The Gamey Taste of Game Meat, Part I

Every so often I publish a blog post either about hunting or with a picture of an elk steak in it.  Usually after this I get at least one or two questions about how to prepare game meat so that it doesn’t taste so “gamey.”  I hear lots of people saying they would hunt but they don’t like the taste of the meat, or that they just don’t know how to cook it. Likewise, whenever we serve game to friends and family, we get lots of surprised comments about how flavorful and good the meat is, not at all gamey as they expected.

Since hunting season is just around the corner for many parts of the country, and since our family mainly eats game meat, I thought I’d share a bit about how we process and cook the meat, and how we deal with the “gaminess” of venison and other meats. Over the next couple of weeks I plan to publish a series of hunting related posts, including recipes for cooking wild game.

Making wild game into a delicious meal was learned through trial and error over the last nine years of cooking and processing game.  We’ve made some discoveries that have really helped us.  When people refer to venison as gamey they are either speaking of the toughness or dryness that often occurs when cooking the meat, the distinctly wild flavor, or both.  It’s a bit backwards but I’m going to talk about cooking game meat first.  This addresses the toughness and dryness of venison.  In part two, I’ll talk about harvesting and processing game and how that directly affects the taste of your meat.

Eye fillet of grass-fed beef.

Eye fillet of grass-fed beef. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Venison is not beef.

It might seem obvious, but deer, elk and antelope are all very different from cattle.

When you cook beef, the fat and marbling you should look for when buying a steak keeps the meat moist, tender and flavorful.  A delicious juicy steak depends on it’s fat.  Nicely marbled beef can be tender and choice even cooked past medium.  This is because cattle is mainly fed corn to fatten them up (literally, to fatten them).

If you’ve ever cooked grass-fed beef, you know what I’m talking about.  Grass-fed beef is leaner than conventional corn-fed beef.  Often grass-fed beef is “finished” on corn (meaning the last few weeks of it’s life it gets corn to add in some fat).  And even if it is not, grass-fed beef still has more fat than venison.  Cows are bred to stand around and eat.  Cattle ranchers make an effort to keep their cattle from using their muscles.  Even if not confined, they don’t want them running around.  They want lazy, fat, contented cows.  They want tender muscle.  1,400 pounds of well-marbled, tender muscle.

We all know a muscle that is exercised gets harder, tougher, stronger.

Elk fillet, same cut as beef shown above.

Deer (and certainly antelope) don’t just stand around all day filling their stomachs.  They live their lives using their muscles.  They have to keep on the move, running and jumping, staying away from predators.  They have to search out water and food.  Their food is not usually a lush field of grass or corn (unless they are Nebraskan whitetail).  It’s often patches of under-brush, sage and other soft-wooded plants.  Deer eat twigs and bark and shoots.  They are nearly fat-free beings, trim at 150 (or perhaps 400 for an elk) pounds, with the hardened muscles of athletes.

This means you can not cook venison the same way as you cook beef.  While you might like your beef steak medium- to medium-rare, your venison needs to be much closer to rare, else it becomes shoe leather.  It generally should not be cooked well-done or it will be ruined, dry and tough.

Likewise, grouse, pheasant and duck are not chickens.  You must add fat when cooking grouse and pheasant.  Duck is an entirely different bird and it’s breasts can be treated as red meat, cooked to medium-rare or medium.

How to cook wild game:

To start with, use thick cuts of meat.  If you get your game processed by a butcher, ask them to cut your steaks an inch thick or thicker.  Or if you process your meat yourself, use a ruler or make yourself a template when cutting, so your steaks don’t end up too thin.  The idea here is to preserve moisture as much as possible and not over-cook the meat.  Deer and elk steaks are going to be smaller than beef steaks anyway, so if your steaks are thicker, you have more leeway with this.  Remember, you can always cut your meat thinner if you need to later, or for other uses as you get used to cooking your game.

Venison greatly benefits from a marinade.  Most of the time we, at the very least, drizzle our elk, deer or antelope steaks with olive oil and let them sit in it for 20 minutes to half an hour before we cook them.  Olive oil, crushed garlic and thyme is a great, simple combination.

