Venison is probably the most consumed wild meat in our country. There are so many things you can do with it, as well as other big game animals, even African game and other Exotic animals like the ones we have here in Texas. Many people ask me what the best tasting exotic game meat is out of all the different deer and African game. I really like them all. Axis Deer, Red Deer, and Blackbuck Antelope are among my favorites in the venison family. In the African game family, Addax and Oryx are pretty tasty as well. If you have not tried exotic meat and do not have a ranch where you can hunt them in the area you live in, meat from many exotics can be found through online retailers if you ever want to give them a try.
So…You Eat Those, Too?
Aside from the regular cuts of meat, which we will cover soon, I love to keep the wild game hearts, livers, and kidneys when possible as these “variety meats” can be really tasty if prepared right. Obviously, you want to inspect these organs to make sure they are clean and healthy and not consume them in areas where it is not advised to do so. On a hunting show I watched a couple of years ago, the host kept the heart of his deer after the hunt, sliced it into thin strips, and sautéed the meat, making delicious tacos with peppers and onions. It reminded me of fajitas! I tried this same idea with a deer heart I saved from a hunting trip not long after I saw this show and have to say this is a great idea. Heart “meat” has a similar consistency to a thick steak. You want to slice the meat thin, as the heart is a hard working muscle, meaning the meat can be tough if not thinly sliced. It may be different frpm what you have tried before but it is certainly a way to broaden your culinary horizons.
Additionally, the liver can make some great dishes like Liver and Onions or be incorporated in other dishes. Some folks do not care for liver and that is fine. If you are one that does not like it, remember that you can save money on buying bait for your next fishing trip by saving the livers or other organs from your big game harvest and use them for catfish bait at the very least. As for kidneys, I have a special fondness for Steak and Kidney Pie for some reason, which is a savory meat pie, similar to a Beef Pot Pie. I picked up on this recipe from the British culture as I took a trip in the summer of 2011 to the beautiful island of Bermuda. I expected Caribbean food. Instead, there was a heavy British influence since the island is a British territory and I fell in love with “Pub Grub” like Bermudian Fish Chowder and savory Meat Pies. There are several recipes for Steak and Kidney Pie but it is fairly easy to make. Like the heart, the kidneys are a dense meat that need to be cubed up into small chunks. I use wild game kidneys and steak for my version of this old recipe with fantastic results. Kidneys have a hearty flavor and are really tasty in a dish like a meat pie.
Dustin Vaughn Warncke is an avid hunter, outdoor industry consultant, and Pro-Staff for Mac & Prowler as well as several other outdoor industry product and guide service businesses. E-mail Dustin at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Warncke Enterprises at www.dustinsprojects.com
Mmm…Meat, and more Meat!
In many cases, venison can take the place of beef, pork, or other meat in recipes. The most obvious thing most people think about with deer meat is processing it into jerky, sausage, snack sticks, etc. as we talked about in the first part of this series. That is a great way to experience the outdoors and enjoy the bounty of the field for an entrée or even a snack. I am a big fan of grilling steaks and whole backstraps almost every week at my house. In fact, we have one small charcoal and gas gril and two larger grills/barbeque pits in our back yard. It all depends on the size of the event and the accompanying meal. Is that overkill? I think not!
The key here, as with just about everything in the realm of wild meat, is to trim out as much of the fat as possible and, not to overcook the meat. My favorite venison steak temperature is medium rare and most professional chefs would agree that this is an optimal way to serve it. The exception here would be wild pork where you want to make sure you cook the meat thoroughly to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
Much like venison, wild pork is a very lean meat and happens to be an abundant protein source in Texas and many other states. Both non-hunters and veteran hunters alike from outside of our area frequently ask me if you can even eat wild hogs and, more often than not, even confuse them with the javelina, which look similar to a wild hog but ironically are not in the same species group. Yes, you can eat both javelina and wild hogs and they are both tasty if prepared right. Wild pork is very similar to its domestic counterpart you see at the store, except much leaner. The wild hog has to work for a living after all! If you kill a big boar, do not despair. I have killed and processed pigs in the 200-300 pound range that smelled awful but tasted great after the following trick.
First, put your meat in an ice chest and cover it completely in ice. Combine a mixture of one bottle of pure lemon juice (32 ounces/1 Quart) and one cup of pure white vinegar and mix thoroughly. Pour on the top of the ice. Let this combination soak with your meat for the next 2-3 days. Keep draining the water and add more ice as needed during this time. You can add a little more of the white vinegar/pure lemon juice mixture to your ice water if you feel that it is needed. Do not go overboard though. If your meat turns purple or looks discolored, it is because you have too much vinegar in the water. The meat is still fine in most cases, just add some fresh ice and drain your old water.
