Article Contributed by Field Staff Writer S. West
When I was a very young boy, we had a “sandwich” day at school. The idea was to have kids bring their favorite sandwich meats and fixings in and then we would all share. Now I know this sounds like lunacy in the era of food bans in schools, but that’s a rant for a different day. This is germane to the point so just hear me out.
I had already long bragged about how my family hunted for some of the meat we ate and I was eager to share with my classmates and the teachers. To that end, I brought in some leftover venison, thinly sliced and wrapped in foil, from a roast that my family had eaten just the night before. I also brought some mustard.
Because how can you not like mustard?
I remember some of the students refusing to eat the “deer meat” and calling it “the gross stuff” while lightly mocking me for not buying the “the clean stuff” that came in nicely sealed, glossy, hygienic plastic packs. One or two teachers also politely declined to taste; but those that did either genuinely or perfunctorily complimented the flavor. Despite that I was a little embarrassed and for a long time hid that we ate a lot of deer, trout, duck, goose, perch, and ruffed grouse.
But times they are changing, and now it is hip to source your own food, and more than that it is being constantly proven how the consumption of wild sources of protein are beneficial to an individual’s overall health. So with that I would like to declare that what those misinformed ten year olds of yesteryear called “the gross stuff” is in reality the real “clean stuff”.
Still, though, a fear lingers among the uninitiated about the “gamey” taste of what I harvest, and I will admit that when prepared improperly it can be uniformly awful. The same could be said of most store bought meat too; ever had a grossly overdone steak or worse an underdone hunk of chicken? Those are also uniformly awful.
But if prepared correctly, while the depth of flavor is truly unrivaled in my estimation, there are some basic comparisons to store bought food that could perhaps thin the fog of mystery around wild game and encourage people to try something new. So to that end here is a short list of comparison notes for my favorite and most oft-consumed wild game. Much like wine tasting notes, these are open to interpretation, and I encourage you to do your own experimentation.
Multitudes have been written on eating North America’s most popular game animal. “Finer” cuts like the tenderloin and shoulder and ham roasts should be cooked to medium rare and grilled, roasted, or stewed as you would beef. Go ahead and cook it to well-done if you don’t mind chewing each bite for five minutes. The flavor profile is leaner and less unctuous than beef, with a denser grain to the meat. A slow cooker or a braise yields a tender meal for tougher cuts from the neck or skirt with the feel of pulled pork, but again with a much leaner bite.
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I don’t know anyone that regularly hunts black bear, and I know even fewer people willing to share any bear meat that they harvest. There is a good reason for that. If a white-tail is a leaner equivalent to beef, then a healthy, truly wild, black bear is the uber-rich opposite. Again a dark red meat that should go to a medium-well at the most in my opinion (although trichinosis is a concern) a black bear harvested in the fall has a dense marbling of fat throughout and a rich fatty texture. Think a fine prime-rib of beef with a thick fat cap, but fuller. Tough cuts can be ground and used in place of ground beef in burgers, tacos, and pasta sauces without the addition of extra fat to keep things from drying out.
Canada goose gets a bad rap, at least in my neck of the woods. Most recipes my friends use involve slow cooking, long-marinating, or heavy doses of bacon to mask the natural flavor of the bird. When early-season birds are on the menu, I have to say I cannot disagree; what my uncle calls “purple birds” usually lack a layer of yellow rich fat and are pretty strong and liver-like in both taste and texture. These go into the grinder or get cubed for jalapeno-bacon poppers or head to the stew pot. Get a late season bird at the peak of migration though, and you are in for a moist, juicy (and given the bird’s preferred menu items), truly grain-fed taste profile. A simple roasted bird with crispy skin and slightly pink flesh is pretty much the finest thing I can think of for a late-November meal.
The same rules that apply to geese apply to mallards, and a nice fat roast duck is pretty amazing. Early season birds benefit from careful butchering and the breast and leg meat presents a milder texture and flavor than a Canada goose. Birds shot in November though are great whole-roasted and stuffed with lemons make a great meal. Late season mallards that are pan roasted birds with crispy skin are incredible and usually have enough fat to avoid the risk of drying out.
Every non-hunter that is afraid of wild game should start with ruffies on their plate. Close enough in look and taste to chicken to be non-threatening but with an intangible flavor that I have always tied to cedar boughs, I have not met anyone yet that is not delighted to hear that I’m cooking grouse. It is white meat, and should be treated in the same way as chicken. I have made breaded strips using panko or crushed Saltines and it is a favorite of my wife and kids, and the Saltines version is a deer camp staple. Although most of the time the breast meat is all that makes it into the pan, I have had whole roasted birds before and grouse legs are small little gems that are proof that big flavor can be found in small birds.
Anyone that asks me about the flavor of wild turkey gets the same answer from me every time. It is a bird far superior to anything you could buy in a store. While your local Butterball is very mild and almost bereft of any texture at all other than that of grease, a wild turkey presents a richer, more intensely flavored white meat that pairs with a lean, densely grained and occasionally rugged dark meat. I don’t fully comprehend how turkeys turn seeds, grass, bugs, and the occasional salamander or frog into such delicious meat, but I really do not have too.
Read more on hunting versus buying meat
Hunting vs Buying Meat: The Traditional Hunter in the Modern World
Hunting vs Buying Meat: Memories with Every Meal
Hunting Versus Buying Meat: Why I Choose to Hunt