Virtually everything you need to know about game meat – from securing it, to how long the supply will last, to preserving it and turning it into delicious meals for your family.
It’s estimated that over 40 million hunters and anglers in the United States and Canada, harvest protein from rivers, lakes, streams, fields, and forests every year. These game meats are not only an integral part of self-reliance, but also a sustainable and economical way to harvest healthy meats for you and your family.
The first year my husband went deer hunting, I was beside myself when he brought the meat home. I wasn’t sure how to prepare it, and my resources were very limited over a decade ago. It took a lot of trial and error to figure out what to do with it.
In fact, I was kind of hesitant to even try it. I find that when I’m unfamiliar with something, I tend to shy away from it. But, it was a lot of meat to just let sit in the freezer for a rainy day, and well… we weren’t made of money. So, I found an old recipe book that was my grandfather’s, and tried it.
And, I was instantly impressed. Nothing, I mean nothing, compares to the flavor of venison. I much prefer it to beef. My oldest won’t even eat beef, only venison. And then we started expanding into other game meats, and I was equally impressed.
While it takes a lot of hard work, you can actually acquire all of your meat from wild game and never buy meat again. But, if you’re like me and unsure, I’m here to help guide you through everything from defining game meat, going through flavor palates, preparing and preserving meat, figuring out how much your meat will make, recipes and more.
Table Of Contents
What is considered game meat?
Game meat is traditionally the flesh harvested from any non-domesticated land mammal, bird, or aquatic mammal that are legally hunted for personal consumption. However, many traditional game species are reared on ranches, and harvested for commercial sale, or even reared on backyard farms and homesteads around the world.
In short, animals that are typically farmed – such as bovine, domestic swine, goats, sheep, and domestic fowl, are excluded. However, most others can be considered game, even if they were reared by humans. In some specialized markets, game meats can be found for sale. This is becoming more and more common as people start to shy away from traditional, domesticated animals for food.
Why is it called game meat?
As I mentioned, game is traditionally hunted. Hunting is considered a sport because it tests the skill and ability of the hunter.
The word game is derived from the the Old English word “gamen” which means joy, amusement, sport, or merriment. And since, traditionally, game is hunted, it falls under the category of sport.
Common Game Meat in North America
Types of game meat vary based on your geographic location, and there are thousands of animals worldwide that can be harvested for meat. In North America, some of the most common game species are:
Derived from the Latin word meaning, “to hunt”, the term venison used to be used to describe any type of game meat – including deer, rabbits, wild boar and more. But, today, this term is used to describe the muscles and organs of any type of deer or antelope including, but not limited to, whitetail, elk, moose, and caribou.
Venison is delicious and flavorful. Nothing like bovine, it has a more earthy and rich flavor. It is also much more lean than domestic red meat, and can be dry – especially if it is not cooked properly.
Rabbit meat is often described as being chicken-like in flavor, but it really isn’t. While the flavor is mild, it’s also richer. This meat (like many game meats), can dry out quickly as well, due to it’s leanness.
Duck is probably one of my favorite meats, coming in a close second to venison. It tastes absolutely nothing like chicken. In fact, by culinary standards, it’s often considered a red meat, despite the fact that scientifically speaking, it’s white.
Duck meat is very rich in flavor, and duck breasts are actually fantastic cooked to rare.
If you’re lucky enough to live in an area where bear (especially black bear), is abundant enough to have a legal hunting season, you may actually really enjoy this meat.
Bear meat is a red meat, albeit slightly lighter than venison or beef. Bear meat has been compared to the flavor of venison, though more chewy and slightly sweeter. It is typically slow cooked because it can be quite tough.
Another favorite of mine is bison. Very lean, much like venison, but very delicious. The flavor of bison is much more mild, while still being earthy, than that of venison with very little “gamey” flavor going on at all.
Bison meat is a little more coarse than beef, and a little sweeter, but the flavors are actually similar.
Some folks are taken aback at the idea of eating squirrel, much like rabbits. But it’s estimated over 1.8 million American’s hunt and cook this chicken of the woods. You do have to harvest several to make a decent meal if you have many people that you’re serving, but it can be worth your while.