After you are done with this process, rinse off the meat, wrap it up, and freeze it. One of the first hogs I killed was on a hog dog hunt and he weighed almost 300 pounds. He smelled awful, as many large boar hogs do. I used this method of marinating the meat as I first learned it from the guides who hosted this hunting trip. I cooked some pork chops from this hog for a large family gathering at our house later that month and no one even knew it was feral pork!
Roasting whole quarters of pork is a popular method that I am known for by my family and church. You can do the same with a whole pork loin but obviously cook for less time for smaller portions. Cutting a wild hog vertically with a meat saw or power reciprocating saw will result in two equal sides and is a good option for cooking a hog at one time. You can also grill pork steaks or chops, but keep in mind to not overcook the meat. Wrapping wild pork steaks or chops in bacon is one way I use to keep the meat moist while grilling. “Slow and Low”, as we say in the barbeque world, is a great way to ensure your larger cuts of meat do not dry out or cook unevenly and this is my preferred method of cooking wild pork.
Care and Processing of Your Harvest
You can always pay a butcher to process and wrap or vacuum seal your game, but I enjoy the art of having complete control over the process, where time permits. With a busy life of a full and part-time career, raising a family, and my other countless pursuits in life, sometimes dropping off my game at a processor is a huge time-saver but it is fun and usually pretty easy to process meat in the comfort of your own home if circumstances allow for it. After you get home, you can easily go to any store and buy a large roll of freezer paper and some freezer tape to wrap everything up. Cutting and wrapping your meat is easy to do by yourself but do not be cheap or stingy on the freezer paper for both small and large cuts. Double wrap everything you pack away in the freezer to ensure your meat is protected from freezer burn and preserves well until you are ready to cook it.
A while back, Santa Claus was nice enough to bring me a vacuum sealer for Christmas and I have used it with wonderful results instead of freezer paper. You can also freezer wrap and then vacuum seal for more protection. Remember, air in the freezer environment is the enemy and the main cause of the dreaded freezer burn. Vacuum sealer bags for vacuum sealer appliances are a little more expensive than what freezer paper costs but they are well worth the price with the extra freshness and extended freezer life you get out of your meat. If you use this method, buy rolls of freezer paper and cut and seal them into bags yourself. This is much more economical than purchasing pre-cut sealer bags. Some stores even have store-brand versions of vacuum sealer material which cost less and usually work as well as the brand name versions.
When making burger, breakfast sausage, link sausage, or any other ground meat products, it is vital that you keep the area you are handling your ground meat on very clean as ground meat is a breeding ground for bacteria. Most of your ground meat can come from the trimmings of your tenderloins and back straps as well as your whole quarters. You can also chunk up your whole quarters making ground meat products.
If you are grinding the meat yourself, you will find that it is easier to do it when the meat is chilled or partially frozen. Since wild game is a lean meat and will dry out easily, I usually buy “Bacon Ends and Pieces” from the store. This will add a nice smoked bacon taste to your burger meat along with fat. I usually grind at about a 20% ratio or less of Bacon Ends and Pieces to my wild pork or venison for burger. I got this idea from one of my other favorite deer processors, right down the road from the ranch I work for, which is Brizendine’s Deer Processing (www.brizendinesdeer.com) and they are well known for their “Bacon Burger”, which is simply incredible. It is basically venison burger mixed with bacon. They will never share the ratio or fat content that they use to make it taste so good and I understand that. I have used Venison Bacon Burger to make phenomenal hamburgers as well as in queso, meatloaf, casseroles, and several one-dish skillet recipes in place of using beef with fantastic results. If you ever hunt around Central Texas, give Brizendine’s a try, if not just for this product alone!
For sausage, the general rule is 40% to 50% commercial pork or beef and 50% game meat. You can purchase pork shoulders or Boston Butts in the meat section of most stores fairly inexpensively. If you do not have a meat grinder, most butchers will grind the meat for you for under a dollar a pound. You can save money by boning out your meat so it is easier for your butcher to process. The main rule to follow is to never grind any meat you normally would not eat. If it does not look appetizing to eat, grinding it certainly is not going to change things much.
Wild Breakfast Sausage
Seasoning for Breakfast Sausage can be found at most supermarkets (usually in the meat section) or meat markets. Make sure you weigh your meat and have the correct ratios of seasoning so you don’t over-season or under-season what you are making.
