I love cooking wild game. One of the big reasons I hunt is for the joy of cooking wild game (and eating it, obviously). Cooking wild game, for me, is part of the whole Live-Off-The-Grid-In-The-Event-Of-The-Zombie-Apocalypse thing. This can be seen in other areas in my house...things like gardening and canning, and my propensity to compose fecal matter.
One of the best benefits of cooking wild game is the opportunity to prepare and eat meats that are rare or non-existent in the neighborhood meat market. I have eaten and enjoyed a wide variety of wild meats. Have I eaten squirrel? Yes. Did I enjoy it? No. Definitely did not enjoy squirrel. Let us not speak of it again.
Anyway, cooking wild game...meat harvested from the field, takes a different approach sometimes. Over the years, I've learned some tricks to turn wild meats into the outstanding table fair it can be. I recently cooked up some sharptail grouse which I harvested in Montana this year. I used about all of these techniques when preparing the birds. It resulted in an outstanding meal. Special thanks to this website for some new ideas.
Tip: Leave It Pink
Most wild game meats is very lean. Fat in meat like beef means that if you choose to cook it a bit longer, it can stand up to the cooking and remain juicy. Not so with game meats. If you were to take a piece of venison and cook it to well-done, the resulting dish will be so dry and hard, it is essentially inedible. The way to keep lean meat juicy is to keep it pink. Cook it no further than medium to keep it juicy.
Pheasant and rabbit are white meats. Obviously, these should not be left pink, unless you have always really wondered what tape worms are like. Still, great care must be taken to make sure they are not cooked to the point of driving all juiciness away.
Trick: Use Sous Vide Cooking Technique
I can hear you shouting now: I try to leave it pink, but when I am cooking wild game, it goes from rare to well-done in the length of time it takes to sneeze. I get it. I am here to help you. You're welcome. The answer is sous vide.
Sous vide cooking is basically cooking meat in a water bath that is being held at a precise temperature. If you want your meat cooked to an internal temp of 135 degrees, that is what you set the water temp to. Meat is sealed in a plastic bag and submerged until the temp of the meat matches that of the water. The risk of overcooking the meat is eliminated because the meat can't get hotter than the water. This is an exceptional way to cook wild game meats. It nearly eliminates the overcooking problem
The downside is that sous vide machines cost over $400. Yikes! However, I found this link and did some experimenting with hot water poured into a beer cooler. Not as precise, but close enough. I've tried the beer cooler technique on both wild harvested sharptail grouse (cooked to 138 degrees) as well as beef steak (cooked to 125 degrees) with outstanding results.
Tip: Use a Blowtorch
High heat from a frying pan or grill causes sugars and proteins on the surface of the meat to caramelize and undergo what is called the Maillard Reaction. Let me sum it up this way: Brown meat is yummy. Sous vide meat never reaches the surface temperatures required to brown the meat. So, the solution? A blow torch.
A culinary blow torch is used to make creme brulee. I played with it... toasting marshmallows. The outside gets toasted but the inside is still cold. This is perfect for browning meat without raising the internal temperatures too much.
Applying a blowtorch to a beef steak can take the char or sear to the next level by giving it a crust that resembled the crunchy crust found in many steakhouses. Cook your steak like you ordinarily would, then brown it up even more before you serve it.
Trick: Salt Crystals
You can buy, in specialty shops, pink Hawaiian salt crystals or orange crystals. You can get smoked salt in these shops as well as online. These salts have a couple of good things going for them:
- They're big and crunchy
- (Sometimes) they bring additional flavors.
Whenever I have used these more exotic salt crystals, they have brought good flavor and complexity that regular table salt doesn't have. Of all of these tips and tricks, this one provides the most bang for your buck.
Tip: Make a Pan Sauce
Pan sauces are sometimes very easy to make and can cover off flavors or help when a piece of meat is overdone and dry. And even if a piece of meat is perfect in flavor and doneness, a pan sauce can make a great piece of meat even better.
For the sharptail grouse I recently made, I served a Red Wine mushroom sauce over the bird breasts. This recipe came from an America's Test Kitchen cookbook. You can just as easily Google for such a sauce. When cooking wild game, use a pan sauce for beef when cooking dark game meat. Use a chicken sauce for light game meats.
One thing that can make a pan sauce even better is to get a fond in the bottom of the pan before you start. Fond is just brown gunk in the bottom of a pan after you brown meat. Remember how I told you that brown meat is yummy? Well, if you fry some meat in a pan so that it leaves brown gunk in the bottom of the pan, all that brown stuff is just flavor. When you add liquid to that stuff, it all comes up and flavors the sauce.
All these tips and tricks can be used when cooking wild game to make exceptional table fair. These can also be used on "ordinary" meats like beef and chicken to give them a little extra zing. Give it a try.
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