Like rabbit, squirrel is often described as tasting like chicken, and that’s marginally true. Milder than rabbit, but not quite like chicken. However, due to diet, squirrels actually have a slightly nutty, sweet flavor, and the texture is fine.
Yep, people eat beaver. Who knew?
Beaver meat is not something I’ve personally tried, but it is described as being quite tough, stringy, and very “gamey” in flavor. It’s not something a lot of people seem to like, but there are others that swear by it and say it tastes similar to pork.
Wild boar is nothing like it’s domestic cousin. It’s much leaner, higher in protein, and lower in cholesterol.
It has a flavor that can’t really be compared to other meats. The flavor is quite strong, rich, and nutty. The meat is juicy, and is often described as a cross between beef and pork – but make no mistake, it really doesn’t taste anything like domesticated swine meat.
Like duck, goose is considered a red meat by culinary terms, but scientifically, is a white meat.
The flavor of goose is incredibly rich, comparable to a rare roast beef… but better. Also, like duck, it is quite fatty – so there are a lot of natural flavors to it, and it doesn’t need a lot added to it, unlike chicken.
Known in the bayou as the chicken of the swamp, alligator is a mild, white meat with a firm texture. It has a flavor similar to that of chicken, but more flavorful with a slight fishy flavor.
Quail are quite small, but they have a good meat to bone ratio. In fact, the bones are so small, they’re not typically removed, but actually consumed along with the meat.
Quail has a similar flavor to chicken, but better than most commercially raised chicken – as it is richer and more flavorful.
The texture of pheasant is like most poultry, and the flavor is similar to chicken. However, it has a slightly “gamey” undertone, with a mild smoky flavor.
Why eat game meat?
Game meat is an excellent choice for so many reasons. It’s healthier, more sustainable, more challenging to procure, it reduces your dependency on failing food systems, and so much more. So… what are the benefits to eating wild game?
Wild game is incredibly healthy. It’s much leaner than traditional, domesticated meats. In fact, if you put a meatloaf made from ground beef and another made from venison or bison in the oven… you’ll see all the fat at the bottom of the beef pan while the game meatloaf will not have much at all. A surefire way to tell, it’s virtually fat free (in comparison).
Game meats are also very high in omega 3 fatty acids, an essential component to a healthy diet. According to a study done by Purdue University, their omega 3 to omega 6 ratio is also lower than grain-fed domesticated animals. This is beneficial, because if that ratio is too high – it can increase inflammatory responses linked to chronic disease.
These meats were traditionally consumed by hunter-gatherer populations, and this study shows that it’s not how much fat you consume – but rather, the overall ratio of fats.
Wild game also has high amounts of essential vitamins and minerals such as iron, selenium, zinc, beta carotene, B6, and niacin.
It’s Natural – Antibiotic and Hormone Free
Game meat is harvested from its natural habitats, which means its diet is natural as well.
The meat isn’t farmed to grow fast and beefy, so no hormones are used.
Studies have shown that antibiotic treatment of animals can negatively affect the natural flora in the human gut. Wild game isn’t in need of antibiotics to avoid or treat infections, which means that you don’t have the concern.
It grew in it’s natural environment, while eating it’s natural diet, without human intervention… which, to most of us is a good thing.
It Tastes Better
I’ve known a lot of people who say game meat tastes, well, “gamey”, but that’s simply because we’ve spent so long eating grain-fed meats, that we don’t know to appreciate the flavor of natural meats.
Game meats have a unique and distinct flavor that is solely from their diet. Ruminants of any kind were never meant to consume grain, but since most domesticated animals are fed grain, it changes the flavor, and we’ve gotten used to it, instead of the flavor of an animal with a natural diet.
And for most folks, expanding your palette and enjoying the flavor of wild game just takes a little knowledge on how to properly prepare the meat. Most meats are fantastic, tastier, alternatives to more widely known and consumed meats.