The seasoning can be added to meat that has already been ground but it is better to chunk up your meat in 1-2 inch slices, lay it out close together, and sprinkle it with the seasoning package and sage (optional), then grind it. You can use straight pork, venison/pork, or pork mixed with a little bacon. Experiment with what you like the best.
To see if your seasoning/meat ratio is correct, fry up a little test patty after you have a small first batch of seasoned pork through the grinder. If it needs more or less seasoning or fat content, you can always adjust it right away. If it needs a little heat or more flavor, add some sage or other seasoning you desire. Portion your finished meat into 1 to 2 pound servings, wrap in freezer paper or wild game freezer bags and freeze. It should be noted that one of the best ways I have found to process wild goat and sheep, as we have on exotic ranches all over Texas, is to make breakfast or link sausage. Many hunters on our ranch do not want the meat from these trophy animals but I can promise that I have fed breakfast sausage patties and link sausage to folks who swore it was deer or hog sausage and never even noticed a tint of wild goat or sheep taste. It all happens when you process the meat correctly.
Most sporting goods stores will have good link sausage kits. With these kits, you can select many different varieties of flavors such as Italian, Bratwurst, German, and so on. Casings can be purchased at most grocery stores in the meat section but most link sausage kits already have them included. Read the directions on your mix kit to make sure you get the right seasoning to meat ratio and weigh everything before you mix anything to make sure you have the correct proportions before you start.
After you have your meat together, you can add the seasoning, then grind it, or grind it, then add the seasoning. In any case, it should be noted here that you want everything to be mixed evenly for a consistent end product. You can buy stuffing horns rather inexpensively. Another option is to use a mixer attachment grinder/stuffer, which is what I use with my kitchen mixer. Either way you go you, you simply want to soak the casings in water for around 30 minutes until they get soft and pliable. Lubricate the end of your stuffer with some vegetable oil. Tie a square knot in the end of your casing and slide the open end all the way on the stuffer, making sure you keep all excess air out of the casing.
Start to fill your casings with meat from the stuffer. As you fill the casings, they will expand and the weight on the stuffed casings will pull away from the stuffer and allow fresh portions of the casing to be filled. After your get to the end of the casing link, you can tie another square knot at the other end of the casing. Make sure not to overfill your casings or they will burst and I can speak from personal experience that this is not a fun thing to happen! If you do have some air pockets after you are finished, make a small pinhole in the casing at the site of the air pocket to let the air out. Your link should still be fine after doing this. If anything does bust wide open on you during this process, you can always cut it and tie up the link in the good part of the casing and start with a fresh one. You will get the hang of this the more you do it.
Natural casings are usually very long. You can cut the casing into shorter lengths or make one massive link and pinch and twist portions out of it to make smaller links. If you take vote for the second option, make sure you twist your casing in the opposite directions so your sausage stays in links and does not become unraveled when you are done. You can always use synthetic casings, and one of my meat processors exclusively does this for a number of reasons, but be sure to use the same basic principles for care and filling of any kind of casing. It gets messy if you get careless. Wrap serving portions of one to two pounds in freezer paper or vacuum seal and you are done. When you make your own link sausage you have the freedom to include whatever you want in seasoning or ingredients such as jalapeños, cheese, etc. With this in mind, be sure to be aware of who will be serving the end product to as your family and church friends may not like habanero or ghost chilies as much as you do! Making sausage takes some time but it is well worth it!
Making Whole Quarters of Big Game
Whole Hog or Leg Quarters
As we talked about before, the rule of doing barbeque with whole animals or large leg quarters is to go slow and low with the heat on your meat. You want to keep your pit/smoker temperature at around 265-300 degrees and smoke for about 5-6 hours on large quarters or 8+ hours on a whole hog, depending on the size. The internal safe temperature for pork is 165-170 degrees. You want to cook your meat until it falls off the bone and cooking too fast or hot will leave you with tough and chewy meat. You will also want to double wrap your meat in foil to keep your juices surrounding the meat.
Obviously, there are many different marinades and dry rubs available. You can also use an injector marinade and inject the meat with a food syringe/injector. This allows for an instant marinade and keeps the meat extremely moist as it cooks. Another idea that is cheap and easy is to buy a few bottles of Italian dressing and use it as a marinade. The oil in this dressing will keep the meat moist.
Now that we have a couple of marinade ideas, let’s talk about a dry rub for the outside of the meat. I use garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, paprika and some steak seasoning together as a dry rub. These ingredients all complement each other and work well for most meats.
