The Science Behind Good Tasting Game Meat

The Science Behind Good Tasting Game Meat

My daughter pointed out that science has disproved many things. “For instance, Daddy, the rule ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c.’” I could only laugh and agree. However, science offers a few simple guidelines in the care and handling of meat that can ensure animals harvested become delicious, healthy meals.

Have you ever wondered why some people have found the taste of certain species delicious while others found it barely palatable? It’s possible the individual animal was at fault, but it’s much more likely the treatment of the game is to blame. Here are some basic principles for taking care of your game from field to table that are scientifically proven to end in a tastier result.


First, the role of bacteria should be examined. Paradoxically, bacteria are involved in both improving meat quality and taste (aging) and in creating off-flavors and toxins (spoilage). It is easy to assume the differentiating factor is time, and, admittedly, excessive time can certainly effectuate the transition, but the factor primarily responsible is moisture.

When moisture is present, spoilage can occur. In moist conditions, harmful bacteria thrive, quickly ruining the flavor of meat and, if in great concentrations, causing sickness to those eating the flesh.

However, when the meat is kept dry, the bacteria that flourish best break down muscle fiber into short peptides, nucleotides, and free amino acids, enhancing both flavor and tenderness—this is aging.

Surprisingly, these beneficial bacteria are remarkably similar to those utilized in cheese manufacturing; in fact, sometimes actually the very same strains. In addition, as these favorable bacteria increase in number, another interesting thing happens; yeast, mold, and potentially harmful bacteria populations diminish. The controlling factor is the moisture content. (It should be noted that there are some intrinsic proteinases in the muscle itself breaking down proteins into smaller molecular chains that also contribute to the aging process.)


Another parameter influencing the growth of harmful microorganisms is temperature. The warmer the meat, the more ideal the environment for bacteria that spoil flesh. Therefore, after a harvest, meat should be protected from both warmth and moisture.

At times, this can be troublesome. Sportsmen often rely on coolers with ice for cooling. But, as the ice melts, the resulting water causes the game to become wet. Happily, the skin of both mammals and fish provides a decent barrier to water intrusion. However, unless the hunter has a massive cooler, few game animals can be introduced whole. Even then, the skin has likely been compromised in order to dress or quarter the carcass. Thankfully, sometimes air temperatures are cold enough to chill game without ice.

Field Care for the Best Table Fare

Let’s address dryness first. In old-time hunting literature, reference is often made of wiping the game animal’s cavity with leaves or dry grass after the gutting process. Streams may not always have been available to wash out the innards, but the true reason behind this habit was to protect the meat from additional moisture. Exceptions for when wounds rupture the digestive tract are understandable, but such cases require subsequent drying, nonetheless.

By the way, care taken to avoid puncture of the bladder, intestines, and stomach when dressing the game animal pays handsome dividends in that it shelters the meat from contaminants (including harmful bacteria) and simultaneously eliminates the need for rinsing that leakage of their contents would require. Hunters who hang game in walk-in coolers can get away without wiping the cavity dry if the cooler has a fan that circulates air enough to ensure rapid evaporation, as can those who hang dressed animals outside in cold temperatures and at least moderate breezes.

Water tends to gravitate to areas of the greatest salt concentration. The obvious example is water in vapor form migrating through the air to an open saltshaker and rendering the salt sticky. The tissue of animals, of course, contains sodium and potassium and likewise attracts water molecules, so when the flesh is rinsed or immersed, the meat increases its water content. This “diluted” meat is more readily colonized by bad bacteria.

Let me switch focus to fish for a minute. The principles for cleaning, storage, and aging remain nearly the same, whether the flesh comes from a swimming or walking creature. Many offshore fishermen bring a bucket or two of ocean water back to the dock to rinse the fillets of the day’s catch without exposing them to fresh water. While the blood and tissue of the fish’s flesh are saltier than fresh water, the salt concentration is even greater in the ocean water. Hence, with water gravitating to the stronger concentration, it is actually drawn away from the fillet. In essence, the saltwater bath dries the meat.

