For generations raised on more conventional meats, seafood, and poultry, the hearty, robust taste of venison, quail, rabbit, and other game meats provides welcome new flavor experiences that remind us, almost subliminally, of the cuisines of our ancestors. Many home cooks think of game as exotic, yet it has always been one of our basic, indigenous food sources.
Game is not difficult to cook, and the techniques are straight forward. The skills required of a true master of game cooking are experience and sensitivity. The ability to properly prepare game involves understanding such simple culinary principles as marinating and seasoning and then applying the appropriate cooking technique.
If there is one key lesson it is not to overcook game! Many cooks have somehow absorbed the mistaken notion that most game has to be cooked forever, but in many instances, clean, fresh flavors are lost almost entirely. As an example, in order to retain its natural juices, a tender loin of venison or fine cut of buffalo should never be cooked beyond medium rare.
Luckily, with a few simple strategies, you can enjoy some of these popular game meats—cooked to perfection in your own kitchen!
Light flesh of quail is particularly adaptable to different flavors and a variety of cooking methods. Quail has very little internal fat.
Quail has very little internal fat, so like most game birds, quail need to be cooked carefully to avoid overcooking, as the flesh can dry out. They are, however, slightly more forgiving than squab and other game birds to overcooking. When grilling, sautéing, or broiling, quail takes well to marinating for flavor enhancement. Cook skin side down first, then turn once. The birds are done when their juices run pink.
When serving whole quail, encourage your guests to eat the legs and thighs as finger food; it is simply too frustrating to try to cut the meat off of birds as small as quail.
The differences between the cooking procedures required for wild and farm-raised ducks couldn’t be more dramatic. If roasting whole Muscovy or mallard ducks, barding of the breast may be necessary to prevent them from drying out, since they have very little fat. Barding is a technique that adds fat to lean proteins by wrapping them in lard or fatty meat products like bacon or ham.
Some cooks of wild duck rub the skin with ginger or lemon, then fill the cavity with sliced onion, chopped celery, and fruit (sliced apple, orange, or lemon), and slow roast in a moderately hot oven, basting frequently with a cooking liquid. Some other duck fanciers, however, prefer to cook at a high temperature (approximately 500°F) for a shorter time. Of course, the danger in cooking duck at a high temperature is in overcooking it.
Either method can be effective as long as the meat is not overcooked. To test for doneness, cut a tiny slit in the breast meat. The juices should run clear yellow for farm-raised birds; wild ducks will release a reddish pink juice and should never be overcooked, or they will be very dry.
An average rule of thumb for a 4 1/2-pound domestic duck is 1 hour and 15 to 20 minutes in a 350°F oven for medium-rare, and an additional 25 to 30 minutes for well-done. Domestic ducks can be roasted, grilled, or sautéed with equal success and with little concern for basting.
Many knowledgable cooks prefer to cook duck pieces separately because the cooking times for the breast and leg-thigh pieces differ significantly due to their varying muscle tissue. The leg-thigh pieces take well to slow braising in liquid to reduce their inherent toughness; the prized breast is best suited to faster cooking methods, such as sautéing and grilling, and it should be cooked rare to medium-rare. In France the magret, or “breast,” is peppered, cooked, and sliced on the bias to preserve tenderness. It is served simply, with a pile of freshly cooked fries. Despite the fatty layer, breast meat is very lean and cooks quickly.
The neck, wings, gizzard, and carcass should always be saved and reserved for making stock. Always reserve the duck fat. It can be used in the cooking of many foods, like duck confit or roasted potatoes.
Venison is truly the king of game meats and maybe also the most misunderstood. Since there is so little fat in venison, there is no fat in the meat to “baste” it while it cooks. Observing proper cooking times and using sensible methods, such as braising tougher leg cuts, will help avoid disappointment. A simple rule for cooking venison: Cook it dry over high heat for a short time or slowly in moisture for a long time.
Venison often benefits from marinating, which increases tenderness and enhances flavor. In addition to red wine marinades, traditional buttermilk or yogurt marinades draw out some of the blood and help tenderize the meat. Do not overmarinate; 4 to 6 hours at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator is usually sufficient. Marinades should be viewed as a creative flavoring alternative, not as a panacea for tough, improperly handled meat.
Tender cuts, such as the loin, tenderloin, sirloin, and choice leg cuts, should be broiled, sautéed, or grilled quickly to rare-medium or rare. This meat should always remain crimson; it becomes tough and chewy when it is overcooked.
Tougher cuts of wild venison, such as the shoulder, roasts, stew meat, hind leg cuts, and round steaks, may need to be larded with pork fat or barded with fatback or bacon to prevent the meat from drying out. Quick searing of these cuts followed by slow roasting (225° to 250°F oven) and braising in liquid are the preferred cooking methods. These cuts need to be cooked long enough for the meat to become tender.
Ground venison is best when combined with a little ground beef or pork or beaten eggs to keep it moist when grilled. These venison burgers can be cooked without the addition of beef or pork by quickly browning them over high heat (either grill or pan), and then cooking them, covered, with a little broth or wine; avoid overcooking or they will taste “leathery.”
Do not leave roasted venison exposed to the air for very long, or the meat will dry out and whatever small amount of fat exists will congeal. After cooking venison, cover in foil and let rest for a few minutes before serving. Then slice the meat across the grain, and serve immediately for best results. Serve any leftovers as sandwiches on good crusty bread or toasted English muffins. Do not attempt to reheat venison unless it is in a stew.
When handling uncooked wild rabbits or hares, gloves should always be worn because of the potential danger of tularemia infection, an uncommon disease that is nevertheless well worth being cautious about. Cooking wild rabbits kills these bacteria.
Using a sharp, small knife or poultry shears, remove all organs from the cavity of the rabbit, reserving the liver and kidneys for use in pates, terrines, or salads. Trim all fat from the cavity, legs, and backbone, and cut into small pieces. Reserve carcass for use in stocks. Some cooks find the forelegs of the rabbit too small for cooking and use them instead for making stocks. Remove any small protruding bones from the remaining parts of the rabbit and rinse rabbit thoroughly with water.
Like other types of game, cooking rabbit involves a few special tricks that virtually guarantee moist, flavorful meat instead of the stringy, dry meat that some people have experienced. Rabbit loin is best suited to either fast grilling or sautéing; the legs and thighs are better handled with long simmering (braising) in liquid. The best compromise is to braise the two together, although we certainly don’t want to discourage grilling or sautéing as suitable, even wonderful methods of cooking rabbit.
Many knowing rabbit connoisseurs and hunters prize simple fried rabbit. Frying can easily dry out the meat, however, so care must be taken. Rabbit on the grill is exceptionally delicious, preferably after it has been marinated; the marinade can then serve as the basting liquid to keep the meat moist.