat on top. Add more ice on top of each layer of meat before placing another layer. You don’t want your meat to lay against each other during the aging process. Add ice as needed lifting the layers to allow ice to get in between each layer.
No need to worry about the meat touching here or there. You just don’t want large areas of the meat to touch. To keep the deer meat from soaking in water the cooler needs to have a drain or you can periodically pour the water out of the cooler. Having a cooler with a drain is definitely the best deal when aging deer in a cooler.
I have even used bags of ice in the deer cavity for several days to get it home. This works when the high for the day is in the 50’s and then cools off at night. I leave the skin on during this time. You can see that the meat was kept cool when you skin the deer and the meat is cold to the touch.
DRY AGING WILD GAME
There are a couple ways to dry age your deer meat or any other game meat you harvest. The first way to dry age your meat is the easiest and quickest. The only stipulation is the outside temperature. It involves the simple hanging of your deer to age. Make sure that your game meat is in the shade. Whether it’s a big cedar tree or in your garage it’s important to keep the carcass in the shade.
Whether or not to remove the skin is up for debate I guess, but I can say that when the conditions are less than ideal like in camp for a few more days, then leave the skin on until you can get your game meat to a more controlled environment. This will protect your meat, just be sure the temps are no higher than say 55 degrees during the day. The ideal temperature for dry aging is between 32-38 degrees.
You don’t usually have that in the real world, but don’t worry game meat is resilient and can handle a lot. If you’re worried about those few hours when the outside temps rise above 50 degrees then place a bag of ice in the cavity. Better yet place a couple bags of ice in the cavity and cover with a tarp. This will help keep it cool during those few hours of warmer temps. Be sure to uncover the carcass when the sun goes down. This allows air circulation to continue the dry aging process. Another alternative would be to use the cooler method of aging wild game outlined above.
Another way to dry age wild game is in the refrigerator. I’ve found this to be my go to aging process and it seems to work well. You need to have a fridge dedicated to the aging process. It can hold your beer, packs of summer sausage and doe pee the rest of the year. You don’t want to use the fridge in your home for a couple reasons. If you have a significant other they will not be happy. The other reason is the ability to leave the fridge closed and maintain that constant temperature of 30 something degrees. So turn the fridge as low as it will go and leave the fridge closed as the process takes place.
You can put a fan in the fridge to help circulate the air which helps with the dry aging process. I have to say I’ve dry aged my deer in the fridge for 30 years and never used a fan. However, after reading about the dry aging process I think I’ll add one to see how much of a difference it makes.
NOTE: There is one thing that I have learned over the years about good venison and that is to age the meat. Get it past that rigor stage at the minimum and you will find that deer meat is just as tasty as beef. A little story on how I started aging my deer meat. When I was a young man, just out of the Army and Desert Storm and just completed aircraft maintenance school. I was traveling to Alaska for my first job and stopped in Jackson Hole Wyoming.
I did a little fly fishing there as I would do many more times in the years that followed. While I was there I went into a famous bar/restaurant I can’t remember the name. I ordered the elk steaks and on the menu it stated that they were dry aged for 21 days or something like that. I ask the waitress what that meant and that is when I started researching the aging meat for my own use and it makes all the difference in the world.
“Food is important and if you don’t know how to cook, it’s tragic.” Julia Child