This same principle can be applied to fish storage. Fresh fish is so superior to frozen fish that I used to try various techniques to extend its lifespan in the refrigerator, even storing it on ice in the fridge. Finally, a buddy told me to place the cleaned flesh in a plastic colander where each piece could dry. With such treatment, refrigerated fish can easily last a week, tasting every bit as good as the first day. Again, dryness thwarts bacteria that cause fish spoilage. The dry flesh may not look appetizing but reverts to a normal appearance during the cooking process. If it is too dry or hard, the pieces can be briefly immersed in water or a marinade before cooking.

What can the hunter learn from the fisherman? Dryness is key to keeping meat at its best. Rinsing meat from deer, elk, pronghorns, bear, hogs, and turkey with clean saltwater would be beneficial, but unfortunately is not a realistic option for most of us. Nonetheless, we should strive to dry the flesh the best we can and avoid applying water. This comes into play, as we will discuss, with aging the meat as well. Aging, accomplished by maintaining the meat at a suitable temperature and allowing beneficial bacteria and proteinases to act over time, improves tenderness and flavor. Many experts recommend fourteen to twenty-one days of aging for deer.

Aging Meat in a Warm Climate

The “gold standard” for cooling and aging meat is a walk-in cooler. These coolers are set to keep the temperature between 33 and 39 degrees and employ a fan to keep the air circulating, and game can be hung without risk of spoilage.

But the vast majority of us do not have access to such a cooler, and that’s OK. You can learn how the MeatEater crew ages meat here.

But wherever the climate cannot be counted upon to maintain a consistently cool temperature, have to resort to either an ice chest or a refrigerator. Both suffice to store and age meat if care is taken to keep the meat dry and to ensure initial cooling.

Forty years ago, I arrowed a buck during Florida’s early archery season. The daytime high temperature had exceeded ninety-five degrees for several days running. Within four hours of the deer’s death, I had him back home and cleaned, depositing the four quarters, two backstraps, and tenderloins in plastic garbage bags.

The horizontal racks had to be removed from my refrigerator to make room, but I was able to load all the meat into it. Three days later, with the intention of butchering and packaging the venison, I pulled out the bags. The smell and greenish appearance of the meat astounded and dismayed me. How had it gone bad in the fridge? And so quickly?

The answer was that I had not allowed the meat to cool and the plastic bags piled tightly together and over-top one another held the heat. Even though the air in the refrigerator was cool, there was no circulation and the meat basically stewed. Had I separated the meat or put each portion in an ice chest to cool first, there would have been no problem—lesson learned, disappointing as it was.

Plastic bags are helpful to keep blood from messing up a refrigerator and to keep water from the meat in an ice chest, but they hold moisture as well. When aging meat in this fashion, the meat must be removed from the bag and dried daily. Drain the blood and liquid from the bag, wipe the meat and bag thoroughly, and then replace each portion in the cooler.

The tediousness of the daily process is well rewarded with better quality meat in the end. A trick that saves some of this effort is to sprinkle the cooled meat with salt and sugar before placing it in the bag. These draw moisture from the meat and allow it to age partially dehydrated even though liquid will show up in the bag. This water actually migrated from the meat to the concentrated sugar and salt solution and demonstrates exactly how much “drying” has taken place. After a few days of repeated draining, very little liquid will accumulate.

Another great option is to use a vacuum sealer and wet-age meat. You can learn more about the technique here.

Questionable Quarries

Sometimes game shot in the evening is not recovered until the following morning. Hunters often ask if the meat is still safe to eat. This likely depends upon the species and the ambient temperature. Even though the temperatures here are higher on average than most of the U.S., I have never seen a Florida deer spoil overnight unless it fell in water. Our deer have less fat and not as much of the hollow winter hair that insulates northern deer and therefore cools more readily.

I’ve eaten many whitetails found the following day without noticing any diminution in the taste quality. Of course, care should be taken to cool the flesh as soon as possible. Many hunters have told me of northern game spoiling overnight despite cold temps because of the effectiveness of their insulation. Hogs, too, are a different story and can go bad overnight. Careful examination is required before deeming a hog that has been left over twelve hours good table fare.

Hog and bear meats are special considerations in other ways as well. Don’t age these meats. Because of the volatile nature of the fat, bacteria can easily bloom, causing off-flavors and potentially becoming toxic. The good news is that the meat is very tasty and tender without aging.

The care we take of our game afield, as we clean it, and as we age or store it, tremendously impacts the quality of the end product. The underlying principle is to keep the meat cool and dry.

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