Game On! Your Guide to Grilling Game Meats
’Tis the season. I speak not of Christmas, but to a topic of burning interest to many members of this barbecue community: game meats. Because hunting season has commenced in many states for certain species of wild game (check with your state’s Department of Natural Resources for specifics), we thought this would be a great time to address the many grilling, smoking, and barbecue questions we receive from people who appreciate game.
To get the low-down on special techniques for cooking game, which has considerably less fat than beef, pork, and other domesticated animals, we spoke with Chris Hughes, owner of the nation’s largest commercial game ranch, Broken Arrow Ranch in Texas Hill Country.
Get the recipes:
Hoisin Glazed Quail
Herb-Crusted Venison Filets with Horseradish Sauce
Please tell us a little about your company, Chris.
Broken Arrow Ranch was founded in 1983 by my father, Mike Hughes, after he retired from a commercial diving career. There was an overpopulation of non-native deer and antelope in the region that needed to be controlled. There was also demand from chefs for quality wild game meats but no domestic supply. My father saw an opportunity and took advantage of it.
Our focus is on producing meats that are of the highest quality rather than being a novelty purveyor with every animal in the zoo. Currently, we’re harvesting five species of deer (axis, sika, fallow, red deer, and elk), two species of antelope (nilgai and blackbuck), and wild boar. We also provide quail from our quail farm, Diamond H Ranch, and dorper lamb from a co-op of ranchers a few hours north of us. We sell just about everything we get so I guess it’s all pretty popular!
Where do you sell your game? Who buys it?
We ship our meats to restaurants and individuals throughout the US via our online store. We are proud to have small town eateries as well as Michelin-starred establishments as our customers. The common denominator is a chef who is passionate about the quality of his or her food and its source and who is daring enough to put game meats on the menu. Among the many well-known restaurants we supply are The French Laundry in Yountville, CA; Emeril’s, New Orleans, LA; Alinea, Chicago, IL; and Fearing’s, Dallas, TX.
If you’re new to eating wild game, which species are best to start with?
Each species has its own unique flavor profile. Venison from axis deer and nilgai antelope are great for inexperienced game eaters because they have a very mild flavor. Elk has a rich, beefy flavor and a bit more prominent game flavor. (Whitetail deer, the one most often harvested by recreational hunters, tends to have one of the strongest flavors by comparison.)
What gives game its “gamey” flavor? How does that flavor change from species to species and cut to cut?
The “gaminess” in venison, for example, varies by species but is also influenced by the animal’s age, gender, stress level at harvest, and quality of processing. Many people who profess to dislike venison have eaten meat from an animal that was severely stressed, processed hours (or days) later, and temperature abused. A young deer (especially a doe) that has been cleanly harvested, properly field dressed, and cooled quickly will taste outstanding no matter the species.
Generally speaking, muscles that are well-exercised taste stronger than muscles that are used less often. This is also true of beef, pork, lamb, etc. So if you’re new to game, I recommend a venison steak from the loin or tenderloin.
How are your animals harvested and processed?
My father pioneered our unique field-harvesting techniques as well as the first government-approved trailer-mounted mobile meat processing unit. Our harvest crew, which is always accompanied by a USDA meat inspector, hunts our ranch or partner ranches for qualified animals, then quietly harvests them in their natural environment. The crew avoids stressing the animals to optimize the meat’s taste and tenderness. The meat is processed in our mobile unit, and within an hour, is placed in a refrigerated cooler before being transported to Broken Arrow Ranch for aging.
So game meats can be dry aged?
They can, but not for too long because of their lack of fat. Game meats do not have intramuscular marbling like beef, so when they’re dry-aged for too long, they taste…well, dry. Here at Broken Arrow Ranch we dry-age our venison for 3 to 5 days to allow for some flavor concentration. Next, we vacuum seal the meat and allow it to wet-age for a total of 21 to 28 days. Vacuum sealing the meat (a.k.a. wet-aging) prevents the muscles from losing moisture but allows the enzymes to continue their work of tenderizing the meat and enhancing its flavor. Game birds also benefit from aging. I personally enjoy aging cleaned quail or doves for up to a week in my refrigerator.
What’s the difference between farm-raised game and wild game in terms of flavor and cooking properties?
Farm raised game and wild game will have some differences in flavor but the cooking techniques (see below) will be the same. A farm-raised deer will generally be milder in flavor than its wild counterpart because of differences in diet and the age at harvesting. (Some farm-raised species, such as elk, red deer, and fallow deer, naturally have stronger flavor profiles.)
Chris, we’ve heard that it’s illegal to sell wild game in the U.S., yet you’ve been doing it since 1983. Please explain.
It’s a complicated issue. A recreational hunter who shoots a whitetail deer cannot legally sell the meat. Why is Broken Arrow Ranch not subject to the same law? First, the species of deer and antelope we harvest are not native to the United States. Texas state law classifies these animals as livestock rather than game animals. This makes them legal to buy, sell, trade, and harvest year round with no limits. Second, we take a meat inspector hunting with us, which fulfills USDA inspection requirements. Last, we pioneered mobile processing technology that allows us to take the processing plant to the animals rather than transporting the animals to a plant.
Game meats are leaner than domesticated pork, beef, or lamb. Do you have any tricks or techniques for cooking them over live fire?
Yes, game meats are characteristically leaner than traditional, domestic meats, sometimes significantly so. Fat, of course, helps meat stay moist while cooking and taste juicy when eaten. Since game meats have very little fat, it’s important to retain as much moisture in the meat as possible while cooking. Here are three key things to remember when grilling game meats:
- Cook game meats quickly: Every second your meat is on the grill it is losing moisture. Dry heat from the fire is causing evaporation. As the proteins in the meat heat up they contract and break down, which results in more moisture loss. I’m not saying to use a fire so hot the outside burns while the interior remains raw. However, I am saying to use as hot a fire as practical, and when the meat is done, get it off the grill!
- Don’t overcook: Tender cuts of venison should be served rare or medium-rare (pull from grill at 120°F to 125°F). Anything over that will be dry, feel tougher and have poor flavor. Quail and dove can stand to be a little pink inside. Wild boar needs to be cooked to 145°F for safety, but pull it from the grill as soon as you’re there.
- Add moisture or fat: Wild boar and game birds benefit from brining in salt water before grilling, smoking, or barbecuing. Marinades, bastes, braising liquids, injection liquids, and wet rubs are also options. Lean meats can be draped with bacon or barded with bits of beef or pork fat. Finally, serve cooked meat or poultry with sauces. Among my favorites are chimichurri and pico de gallo.
Which species and cuts of game are better suited for grilling? Which are better suited for true barbecue (smoking low and slow)?
The split between grilling and smoking for game meats is similar to traditional domesticated meats.
- Steaks and chops are best when cooked quickly on a hot grill.
- Cuts with a lot of connective tissue that must be broken down are best suited for the “low and slow” heat of a smoker. Connective tissue is most prevalent in the muscles that work the most, such as the shoulders and ribs. The reward for this work is meat that also has the most flavor.
Please share a couple of grilled or smoked game recipes with us.
Of course! Here are recipes for Hoisin Glazed Quail and Herb-Crusted Venison Filets with Horseradish Sauce. Additional recipes can be found on our website, brokenarrowranch.com.