As a hunter I’ve often heard the question, “Doesn’t ____ meat taste gamey?” I get this question from people who have never eaten game meat or from those who have eaten improperly-prepared game. The word “gamey”, to me, speaks of meat with a rotten flavor. I’ve had spoiled meat before, and it does indeed taste “gamey”. My usual response to the above question is that wild game just has a different, often stronger, flavor than the beef that we are used to in this country, but there is no reason it shouldn’t be delicious.
In this article I will give some tips to ensure that the meat from animals killed in the field, especially wild game, will taste good when it gets to the table. During hard times, or right now with hunting seasons going on and meat prices as high as they are, you might want to kill an animal to feed your kids. Small game is pretty easy and a good place to start. A few pounds of squirrels is easier to take care of than a couple hundred pounds of deer.
After the shot, get the animal gutted as soon as possible. There are videos and books about field dressing animals, but I’ll explain the whole process here. Just search youtube, if it isn’t clear. Intestines hold a lot of bacteria, and dead animals will start to bloat immediately. The longer you let the animal sit, the more problems you will have. I’ve shot caribou and pronghorns that have gotten swollen abdomens within a few minutes of death. If you kill an animal and notice the stomach (or paunch area below the ribs) is bloating, be extra careful with the first incision. Cut from the sternum to the pelvis. If you’ve done it right, the intestines will still be contained in an internal sack. You want to cut the skin, not the intestines; if you cut the sack holding the intestines, it’s okay. However, getting half-digested food and feces on meat will ruin it (duh). Some animals dress out easier than others. Sometimes the intestines roll right out with hardly any effort at all, while sometimes they hang up in the carcass. I don’t know why. There really doesn’t seem to be any pattern to which animal will be hard or easy to gut. Take your time with the ones that don’t clean easily, because pulling on intestines will tear them and ruin meat. Also, be careful with the bladder.
Once the digestive system has been pulled out of the carcass, you must deal with the still-attached colon. Be careful here; we all know what the colon contains. There are a couple of ways to deal with this. You can cut deeply around the anus, from the outside in, being careful not to nick the colon, and pull the whole thing out through the cavity. Also, the pelvis can be split, exposing the last few inches of colon for easy removal. The method I find fastest and easiest in the field is to strip the colon by pinching it between the fingers and pushing the contents out or further into the intestines then cutting the colon and tying it off with an overhand knot to be removed during skinning.
Now you can clean out the upper part of the carcass, including the lungs, heart, liver, and esophagus/trachea. The ribs can be split up the sternum for easy access. I don’t usually do this, nor do I like to split the pelvis. It is much easier to keep debris off of the meat while I’m getting it out of the field with the carcass as closed up as possible. You’ve probably shot the animal through the heart/lungs area, since it is the biggest vital target, so this part of the animal will be a little messy. Just cut the diaphragm, reach up into the rib cage with your knife in hand, and cut the trachea as high up as you can. The heart and lungs will come out now. The heart can be eaten; put it in a bag.
I’ve saved the liver for last. It probably came out with the intestines, and that is okay. If you cut the liver while removing it, you probably have a carcass full of blood. That’s okay, too. (I never understood how five pounds of liver could hold four gallons of blood.) I would recommend leaving the liver in the field. Some state game agencies recommend this, too, because livers can contain a lot of toxic stuff. The liver holds dangerous elements, like arsenic and cadmium, that are filtered out of the body. If you like liver, stick to beef liver.
Now that the animal is “field dressed”, get it cleaned out and cooled down. If you are hunting on the back forty, like most deer hunters east of the big rivers, this means bringing the deer back to the house or barn and hanging it to cool. I always wash the carcass out with cold water. In early fall this can be done with the garden hose; during winter a few five-gallon buckets of water will do. It is easier to do if the animal is laying in the bed of a truck or trailer. Just pour water into the carcass and tip it up so everything can drain out.
As for cooling, this is a little tricky. I hang the animal head down. If the weather is warm, I will pour a bag of ice into the carcass. If it is warm (during the hunting season this means in the 50’s-low 60’s) but a frost has killed off the flies, I will skin the animal immediately and be sure that it is hung in the shade where a cool breeze can get to it. Leaving the hide on will insulate the animal and keep it too warm for too long. If the flies are still around, you will need to wrap it in something to keep them off. Game bags work but so do burlap or a bed sheet. Also citric acid can be sprayed on the meat to keep off bugs. If it is below freezing, leave the hide on and skip the ice. Ideally, you want the meat refrigerated, not frozen. I remove the head and what’s left of the trachea during skinning. If you can hang the carcass in a controlled environment that will keep it at a constant cold temperature, you can hang it for two to four weeks before butchering. This will help tenderize the meat, but most of us don’t have a walk-in refrigerator in which to hang a deer. In warm weather, the animal can be butchered after rigor mortis has passed, which should be a few hours. Be aware that if the temperatures are in the 50’s during the day, they will probably be in the 30’s during the night, so leaving meat to hang at least overnight is probably a good idea. In cold weather, I’ll let it hang for two to five days, if I can keep it from freezing. If it is going to freeze, I just go ahead and butcher.
