Why Eat It

Why Eat It

Any bird or animal that is hunted for food can rightly be considered game. These range from everyday creatures, such as squirrel or rabbit, to exotic big-game animals such as hartebeests and Cape Buffalo. The meat from game is generally more intensely flavored than meat from domesticated animals. Both types of meat are high in protein and minerals, but game is lower--sometimes significantly lower--in fat and cholesterol than domesticated meats. In most states, wild game can only be hunted in season, and it cannot be sold commercially. But you don't have to be a hunter to sample game. The most popular game animals are raised on carefully managed farms or preserves and the meat is distributed for sale in restaurants, supermarkets, and specialty stores--you can also order game by mail.

Farm-raised game is meatier and more tender than wild game, and also has a bit more fat--but less than beef or pork. This is because the fat in game animals is concentrated on the back or under the spine, rather than being dispersed as marbling throughout the meat. Whereas the percentage of fat calories in beef varies from 20% to 60%, most big-game meats derive only about 13% to 14% of their calories from fat. The low fat content is one reason why venison and other game steaks are chewy. However, using a stock or marinade can help keep them from becoming overly tough and dry.

Farm-raised game is usually available at any time of year in frozen form. Fresh meat, particularly from large game animals, is more seasonal.


There are many different game animals, but they can be divided into two basic categories: feathered and furred.

After duck and goose, the most popular domestic game bird in the United States is pheasant. It is followed in popularity by two of its relatives, quail and partridge.

Partridge: This small bird (about one pound) resembles a baby pheasant, but has darker meat and a stronger flavor. Young partridge is best roasted; older birds should be braised.

Pheasant: The domestic bird weighs two to three pounds, and a hen is considered more tender and flavorful than a cock. Baby pheasant, usually sold frozen, is considered a delicacy. Available fresh or frozen, it is best roasted.

Quail: More mildly flavored than its cousins, the quail is a tiny bird--weighing about five ounces--that has almost no fat. The bobwhite, or American quail, is hunted in the wild (and is popular in the South), and there are several other varieties raised on quail farms. Sauteing is usually the preferred cooking method, but you can also roast quail.

These animals range from large (deer, bear, buffalo, wild boar) to small (rabbit, hare, opossum, squirrel). Buffalo, rabbit, and deer are the most common animals raised on game farms.

Buffalo (bison): Except for color, individual cuts of buffalo meat resemble those of beef. However, buffalo is one of the leanest meats, with about two-thirds the calories of similar beef cuts. Steaks are good broiled; larger cuts can be roasted; you can also try buffalo burgers.

Deer (venison): Originally, "venison" meant the meat of any hunted animal, but it now refers to deer and other antlered animals, such as moose and elk. The best meat comes from young males; as with beef and lamb, the loin and ribs provide the tenderest cuts. Roasting or broiling is preferred for tender cuts. If the meat is from an older animal, braising is best.

Rabbit: A young rabbit weighs about three pounds, has tender meat that tastes somewhat like poultry, and is excellent roasted or stewed. The meat of hare, a larger rabbit relative, is tougher and gamier; it should be marinated, then braised or stewed.


Whether you buy game meat from a specialty shop or at a supermarket, try to check on how old the animal was: Age is the critical factor that determines taste and tenderness as well as the best cooking method. Most often, the game you buy will come frozen. Be sure the package is intact and that it doesn't contain any frozen liquid, which might indicate that the meat has been thawed and refrozen. With fresh game, the meat should be moist and springy to the touch; it should never feel soft.


The rules for other meats apply here. Keep frozen game in a 0°F freezer. Store fresh game in the coldest part of the refrigerator and use it within one or two days.


Game is traditionally aged by hanging it for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, which tenderizes the meat and improves its flavor. Meat you buy from a reputable retailer will have been properly aged. Before cooking, trim away visible fat, which can impart a disagreeable flavor to some game meats. The guidelines and suggestions that follow are for popular game animals, but they can be applied to most other game.

Pheasant: Pheasant can be roasted like chicken or duck. Insert a meat thermometer into the breast of the pheasant and place it in 400°F preheated oven, then reduce the temperature to 350deg°F and cook for 20 to 25 minutes per pound, or until the thermometer registers 170°F. As with any poultry, it's a good idea to remove the skin before eating, since that's where much of the fat is.

Small game birds: Small game birds such as quail have very little fat, so feel free to add a grain stuffing. Or roast quail Asian style, brushing the birds with a honey-and-soy-sauce glaze. Place the birds, trussed, in a 450°F oven, and reduce the temperature to 350°F. Roast 35 to 45 minutes if unstuffed, 45 minutes to one hour if stuffed.

Rabbit: Rabbit can be used as an alternative to chicken, especially in stews. Dredge rabbit pieces in seasoned flour and then brown quickly in a small amount of oil in a nonstick skillet. Add shallots, garlic, diced celery, carrots, chopped parsley, and dry red wine or chicken stock. Cook over low heat, covered, for one to two hours or until rabbit is tender, stirring mixture several times to ensure even cooking. Defat the cooking liquid before serving. For a variation, after the rabbit is browned, try adding Italian canned tomatoes, tomato paste, chicken broth, carrot chunks, oregano, and pepper. Allow to simmer until the rabbit is nearly done, then add Italian green beans and serve over egg noodles.

Venison: Venison can generally be cooked like beef, although venison tends to be leaner and a little tougher. Many recipes call for draping fat over a roast or larding, but this isn't necessary. Choose venison loin, which is a more tender cut and cooks quickly. Rub a two-pound loin with garlic cloves, salt, and pepper. Lightly brown in a nonstick pan with a small amount of oil, and then transfer the loin to a roasting pan and roast in a 450°F oven for 20 to 30 minutes. The meat should be slightly pink at the center.

Venison steaks can also be marinated in a combination of red wine, olive oil, juniper berries, bay leaves, salt, and pepper for a few hours before broiling. Pat dry and set the steaks on a broiler rack and broil four to five minutes per side, or until slightly pink at the center. The marinade can be reduced and served with the steaks.

Date Published: 04/20/2005
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