Before cooking we also add fat to the pan (or grill).  Heat your pan and add a bit more olive oil.  Then cook the steak, flipping once, being careful not to over-cook it.  Remember that venison is smaller and less forgiving than beef, so keep a close eye.

Bacon grease and lard are delicious, traditional ways to add fat to your venison.  A lard-seared elk steak, to die for.  Onions sauteed in bacon grease,  the perfect base for a venison stew.  Or keep it simple with olive oil.

After cooking, let your venison steaks rest for up to ten minutes, covered, before serving.

Notice that I didn’t mention salt?  This is because salt draws moisture from meat.  When cooking venison, salt should be added just before serving.

Important to remember here is that you can’t just take a beef recipe and make it into a venison recipe without accounting for the leanness of the meat.  You want to do your utmost to preserve the meat’s juices and moisture.

If you enjoy stir-fry and fajitas, I recommend using a flank-type steak, cooked whole to medium-rare and then thinly slicing.  Only add the sliced steak into the pan for the last few seconds (if at all).

Check out websites like Field and Stream’s The Wild Chef blog or Hunter-Angler-Gardener-Cook for lots of delicious, trusted game recipes.

If you’ve enjoyed what I’ve posted about cooking wild game so far, please subscribe to have my future posts shown in your RSS feed or emailed directly to your inbox by using the form in the sidebar at the right.  Thanks for reading.

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Categories: Food, Hunting, Recipes | Tags: , , , , | 25 Comments

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25 thoughts on “The Gamey Taste of Game Meat, Part I

  1. Ray Brace

    I read the above with interest and have a couple of questions regarding your thoughts on the use of salt.
    1) I am a subscriber to Cook’s Illustrated, and one of their methods of salting beef steaks is to use Kosher salt while the steak is on the counter coming to room temp. After 20 minutes or so, the salt has drawn the juices form the meat, but continued resting allows the juices to re-enter the meat and the results are wonderful.
    2) What about bring?

    Your thoughts on this are greatly appreciated and I look forward to Part 2.

    • Hi Ray – I have never heard of the salting method you mentioned. I guess it’s worth a try – once at least, but keep in mind that beef starts out with far more fat than venison, so if the juices don’t get re-absorbed, you’ll have a pretty dry piece of meat. If you try it, please come back and let us know how it worked.

      As far as using a brine, that’s an interesting (and exciting) idea. A quick google search led to this from two trusted sources: http://www.fieldandstream.com/blogs/hunting/2009/12/why-brines-are-better-marinades-venison

      I’m going to try it this week myself! Thanks for the suggestion.

  2. I think “gamey” is in the eye of the beholder – so many factory farmed meats have so little flavor that it’s no wonder a “wild harvested” steak would be a punch in the tastebuds for so many. And I can attest that the salting method works great on pastured beef (which can sometimes be very lean) so I bet it would work well on wild meats too.

    • I agree Jessie – I think the taste so many people refer to negatively is either because game is different than beef (yet they expect it not to be), or it’s from people who have been served badly prepared game, which, sad to say, happens a lot. Part 2 will talk about this more – I think a lot of people try to pass off borderline rotten meat as gamey tasting, when really, it’s just bad. And I think this is because they were not taught how to properly handle meat; thus, venison gets a bad rap.

  3. Reblogged this on Eastern Expeditions.

  4. Marsha

    Thank you for the tips! I like the “gamey” taste of venison, but I use different techniques when other people will be eating it. Generally, I use whatever is in the house… my favorite marinades are: terriyaki (sp?) and lime, soda (any variety) and any combination of seasonings (garlic being my fav), italian dressing, and milk. I have found that all of those almost completely eliminate a “gamey” taste. My friends really like my venison enchiladas… something about Mexican seasoning cancels out all the gameyness.