If you kill something but can’t get it home, “quarter” the animal and hang it in game bags. Game bags are thin cloth bags, usually cotton, that allow air to cool the meat, but they keep dirt and insects off. Skin the animal and remove the front quarters, hind quarters, back straps and tenderloins, and neck meat. If you want the ribs, it is up to you; I never take the ribs. The ribs often have a bullet hole in them and bits of lung splattered around inside of them. Lungs are full of bacteria, and there isn’t much meat on a game animal’s ribs.
Here I’ll explain the “gutless” method of getting an animal out of the field. This also covers quartering. Quartering is the same, whether your animal is hanging in the barn or you have an elk down a few miles into the mountains. Skin the animal as you go, starting on either the hind or front quarters. For the front quarters, skin from the “wrist”, removing the foot at the joint. It takes a little practice, but you can slice the outer tendons of the joint, then snap it back on itself, and cut the tendons inside to remove the foot without a saw or something to chop with. Skin down the inside, past the elbow, and into the armpit area. Quartering is a two man job– one man to hold the now-skinned appendage off of the ground and one to cut. If you are alone, tie the leg to something to hold it off of the ground. The front shoulders float and are easily cut off. The hind quarters are similar to the front but are heavier and attached to the pelvis via a ball joint. Find the joint and slice the tendons. The rear quarters can then be removed. The backstraps run from the shoulder to the hips on each side of the spine. Skin back to the spine, then slice down between the spinal process and the meat, then between the top of the ribs and the meat. Keep cutting until the backstrap is free. The neck meat can be removed from either side of the spine by skinning the neck and simply slicing it free. The last cut to remove is the tender loin. The tender loins lay inside the carcass along the back between the pelvis and ribs and can be removed once the backstraps are off. Now your meat is removed; you have a pile of bones and guts, which you never had to touch, left for the coyotes.
Now, we have the meat out of the field. It is cool, clean, and ready to be cut into steaks. Here are some tricks to improve the quality of what you eat:
- REMOVE THE BONES. Always take the bones out of game meat. The bones add a stronger flavor to the meat; I think it is something in the marrow. It only takes a few minutes to do this, yet it will make a big improvement in flavor.
- GET THE MEAT COOLED AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. I can’t stress this enough. Don’t drive around the county showing all of your buddies the giant deer you killed. They will have plenty of time to be jealous when they see the antlers hanging on your wall.
- Remove the fat. Big game’s fat is nasty. Generally the fat on game animals is contained outside and around the meat, rather than marbled throughout. Animals store fat for winter, and it is easily removed so take it off. When cooked it turns into a smelly, yellow jelly. I shot a bear once that had been feeding on salmon, fattening up for the winter. I could hardly stand the smell of rotten fish coming off of his fat, as I skinned him. I thought the meat would be inedible. I cut the fat off and cooked up a piece just to make sure. That bear was some good eating; all of the fishy smell was contained in the fat. The bear meat was fine.
- Always cut into the skin with your knife’s spine against the meat and the edge facing out. Get under the skin and push your knife away from you. If you slice down through the skin, you will cut the animal’s hair and it will get all over everything.
- Wear rubber gloves. If your hands are like mine, they always have scratches and abrasions on them. Mixing an animals blood with yours is a recipe for an infection. After cleaning the animal clean your hands. I always have a bottle of isopropyl alcohol in the vehicle when hunting. After washing off the blood, I wipe down my hands and arms with the alcohol.
- It is inevitable that some hair will get on the meat, but get it off. Animals don’t bathe. Furthermore, wild animals have scent glands in different areas of the body, usually in the head and hind legs. Those scent chemicals get on the hair. Also, males especially will wallow in mud that is soaked with their own urine, or they will urinate on themselves during the breeding season. You don’t want any of that on the meat. Try to keep hair off of the meat and use a towel soaked in vinegar to remove any that you miss. Don’t be afraid to wash meat with cold water. You don’t want to use vinegar? Then, hit the outside quickly with a torch to burn off the hair.
- Don’t let meat soak in its own blood. If you have to put meat in a cooler, make sure it will drain, and then change the ice as often as necessary.
- Some game meat gets gross after the animal starts rutting. Caribou comes to mind. Male animals will stop eating or eat much less during their breeding period. When this happens, the animal will begin to “burn fat”; that’s right, they burn that nasty fat I talked about a few bullet points back. It can effect the taste of meat. In caribou it really effects the meat, as in even your dog wouldn’t eat the tenderloins of a rutting caribou.
