Let’s face it, wild game can be really tough. For example, after harvesting my first tom last spring, I had the honor of cooking turkey thigh tacos for the MeatEater crew. To my dismay, the legs refused to shred apart even after eight hours in the crockpot.
These situations are what give wild game legs, wings, and roasts a bad rap. It’s unfortunate because I know that even the toughest jackrabbit can make a delicious stew if given the proper treatment.
We should never compare wild game to their domestic counterparts. The animals in our freezer reached maturity living a free-range life. These factors influence the development of their muscle tissue, making them stronger and more challenging to tenderize in the kitchen. But here’s a few ways to get around that and achieve tender results.
The first approach to tenderizing meat is perhaps the most obvious and common: to physically damage the muscle tissue. This can be done by mechanically breaking the muscle fibers by grinding the meat into burger, by pounding the meat with a mallet, or slicing against the grain.
Calpain and cathepsin are natural enzymes in meat that weaken proteins and break down collagen fibers when aging animals. By hanging and either dry or wet-aging meat, you’re generating flavor and enhancing the texture of your wild game as these chemicals do their work.
Other forms of enzymes include those naturally derived from plants. Pineapples, papayas, and kiwis contain powerful, protein-digesting enzymes that dramatically alter the composition of meat, but not necessarily in a good way. They can easily cause the exterior surface to turn mushy, while the inside remains untouched.
Acidic ingredients like buttermilk, wine, and vinegar found in marinades can weaken tissue and aid in moisture retention. Unfortunately, most marinades only penetrate the first 1/8 inch of meat. In other words, tenderizers and acids used on thick cuts don’t improve tenderness as some cooks believe.
Despite this fact, marinades are a great way to impart flavor and can tenderize thin strips of meat. Just don’t count on them making a whole shoulder fork tender.
I consider salt to be the most important ingredient in the pantry. It’s especially beneficial when cooking wild game. Liquid and dry brines work in two ways. They disrupt the structure of the muscle fibers, which creates an osmotic effect and allows the meat to re-absorb liquid. This mitigates moisture loss during cooking, and the result is a juicier, more tender piece of meat.
Growing up, I distinctly recall our Sunday pot roast meals being very dry. Perhaps you can relate. Learning how to utilize heat correctly can help you avoid this common cooking issue.
Connective tissue needs to break down to be edible, which occurs around 160 degrees. The hotter the temperature, the faster this happens. The problem is that as the temperature rises, the muscular fibers contract and tighten, squeezing out internal moisture. This reaction happens at 150 degrees and presents a real challenge. How do you transform roasts into fork-tender meat that’s juicy?
To avoid a desiccated dinner, you must cook at lower temperatures for a longer period of time. When you do, the collagen present in the connective tissue will begin to dissolve into gelatin, imparting juiciness to your dish. This reaction is most noticeable when shanks are slowly braised to make osso buco.
There are several ways to apply “low and slow” cooking methods, many of which you are probably familiar with. These techniques include smoking, confit, braising, stewing, sous vide, and of course, the good ol’ fashioned crockpot. Just remember, patience is a virtue.
A pressure cooker will shorten the amount of time that it typically takes to cook your meal by almost half. When pressure cooking, remember that high pressure will cause the internal temperature to be much higher. Cooking at high heat can cause moisture loss, thus drier meat. If you want to sacrifice the juice in exchange for quick cook time, be sure to add fat and cooking liquids to the recipe.
There will always be animals or cuts that are more difficult to tenderize, but that doesn’t mean we should throw them out. The next time you defrost a tough cut of meat and have a hard time deciding on what to do with it, consider these methods. I have learned that with patience, you can transform practically anything into a delicious meal.