  5. Elaine W

    My husband is an avid hunter. And he butchers our meat himself. The most important part is the harvesting and butchering of the meat. Our venison does not taste like venison to other people because we clean it up so nice (removing all the “silver skin”) and it never ever tastes gamey. We have not bought beef in decades. We make nearly everything that you can with beef using the venison. The only thing I have yet to do well is a venison roast. Usually I’ll just make it like a pot roast in the crockpot or else it dries right up because it is so fat free. I’d like to find a fail-safe method of making an oven-roasted venison roast that doesn’t dry up. I used to make killer beef roasts and miss them….

    • I agree with you 100%; processing makes all the difference. We do all of ours ourselves and it is never gamey. We’ve eaten venison for so long that beef just tastes bland to us.

      I have had some success with pressure cooking venison roasts, but I think they will always be more dry than beef no matter how we cook them.

    • Elaine,

      A suggestion for your roast: are you familiar with the techniques of larding and barding? Basically wrapping back fat (from pigs) around the roast or inserting pieces into the roast to imitate marbling. Lean, tough cuts of meat often have the most flavour and chefs over the centuries have developed techniques to deal with it.

  6. Pingback: The Gamey Taste of Game Meat, Part II « The Lazy Homesteader

  7. Reblogged this on 323 Archery Shoot and commented:
    For the first time, ever, I have venison that has a strong, unpleasant flavor. It was an older buck, and in the middle of the rut, so I’m uncertain if the processor is to blame, or if it’s a combination of factors.

    • In my experience, older bucks in the rut tend to have a stronger and, to my taste, more unpleasant flavor, due to the testosterone during mating season. In part two, I mention this. http://lazyhomesteader.com/2012/08/21/the-gamey-taste-of-game-meat-part-ii/

      It happens. Sometimes that’s the tag you draw and you take the animals you can get. Rick’s first muley was a big, old buck…. he tasted terrible.

      I recommend trying a marinade with seasonings that can hopefully work with the flavor of the meat, or possibly sausage with lots of sage. We’ve also had good success with venison stew. I’ll post my recipe later this week.

      Hunter Angler Gardener Cook tells the story of his “gamey” deer here with some recommendations: http://honest-food.net/2009/08/28/what-i-did-with-spork-the-deer/

      • Marinating was on my list – first was a 24 hour brining, just sea salt and water immersion in the fridge, which I plan on trying with a butterflied backstrap later this month. He was a 185# mature 8 point, totally in the rut, neck swollen huge. Thanks for the great tips! (I love to cook, hoping for a feral hog or three this year to work on too.)

    • David

      It is possible that the meat was tainted by inadvertently touching the scent area and then the meat, stray hairs on the meat, or a broken bladder while processing.

      • Well, it was a 5-6 year old buck in full rut – salt-water brining pulled the nastiness out of it.

  8. Allen in AK

    Field prep and how you deal with it once it is home have a lot to do with it. My Dad grew up on a ranch in Wyoming through the depression. They lived on wild game (of any kind). He would try to bleed the game as much as possible ASAP. Then he would take it home, skin it, quarter it, and soak it over night in a bathtub full of iced salt water. That draws the blood out. His take on it was that blood carries impurities and heat causes spoilage. Get rid of both as quickly as you can. We always had moist, flavorful meat. Everyone else I knew hung the carcass for days to “age” it. Couldn’t compare to ours. Hope it helps.

  9. Vivienne

    I didn’t see this mentioned, but the way my Dad always combatted the overly “gamey” taste of venison and elk was to place the cut up sections (ham, shoulder, tenderloins, etc.) in a large (new) trashcan lined with several layers of garbage bags filled with water and 1-2 bottles of salt. He would change the water every other day for about a week. Then he’d process as normal. Everyone always raved about how tender his meat was and how it didn’t have the gamey taste of most other people’s game meat. Just an idea!

  10. lockestocknbarrel

    Reblogged this on LOCKE STOCK N' BARREL.

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  16. Dj

    Question; December 8th killed a young cow and temps were -27 and had to process for the trip home. The meat smells like liver and just not appealing. The meat is very tender and melts but the smell is a major turn off. Wy hunt and wondering if we will ever do again if I can not resolve this issue. Thanks for any and all help.

    • Is it possible the blood got into the meat or that the internal organs got nicked during the processing?

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