By Hank Shaw
Many of us have heard about all the positive aspects of eating game meats: They’re lean proteins, low in cholesterol, full of vitamins and minerals, loaded with flavor—and are, by definition, meats from free-ranging animals.
But we’ve also all heard horror stories about how difficult it can be to cook game correctly: venison cooked into shoe leather, pheasants dry as cardboard. The good news is that it really doesn’t take a Michelin star to cook game properly, if you understand how game meats are different—and similar—to the domesticated meats you know and love.
I use the term “game meats” because true wild game is, for the most part, illegal to sell in the United States. Every pheasant, elk steak, duck or rabbit you see in the store was raised on a farm. In a way, that’s a good thing: Farmed game meats are a bit more consistent than their wild cousins, wild ducks especially can be a crapshoot, and you need not worry about chomping down on birdshot in the pheasants or quail you buy.
It also means that store-bought game meats are far closer to their domesticated equivalents than you might think. Consider them hybrids, halfway steps between the real, wild thing and the flabby farmed meats of a cheapo supermarket.
Here’s what you need to know about cooking the most common game meats and how they differ from their domesticated cousins.
If you get a free-ranging, heritage breed turkey, it will cook and taste virtually the same as a wild bird, which is to say denser, and, well, more like what you imagine a turkey ought to taste like. Neither will be soft and watery like a typical factory-farmed bird, nor will they have those giant breasts, which are a recent “improvement” from large-scale breeders. You do need to be aware that because wild and heritage turkeys actually walk around for a living, the tendons in their legs will be far tougher than those of a supermarket bird. I braise them separately.
Ducks & Geese
Size and fat are what you need to remember here. Domestic ducks and geese are far larger and fatter than wild ones, so much so that with most domestic waterfowl you need to trim lots of extra fat; save it and render it for use later. An exception to this is the large, meaty Muscovy duck, which is leaner than the standard supermarket Peking duck. A Muscovy is about as close as you can get to a true wild duck. Keep in mind that the meat of a standard supermarket Peking duck will be a lot lighter than a wild bird or a Muscovy.
The biggest difference between wild rabbits and domestic ones is size. American cottontails are about half the size of a rabbit you’d buy in the freezer section of the supermarket. Neither one has much fat, and what fat it has tends to be bitter. Trim it off. Both wild and domesticated rabbits cook and taste about the same, although cottontails will be denser and have a pleasantly gamey flavor. I find store-bought rabbits to be very bland. Both are great fried like chicken. Incidentally, hares are not rabbits. They are larger, older and have dark meat.
PHEASANTS & QUAIL
The quail you buy in the store tend to be Japanese quail, which take more kindly to living in captivity. Wild quail are an entirely different species. Both birds cook the same, although true wild quail have a lot more flavor and just a wisp of gaminess. If you cook store-bought quail, look for small producers raising high-quality birds, as with chickens, it makes a gigantic difference.
Pheasants and chickens are very similar, although pheasants are smaller. True wild pheasants have meat that’s the ruddy color of quality pork, while store-bought pheasants are not terribly different from heritage chickens—good, but no better than a high-quality broiler.
You can actually get wild boar in markets now, mostly through a Texas outfit called Broken Arrow Ranch. The biggest difference between wild hogs and domesticated pork is the amount of fat. Any good heritage breed pig will cook much like a wild hog—both are rosy red when raw, although obviously domestic pigs will be fattier than ranched ones. A good pig, wild or domestic, smells and tastes powerfully porky; it can be a shock to those who are used to factory hogs, which are mushy, white and full of water.
Think of venison, which includes the meat of deer, elk, antelope and moose, as lean, tightly grained, dense beef. In flavor it is very close to grass-fed beef, which is virtually indistinguishable from bison. All forms of venison are exceptionally lean, very low in cholesterol and can be almost minerally in flavor: This is a good thing if you cook it rare to medium, or in the case of tough cuts, very slowly over low heat. Overcooked venison steaks taste like liver-flavored rawhide.
Don’t let the fact that you don’t hunt stop you from enjoying the riches lurking in the hidden corners of the meat counter and the freezer section. Enjoy!
A former line cook and political reporter, Hank Shaw runs the James Beard Award-winning blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook and is the author of Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast, and Duck, Duck, Goose, scheduled for release by Ten Speed Press on October 1. His work has appeared in publications such as Food & Wine, Organic Gardening, Field & Stream, and The Art of Eating. He forages, fishes and hunts near Sacramento.