Here at Meateater, we get a lot of questions regarding recipes geared towards specific game animals. Often, the best approach to take with cooking wild game is not to think in terms of the species itself but what you’d like to accomplish as a meal. Most of the finest wild game recipes are just proven methods of cooking and preparing a wide range of domestic animals. Usually, the best way to cook wild game is to adjust traditional recipes and cooking techniques to the individual qualities of different game animals and tweak them as necessary in order to get the best results.
A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to top off the freezer with a young whitetail during a late muzzleloader season. Because it was a young, tender animal I wanted to do something special for a New Year’s Eve dinner with friends. I settled on a using Steve’s Smoked Bear Ham recipe from The Complete Guide to Hunting, Butchering and Cooking Wild Game Volume 1 to create a whole smoked whitetail ham. The guide book recipe is very similar to the methods used to create the sweet hams made with domestic pork.
While bear meat shares many of the same qualities as pork, venison does not so I was slightly nervous about producing a whitetail ham that would duplicate many of the same traits as a standard pork ham but also be recognizable as wild game. Because the whitetail ham weighed in at just five pounds after trimming, I cut the salt content of the brine a bit. A good rule of thumb for brining is one day per pound of meat. Once the meat was cured and ready for the smoker, I decided to lard the creases between muscle groups with thin slices of pork fat. I reasoned this would offset the lack of natural fat in the meat and prevent a dry ham. Once tied securely in a tight bundle and treated with a dry rub of spices and brown sugar, the ham was smoked for a few hours at around 225 degrees until the internal temperature reached 145 degrees.
Still, the end result of a whitetail ham prepared based on a bear recipe, which itself is based on a domestic pork preparation, remained unknown. A nice, dark crust had developed on the outside and slicing the ham open revealed a moist, pink evenly cooked piece of meat. Sweet, smoky, slightly salty and not dry at all, the best compliment I got was “This tastes like really good ham”.
The lesson here is not to limit yourself simply because you are cooking a piece of wild game meat, thinking only in terms of wild game recipes. With a little adjustment in technique and some consideration of the characteristics of the game meat in question just about any recipe or preparation method used with domestic meat is within reach.
Brody Henderson is a hunter, fly fishing guide, writer, wilderness production assistant for the MeatEater television show and MeatEater‘s editorial contributor.