Standing in the dusty prairie under a hot sun, I watched the process with a feeling of detached interest. The hunter carefully filleted the pronghorn in the field, delicately removing stomach, rolling out intestines, lung and heart, severing the bottom half of the legs.
Hanging in his garage, he sliced pieces of rich red meat from the hind quarters and shoulders — tenderloin removed and set aside, rump packaged and labeled, bits of gnarled scraps from tibia and rib cast into a bowl.
“Now what?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” he said.
“What do you do with all of it? How do you cook it?”
“You just ... cook it.”
The problem was, I needed more than detached interest. This was my life, and I would be going home to a freezer full of meat I’d never cooked with a man that survived college on tater tot casserole with scrambled elk burger.
For a wild game novice, advice on preparation from traditionalists was never scarce: Pronghorn should only be made into summer sausage; sage grouse should be cooked on a board—and then thrown away to eat the board instead; all bird should be wrapped in bacon.
Then a new wave of wild game cooking swelled, and advice became more technical, more mysterious, more delicious but certainly more inaccessible: slow-braised quail served with blackberry currant glaze and locally foraged truffles; smoked trout with mango chutney and curried pilaf; whole dove filleted with — I don’t even know.
And there I was, facing packages of pronghorn, elk, pheasant and mallards thinking of unpalatable recipes that called for the ubiquitous can of cream of mushroom soup or impossibly complicated recipes that required foods I couldn’t dream of locally sourcing in rural Wyoming.
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How do you make culinary traditions when the ones you’re offered are decidedly lacking in detail and direction? You experiment, you make disgusting meals (Hoisin duck pizza was an utter failure) and delicious ones, and learn that cooking wild game doesn’t have to be shrouded in mystery and attempts to mask any taste of the meat itself. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and it doesn’t have to be species specific.
In a freezer full of wild game, chukar, grouse, pheasant and turkey are just birds. Pronghorn, deer and elk are just red meat.
What do you do? Well, you cook it.
But for anyone interested in skipping some of the biggest disasters and focus instead on what works, I compiled a list of tips from Danielle Prewett, Wild Foods Contributing Editor for MeatEater; Hank Shaw, author four wild food books including “Buck, Buck, Moose” and “Pheasant, Quail, Cottontail”; and, of course, from my hard-earned experience.
Remember low and slow: When faced with a shank or some other piece of tough meat, remember these three words: low and slow. Cook the meat at a lower temperature for a long period of time, Prewett said. “There’s a lot of different ways to do that — a crock pot, a Dutch oven, a smoker. Those are all the same types of cooking using gentle heat for a long time to break down meat.” A shank, for example, is often considered one of the toughest pieces of meat, but when cooked low and slow the connected tissue actually melts giving the taste of rich, fatty meat without the fat, said Shaw.
Don’t be afraid of rare: Some types of animal, such as bear, should never be cooked rare. But most big game including elk, antelope, deer or moose when shot and cleaned properly can be safe and delicious to eat rare. Many people even eat venison raw. Prewett’s rule of thumb is: if you have a backstrap, tenderloin or eye of round, treat it like you would a steak from a steakhouse and cook it to your liking.
Sear for flavor: You know the smell from your neighbor’s grill that makes your mouth water and stomach grumble? It’s likely a product of searing a piece of meat. “Searing is when you create a lot of depth and flavor to meat that no matter what, if you’re browning meat or steak, the reaction develops rich, deep flavors.” Practice will help you find a high enough heat to sear in the flavor but not so high you char the outside before cooking it through. One of Prewett’s favorite methods is to sear a loin or backstrap in a pan on high heat, flip it over and transfer the entire pan into the oven at 300 or 350 degrees to finish cooking.
Eat the heart and tongue: It might sound gross, but the heart and tongues of animals aren’t organs like liver or kidneys, they’re just meat. Braise a tongue, for example, and peel off the skin and it is delicious, said Shaw. Don’t serve it whole, however.
Separate thighs from drumsticks: The thigh of a pheasant or wild turkey is the best part of the bird with the most fat and only one bone. The drumstick, on the other hand, is full of sinew that won’t break down. Separate those pieces and slow cook the drumsticks until the meat breaks down and falls off.
Meat is meat: If you like tacos with beef or chicken, make tacos with elk or pheasant. If you like pulled pork sandwiches try it with antelope. Recipes that call for domesticated livestock can always be used with wild game, said Shaw and Prewett. The only hitch is to pay attention to cook times. Bird thighs, for example, should be cooked on low and for a long period. Dark meat bird breasts should be cooked like a steak. “If you cook them as thoroughly as a chicken, you’ll be disappointed,” Shaw said. And remember: “You can always cook something more, you can’t uncook something,” he added. “When in doubt pull it early and check it.”