It Is Environmentally Friendly
By eating wild game, you reduce your carbon footprint. Most animals are harvested locally, making the food miles from field to fork, very few.
Hunting wild game is conservation, and not enough people talk about how beneficial it really is. Hunting has a positive effect on the ecology of our natural landscapes. Without hunting, populations would increase out of control to unsustainable levels.
Hunting helps keep natural woodlands and wetlands from being destroyed, and also conserves natural flora, giving wild bird populations more food, allowing their populations to increase.
It’s Sustainable and Self-Sufficient
We’ve all, unfortunately, seen the effects of a broken link in our food systems. Grocery store shelves can quickly become barren, if even one element in that precarious system is broken down in some form.
However, hunting is a sustainable way to provide protein for you and your family. As I mentioned, it helps conserve natural resources but it also is something that you can do for you and your family to provide at least part of your protein, without the detrimental effects of modern, commercial farm practices.
While hunting licenses and a bit of gear can cost money, it’s relatively inexpensive and gear doesn’t have to be fancy. Even if you do spend a good amount on the gear, it’s going to pay for itself in no time, and you can use that gear for years.
Think about the cost of beef per pound from your local farmer’s market. Then consider the cost of a license, a bow, and some arrow…and possibly a tree stand, or hunting blind (and maybe some training and targets). You’ll spend less than you would purchasing a whole cow.
Low Risk of Food-Borne Illness
Commercially produced meats are often fed unnatural diets, and crammed into spaces putting them at high risk for disease. Then, the meat is taken to the processing plant, and the germs are spread all around the plant – only to be packaged and brought home to put in your refrigerator.
In fact, a study done by consumer reports found that 97% of chicken contained bacteria that could make you sick. And another study by the center for science in the public interest, found that beef is one of the riskiest meats to put in your fridge.
But you don’t have those worries so much with wild game. Since it lived a natural life, it’s probably healthy. Handling it properly should always be the first and foremost priority, and knowing how to properly process it yourself – or finding a reputable, small processing plant, is essential. But the risk is far less than with grocery store meats.
Remember pink slime? It’s a filler that, for a short time, wasn’t used due to public pressure. But, it didn’t last long.
This product is full of ammonia, and is used as a filler in poultry and beef products to help reduce the risk of e. coli in these meats. And then that toxic chemical can slowly build up in the consumer’s system…. Think about it.
No worries for pink slime, or “saline solution” to increase weight, appearance, and safety in wild game, though.
What is the healthiest game meat?
Game meat of any type is very healthy, especially when compared to common commercial meats, like beef. Wild game meat has more omega-3 fatty acids, it is leaner, lower fat, and has lower calories per 100 grams, than most commercial meats.
How long will my game meat supply last?
Believe it or not, you can subsist on game meats year-round and never purchase meat again. In fact, it’s a goal of ours to transition to 100% wild game at some point in the future – save some sausage casings and pork fat.
That being said, it will take a lot of work and dedication to keep your freezer and pantry full of meat. You can use game meats to help decrease your grocery bill, or you can slowly, but completely, transition to game meats, and not have to purchase commercial meat again.
It’s certainly healthier and more sustainable than purchasing commercial meats, even if you’re purchasing those meats from a local, small farm. Which, you definitely should be doing, regardless.
When thinking about the possibility of supplementing or completely switching over to game, the question of how much meat you need arises. And, of course, that answer can vary wildly. It’s highly dependent on how much meat you and your family consume each day, how often you feed guests, how often you won’t be eating meat from your harvest due to travel or eating elsewhere, and lastly – whether you utilize nose-to-tail eating, or only consume the cuts you enjoy.
The table provided below will give you a few ballpark estimates. This table is based off of the average serving size per person, with large game serving sizes being smaller than small game. These are the average weights of meat harvested off of each animal, which will always vary slightly. You can increase the weight yielded, if you choose to utilize the entire animal, organ meats, less desirable cuts, etc. But, this can give you an idea:
How do I obtain game meat?
Traditionally, you would of course, hunt for it. But, times have changed, and as consumer demand increases for more sustainable, natural, and environmentally friendly meats – so have production processes.