- Remove the silver skin from the meat. Silver skin or sinew is the connective ligament that surrounds and attaches muscle to bone. This is tough stuff and is sometimes difficult to remove. You probably won’t be able to remove all of it, but cutting it from the outside of the meat will make it more tender.
- For steaks, shoot a young animal. Old animals will be tougher and stronger tasting. If tender, tasty, steaks are what you are after, then shoot a fawn or calf. Does this offend your sensibilities? It shouldn’t. It’s a Disney view of animals that has caused you to be upset. From a scientific standpoint, the yearlings are the most expendable animals in the heard, with the exception of the rare barren doe/cow. A seven or eight month old whitetail deer or elk is as good as any veal. When we have an old animal down, we often cut the tenderloins and backstraps into steaks, cut out a couple of roasts, and then grind the rest up for burger and sausage.
- Speaking of burger and sausage, you will want to cut in 10-15% with pork or beef suet or bacon, if you can find it cheap. Game burger is too lean and won’t hold together without adding to it.
- If you take the animal to a butcher, keep your meat separate from everyone else’s. Talk to someone who butchers deer about how hunters treat the chore of field dressing. You will hear about the guys who cut the intestines getting feces on the meat, guys who have gut shot the animal and gotten bacteria-laden stomach contents all over the insides, meat that has been left in the heat too long, and other things that will turn your stomach. Most butchers will weigh the trim from your animal and then throw it in the grinder with everyone else’s trim to make burger and sausage. Now the meat that you have taken good care of is mixed with the stuff that sat in the sun too long. Offer to pay extra, if you have to, in order to have your game processed separately.
- Learn to butcher the animal yourself, while the world is still functioning. If you want to butcher the animal yourself, it isn’t rocket science. It is hard work and is much more manageable if you have help. Three people are just about perfect for cutting up big game. Two guys cut; one guy wraps. Most kitchens aren’t set up for butchering. Setting up a couple of folding tables is usually better.
- Remove bloodshot meat. Bloodshot meat is meat damaged by the bullet. It will be bruised, often with coagulated blood, in the area of the shot. Just cut it out.
- If you’ve gut shot the animal, all is not lost. The gutless method of cleaning the animal shines here. You may still lose some meat but not as much as if you field dress the animal. Any meat that has been tainted by stomach contents must be cut out. If you have to field dress your kill, well, that stinks. A fresh kill isn’t bad, but any animal that has laid for a couple of hours is going to be tough. I’ve done it; the only advice I have is to breath through your mouth and try not to puke.
- If an animal is sick, don’t eat it. Some animals are rotten when you shoot them. I’ve seen animals with infected injuries and tumors that have made the meat inedible. Usually these injuries only affect a small part of the animal. You might loose a quarter or some shank meat but nothing serious. Several diseases kill wild animals, and in every case game departments recommend not eating the meat of a sick animal. If you kill a sick animal, don’t eat the meat. Instead, call the conservation officer for your area; they may be able to issue a new tag.
- If the meat smells bad, dump it. If you have a piece of questionable meat, the “sniff test” will usually tell you if it is good.
- Animals carry parasites, so cook all meat thoroughly. I know I didn’t have to put this in, but you know full disclosure and all that.
- Small game and birds taken with a shotgun will have shot in them. Sometimes you can pick it out but will probably miss some. That’s part of eating wild birds. Just don’t bite down and chip a tooth on a piece of chilled shot. If an animal is “shot up”, try cutting off the good meat and making a casserole with it.
- Speaking of game birds, plucking is better than skinning. It also takes longer. A plucked bird will not dry out in the oven as quickly as a skinned one.
- On the other end of the spectrum, wild fowl (geese especially) are not as fatty as their tame cousins. If you’ve cooked a farm-raised goose, you probably thought it was greasy. That isn’t true of wild geese, at least not the Canadian variety. Wild water fowl will have a thin layer of fat around it. However, when cooked, this will make the meat moist and full of flavor. A bird’s fat isn’t the same as the fat of big game, which, as noted earlier, is nasty.
- If you do skin birds, cook them in an oven bag. This will help keep the meat moist. Even doing this you may have dry thigh meat in large birds. It’s not a problem though, because the left over and dry meat of geese and turkeys is perfect for soup.
- Hanging small game and birds to age isn’t necessary. Though, in Scotland, “High Scottish Grouse” is considered a delicacy, where a grouse is hung on the porch until the meat is literally rotting off the bone before preparing. If you are fond of Scottish cuisine, go for it. Otherwise, don’t age small game meat.
With a few extra minutes of preparation and a little extra care, you can be eating some of the healthiest meat available, and it will taste good, too. Does venison taste “gamey”? Nope, not even a little. Properly-prepared venison can be thrown on a grill and cooked just like a New York strip. The flavor will not be the same as beef, anymore than the flavor of lamb will be the same as beef. Embrace the difference, and enjoy the meal.