Have you or a friend ever eaten a piece of wild game meat that tasted off? It wasn’t spoiled or undercooked. Maybe the flavor wasn’t necessarily bad … but it was a little odd. That taste is usually referred to as “gamy.” It’s difficult to describe, but people across America use the term for multiple game species.
Scott Leysath hears people talk about gamy flavored meat all the time. Leysath is a wild game chef with 34 years of experience. He opened a restaurant in 1987 and started serving farmed wild game, including elk, deer, bison and wild boar. His customers were puzzled by how good the wild meat tasted, so he began teaching people how to cook game properly. He’s currently the executive producer for “The Sporting Chef” and host of the TV shows “Dead Meat” and “Fishmonger.” To this day, Leysath meets people from all over the country with different hunting experience levels who complain about a gamy flavor ruining their meals. He said waterfowl, mule deer and antelope have the worst reputations, but he’s listened to complaints for just about every wild game animal out there.
“It’s always intrigued me,” Leysath said. “I don’t know what people are doing to their game to make it taste bad because it doesn’t require a whole lot of effort to make it taste good.”
He believes people identify a gamy flavor in meat for one of two reasons.
- They weren’t raised in a hunting family and are less likely to appreciate the taste of game animals. “Deer isn’t supposed to taste like a cow,” he said. People inaccurately label game meat as gamy simply because they aren’t used to it.
- They did something wrong when handling, processing or cooking the meat, so it doesn’t taste as good as it should.
Let’s unpack these topics and learn the proper way to process, prep and cook game meat to avoid a gamy flavor.
Game Animals and Flavor Profiles
Taste is subjective and incredibly specific to individuals. For example, you might not like onions, but your best friend might worship them. Everyone’s palate is different, so it’s normal for some people to prefer the flavor of, say, rabbit over squirrel or deer over bear. Sometimes, it comes down to personal preference.
That said, Leysath believes younger, female animals usually taste better than their older, male counterparts. He attributes the difference to hormones and muscle density. Some people might not distinguish between a piece of meat from a 2-year-old doe or a 6-year-old buck. Others note the difference in flavor. If you or someone in your family is sensitive to gaminess, you can try to shoot young female animals. However, Leysath said it’s more important to focus on how you handle, process, age and cook the meat.
Field Care, Aging and Processing
To give your deer the best chance at tasting good, you should gut the animal, clean its body cavity and cool the carcass as soon as possible. Then, age the meat and remove anything that’s not muscle before cooking or storing it.
Dead animals go through rigor mortis, when the muscles stiffen due to chemical changes after death. This process takes about 24 hours and during that time, the animal should be kept cold or on ice so it doesn’t spoil. Then, Leysath butchers an animal and ages the meat. Aging meat breaks down the connective tissue and makes the meat more tender. Hunters can age game meat by letting it rest uncovered outside or in a fridge for a few days, as long as the temperature in either location is between 34- and 40-degrees Fahrenheit. This allows the blood to drain and evaporate. Removing the blood is ideal because it can change the meat’s flavor.
Then, process the meat by deboning and trimming away any fat, hair, silver skin, connective tissue and anything else that isn’t muscle. Leysath believes these materials produce the most gamy flavor.
Cooking the Meat
There are two types of muscle on most game animals, Leysath said: muscles that do a lot of work, like the shoulders and thighs, and muscles that do less work, like the tenderloins and backstraps. These muscles are different and should be cooked differently.
The muscles that do the most work are usually tough and should be cooked low and slow. Meanwhile, less used muscles are more tender and should be cooked fast and hot.
Understanding the differences in muscles and cooking techniques will yield meats that taste better. For example, a deer shoulder is best browned and braised or cooked in a crockpot with a liquid for eight to 10 hours. Then, the meat will fall off the bone and can be shredded for BBQ, tacos and enchiladas. A deer backstrap is best for steak.
If you’re not sure which cut of meat you have, cut off a small piece, season it with salt and pepper and cook it in a pan with olive oil to see how it behaves. If it’s tender, you can cook it quickly and use it for steak and stir-fry. If it’s tough, you should cook it slowly in a roast or stew.
For the fast and hot method, you must not overcook the meat. According to Leysath, overcooking the meat makes it tough and gamier. If you don’t believe it, do a taste test to see for yourself. Cut a piece of meat in half and cook one part medium rare. The center should be warm and pink. Then, cook the second piece until the center is brown. The two pieces will taste completely different, even though they came from the same cut of meat.
Since most bowhunters pursue deer, Leysath shared his favorite venison recipe, which he learned on a trip in South Africa. Marinate your backstrap meat in a good quality olive oil with fresh garlic, coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper for 24 hours. Then, place the meat over screaming hot, real-wood coals and cook it rare to medium-rare. “It’s so good, so simple and still tastes like venison,” he said.
If that’s too gamy for the picky eater in your circle, you can marinate the meat for longer and add soy sauce, red wine or balsamic vinegar for a bolder flavor. Leysath likes to embrace the flavor of game meats, but he said it’s always possible to make meats taste less gamy.
“There are lots of ways to make deer not taste like deer,” he said. “That’s why they invented poppers made with bacon, jalapenos, cream cheese and game meat. They taste good, but most people can’t tell whether they’re eating deer, dove or duck.” Why? Because the ingredients in a popper tend to overpower the game meat. So, most people, including those who tend to dislike game meat, like poppers.
Leysath encourages people to experiment and find recipes they like. Cooking game meat regularly also helps you achieve better results over time.
An Important Consideration
Proper meat handling, prep and cooking techniques can reduce gamy flavors. Additionally, strong marinades and certain ingredients can mask a gamy taste. Still, it’s important to learn what spoiled meat smells like because you don’t want to cook or eat rotten meat.
When Leysath comes across meat with a foul, unpleasant odor, he rinses it with water and pats it dry. Sometimes that’s enough to rid the meat of whatever scent was clinging to its outer edge. However, if the meat still smells bad after rinsing and drying, don’t eat it because it might be spoiled. Game meats have their own unique flavors, but they shouldn’t smell off-putting.