While selling wild game is illegal, selling game meats that are farmed and processed at a USDA processing plant is not.
Game meats are becoming more and more common on supermarket shelves. While these meats aren’t wild, they are typically ethically grown, and allowed natural diets on large ranches. They’re not fattened up with grains and given all types of hormones and antibiotics….
You can also oftentimes put your name on a list for a local processor. Many times hunters don’t pick up their meat for one reason or another. You can often get wild harvested game from a local processor for the cost of processing the meat.
Another option, if you’re comfortable and your local laws allow it, is to harvest road kill. While the process of doing this is very time sensitive and dependent on how much of the animal was struck, we’ve personally harvested several bucks off of the highway. If you’re in the area when the accident occurs, you know the meat is fresh, and if the entire animal wasn’t side-struck, much of the meat may be salvageable. This all depends on your comfort level and local laws, though.
Hunting Game Meat
Hunting game meat is the traditional method, but rules and regulations vary by state. Sometimes, these rules even vary by county, or even by hunting zones. I strongly suggest you look up your local rules, regulations, and seasons for your particular area.
Poaching isn’t cool, nor is it necessary. Seasons and bag limits are implemented for numerous reasons. One is, avoid nesting and mating seasons so that the population can reproduce, keeping levels where they need to be. Another is to avoid over-harvesting of a particular population, conserving it for future hunters and maintaining ecology.
Hunting licenses aren’t very expensive, and they help pay to conserve natural wildlife habitats. In fact, without these dollars, it wouldn’t be easy to pay for the maintenance and purchase of wildlife habitats. These licenses also help local fish and wildlife districts know how many hunters and anglers there are, which helps them set bag limits accordingly to conserve populations.
So make sure to contact your local Department of Natural Resources of Fish and Wildlife Division, to be sure you know what’s legal and what isn’t.
Some states require hunter’s education courses, some allow some weapons and not others, some areas the bag limit will be higher than others. How many antlered vs antlerless deer you can harvest can vary and more. It’s really dependent on your area.
Hunting is rewarding, though, and a skill I believe everyone should have at least a basic knowledge of. It allows you to provide protein for yourself and your family for just a little bit of money… but it can, and often does, take a lot of time.
Depending on the game you plan to hunt, will determine the equipment you need. It’s often helpful to find a more experienced hunter, to show you the ropes, and help you safely and successfully harvest game until you get a little more experience under your belt.
Purchasing Commercially Available Game Meat
Some folks don’t have the desire or ability to hunt game, and that’s okay. Today’s consumer demand for healthy, sustainable, natural meats has grown immensely – so the availability of these meats commercially, has come a long way.
Most local groceries have at least some wild game meats available, some more than others. And a lot of farmer’s markets have game meats available, making them an excellent stop to see what you can find.
Even if you can’t find these meats locally, many ranches and farms sell USDA processed meats online, and ship them country-wide. So, there are options available to you if you’d like to try these healthier protein alternatives.
How do I preserve game meat?
There are many, many ways to preserve game meat – from freezing, to canning, to curing. It really depends on your comfort level, your knowledge level, and what equipment you have.
Freezing Wild Game
Freezing meat is, understandably, the easiest and most widely used method for preserving game meats. Many people invest in a vacuum sealer, which can help preserve frozen meats for a longer period of time.
I recommend you package meats in individual packages, that reflect the amount you and your family typically eat per serving. So, you may package a pound of ground meat, four steaks, or for smaller game, the entire animal.
Canning Wild Game
You can also can game meat. While this does require a pressure canner, it’s really a straightforward process. I love canning meat, though, because it not only frees up freezer space, it makes meals so easy. Since the meat is already cooked during the canning process, it just needs warmed a little, and you’ve got a meal.
In fact, canned venison is one of my favorite, shelf-stable ways to preserve it.
Curing Wild Game
Another way, is to cure meats. Now, this can be things like venison summer sausage, smoked jerky, venison jerky, or smoked hams and bacons. This method requires a bit more time, a larger comfort level, some equipment, and a little more knowledge – but these foods are so tasty, you’ll be glad you jumped into it.