Many dry rubs already have some or all of these ingredients already so read the label of what you purchase or you can even just come up with your own. While you are cooking, make sure you do not let the meat set right over the fire and that you baste your meat with mop sauce to keep it from drying out. A good rule is to never add barbeque sauce, especially ones using tomato as the base ingredient, until you are at the end of your cooking time. Whether you are grilling or barbecuing, using it too early increases the chance the sauce will burn on the meat. The trick with doing quarters or an entire large animal, like a hog, all at once is to keep the meat cooking evenly. We talked earlier about cutting a whole hog vertically down the spine and if you elect to do this, be careful to make sure you protect your loins and tenderloins from too much heat as they will be smaller parts of the animal and will cook faster than the whole quarters. These parts can easily dry out if exposed to too much heat and not basted properly. After your meat is cooked, it is important to take it off the pit and let it cool, or “rest”, for about ten minutes or so. When it comes to cutting up the hog into serving pieces, think of carving a brisket or turkey.
Barbeque Pork Ribs
The same basic rules above apply to ribs. Trim the meat of undesirable fat. Then you can cut the ribs in half lengthwise to make two long racks of shorter ribs or you can even get fancy and cut the ribs up into rack portions like what are served in restaurants. I use an Italian dressing marinade along with a dry rub smoke the ribs in double foil for around 6 hours. Again, slow and low is the key to success here. Keep your temperature at around 275 degrees and you will have some great meat! If you by chance have leftovers, you can make some wonderful rib sandwiches. Just pull all of the meat off of the ribs, shred it, and mix it up with some barbeque sauce.
Sauce it Up!
My pick on the best brand of rubs, sauces, mops, and marinades? Stubb’s Bar-B-Q based in the Austin area where I live and they sell a wide variety of different products from marinades, rubs, and sauces. I have tried literally hundreds of sauces and Stubb’s sauces are my top pick overall. These are available in many retail stores, such as Wal-Mart, nationwide as well as on the internet (www.stubbsbbq.com). One of my son’s Pre-School teachers happens to be the wife of the grandson of Mr.C.B. Stubblefield (AKA “Stubb”) and has brought me a couple of Stubb’s T-shirts over the years since she knew I was a fan of their line of products. I wear them proudly all the time. I often drive through the neighborhood they live in, just south of my neighborhood, and see the beautiful Stubb’s party trailer parked on the side of the street every so often. My heart just sings with joy. What can I say? Although they are not a sponsor of ours, I am a huge fan of all of their products.
You can make jerky from several different types of meat. Making your own jerky is not hard at all but it does take some time. Most sporting goods or discount stores have a variety of different flavored seasoning kits, or you can come up with your own spices. I am a fan of the store bought kits as they already include the curing agent and are pretty foolproof as long as you read the directions and follow them carefully. There are two main ways to make jerky. The most traditional way is to use whole piece of meat. Another way is to grind the meat with the seasonings and load it into a “jerky gun”, which will in turn shoot out strips of meat which you then smoke or dehydrate for the finished product. For the purpose of our time here, I will talk about the first method of using whole pieces of meat.
You can use just about any large cut of meat. Cut the meat into strips no more than a quarter inch thick by about a half or three-quarters of an inch wide and six or eight inches long. Slice the meat across the grain like you were cutting a brisket or fajita meat. Keep in mind that meat will be easier to slice if it is partially frozen. Be sure to remember to trim all of the fat and sinew tissue you go to the next step.
After this is done, lay out your meat on your countertop close together, but not overlapping, and shake your cure/seasoning mix liberally over your meat strips. Turn the slices over and repeat the same process. Put the seasoned strips in a freezer/sandwich bag and push all of the air out of the bag. Refrigerate for around 48 hours.
For the next step, you can use a dehydrator, barbeque smoker, or even your oven. I like the barbeque smoking method best for my jerky. Fire up your smoker with some oak, hickory, or any other similar hardwood. If you are using a pit without a firebox, start your fire on one side and put your jerky on the other. You can lay the jerky slices on racks, straight on the grill surface, or on hooks/skewers. Cooking or drying time for jerky using this method runs about 1 1/2-2 hours. If you are doing your jerky in an oven, start your temperature at 250-275 degrees and stick a spatula or other object in the oven door to vent the heat as the oven cooks and starts to dehydrate the meat. If using a dehydrator, simply follow the directions accordingly. For the end result, you want your texture to be leathery and chewy but not burnt to a crisp like some of the jerky you buy at the store. This is a healthy snack that cost very little to make and is worth every ounce of effort when you are done!
We get “fancy” in our final part of our series and start talking about really putting some meat on the fire! So in Part Three of this article, I will share some family recipes and even some new ideas you many have never thought of in the quest of turning your harvest from the field into a tasty part of your dinner plans. Man, I love this stuff!
Dustin Vaughn Warncke