How do I cook game meat?
Game meat is easy to cook, but it’s not quite the same as cooking domesticated meats. It’s leaner, which means it will dry out more quickly, and the flavor is slightly different – making the seasonings you use, perhaps, a bit different as well.
These things are true of almost all wild game, with a few exceptions. Cooking venison is an easy enough process, though. You’ll just want to follow a few tips.
• Allow the meat to come to room temperature before cooking. This is true of any game meat, not just red meat. By doing this, you won’t “shock” the meat, which can cause it to overcook. This process will take at least an hour, depending on what you’re cooking.
- Wild game should never be overcooked. Overcooking game will produce a metallic flavor and create a very tough texture.
- Keep wild game pink and on the rare side for the best flavor. The exception being goose meat, which should be cooked to a temperature of 155°F for the best flavor and texture. Bear and wild boar should also be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 155°F, to avoid potential food borne pathogens.
- Brown the surface after cooking, if you’re roasting it in the oven for the best flavor.
- Allow game meat to rest about 15 minutes after cooking, before serving.
- Game meat is best after cooked and not warmed up later.
What can I do with game meat? (Recipes)
A lot of game meats can be swapped for more widely utilized meats, like – poultry, beef, and pork. As long as you follow the tips to cook it properly, you’ll be well on your way.
Instead of Chicken Use
Rabbit is very similar to chicken, and a lot of traditional French recipes use rabbit and have more modern chicken versions of the same dish.
Rabbit can be cooked whole, or separated into pieces, and even deep-fried like chicken. However, it is best roasted, slow cooked, or braised. Like this Braised Rabbit in Cream Sauce. The meat is a little tougher than chicken, especially if it’s wild-harvested meat. So slow and low is a great way to prepare it.
Quail are very small – typically serving an individual, not an entire family. But, they’re packed full of flavor that is similar, though richer, than chicken.
Most often, people roast the whole bird, sometimes stuffing it. They are very lean like most game, and they cook quickly. So be mindful of that when preparing. A whole bird will take about 20 minutes to cook through, which is when the meat is firm and juices run clear.
Duck is one of my favorite chicken substitutes. While it doesn’t taste a lot like chicken, it’s similar – just richer.
The meat is also a little fattier, which means it doesn’t dry out as easily – making it great for beginners, because it’s so much harder to dry out. I love making roasted duck, but the legs smoked and dipped in bbq is to die for, as well.
A whole pheasant is very similar in size to a chicken, usually weighing approximately 2-3 pounds. As mentioned above, it’s very flavorful, and most people like the flavor of it – and don’t find it overly “gamey”.
Pheasant is best prepared by cooking it low and slow, since it is much leaner than chicken. As I said, you don’t want to overcook game meats. You’ll also want to add fat to the bird, or it will dry out. You’ll want to cook it at a low oven temperature, or plan to frequently baste it. Cook to a temperature of 180°F.
Instead of Beef Use
Bison is an excellent choice for folks trying game meat for the first time. The flavor is unique and earthy, but mild and similar in both texture and flavor to beef.
Bison can be used in place of any dish calling for beef, and the cooking method is the same – except you’ll want to ensure you don’t overcook it, as it is very lean. Cooking bison to a rare, to medium-rare temperature is best…you want a little pink in it.
Venison… I can’t say enough good things about it. It is by far my favorite, and I’ll take a serving of venison over beef any day of the week, (so will my kids).
This meat is perfect in place of beef, prepared correctly and not overcooked, it’s bursting with flavor. It’s perfect for making dishes like, venison stroganoff, chili, sous vide roast, or even a marinated venison steak.
In Place of Pork Use
Wild boar isn’t the same as it’s domestic cousins, but it is very similar, and the perfect substitute for domestic pork recipes.
Like most game, wild boar is best being cooked low and slow. Making pulled pork is one my favorite ways, but you can also use the hams, make bacon, and more.