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Enjoying the Harvest

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Published on: Oct. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

Missouri offers outstanding hunting, and hunters enjoy millions of days of recreation each year pursuing a variety of wildlife species. Hunting seasons also produce, for the lucky hunters, a tremendous source of high quality meat. For example, the result of a typical Missouri deer season is 13 million pounds of venison.

Taking Care of the Game

Some people turn their noses up at wild game, often because of a bad previous experience in which they were served an awful-tasting piece of "gamey" meat. Usually the bad taste results from improper processing or cooking. The series of events from before the shot is taken to the table determines the palatability of the game.

What can you do to produce the best wild game meat? We can take some lessons from the domestic meat industry, which has developed handling procedures that produce marketable and high quality meats. Most of the following deals specifically with deer, but it also can be applied to other game.

Before the shot-The quality of the venison may be affected by the sex and age of the deer you take and what it had been eating. No doubt a young-of the-year deer produces a more tender cut of meat than one that is older. Does this mean that older deer, especially that old buck or bottle-nose doe are not edible? Absolutely not!

People often say, when a hunter brings in a big buck, "You better grind that one up into sausage." It is true that as deer get older, connective tissue-that tough stringy material that attaches muscle to bone-becomes more prominent. Muscle cell walls also become thicker, making the meat a bit tougher. In addition, the meat of rutting bucks may have a "stronger" flavor because of the stress of breeding season and a buck's production of strong glandular secretions.

There also is evidence from the animal sciences industry that diet affects flavor. For example, grain-fed cattle have a better flavor than pastured cattle, and the same could hold for deer, although in wild game the differences may be subtle.

Any sex or age of deer can produce fine venison, if you are flexible in your cooking methods. But if your primary goal is to put the highest quality meat on the table, you should select a younger animal or, if older, a doe.

The shot-A quick and clean kill is the next step in ensuring quality meat. A variety of chemical changes take place in the muscles of stressed deer, such as one that has run long distances. Waste products of enzymatic activity produce conditions that give the meat a stronger flavor and increase the rate at which the meat will spoil.

Shots that penetrate digestive organs are especially a problem. They often do not produce immediate death and result in digestive fluids spilling into the body cavity, potentially contaminating surrounding meat. The key is to take only shots that assure a quick, clean kill. This not only is responsible, ethical hunting, but it also results in better meals.

Field dressing-Your deer should be field dressed immediately, taking care not to puncture the digestive tract or the urinary bladder. Wipe the inside of the body cavity with a clean rag. This removes potentially contaminating material and minimizes bacterial growth.

Some hunters like to wash the body cavity with water to ensure a clean carcass. This may remove some potential contaminates, but the moisture enhances the environment for bacterial growth. If the deer is to be processed immediately or if the cavity has been contaminated with stomach contents, washing is OK; otherwise, do not rinse with water.

If you drag your deer out of the woods, consider cutting up to-but not through-the chest cavity and pelvis to reduce the amount of dirt that enters the body cavity. When transporting, never tie your deer on the hood or other location where heat may build up and prevent cooling.

Aging-Hang the deer so that blood drains and the carcass is cooled to 50 degrees within six hours of harvest. Leave the skin on to keep the carcass clean and prevent it from drying out. Some people like to hang their deer from the hind legs, some from the head. Stretching muscle fibers in the process of hanging can have a tenderizing effect. Hanging from the hind legs may be best because this will stretch muscles in the hams, a major source of meat on a deer.

To ensure tender venison, do not freeze it within six hours of the time it was harvested. Some important chemical reactions stabilize the muscle within six hours of death, preventing a toughening process called "cold shortening" that happens when meat is frozen shortly after the kill.

Does venison need to be aged beyond the six-hour period? The answer is no, if you plan on having all of your deer made up into deer sausage or ground meat, or if you do not have a place where the deer can be stored that maintains temperatures between 34 degrees and 40 degrees F. But if you have a good storage facility and enjoy many different cuts of venison, aging can be a benefit.

Aging is a chemical process in which natural enzymes break down cell walls, resulting in better cuts of meat. Most of this enzymatic process is complete within eight days; benefits of longer aging are negligible. In addition, there are increased risks of spoilage and reduced freezer life if meat is aged beyond eight days.

Processing-There are many ways to process and package your deer for long-term storage. One key concern is to remove as much fat as possible. Deer fat tends to be more saturated than fat in domestic animals, with a resulting higher melting point that gives it a "stick to the roof of the mouth" consistency when eaten. It also tends to have a stronger flavor.

Boning the meat by separating muscle bundles and filleting them from the bone may produce the best quality cut. Slicing by sawing through bone tends to spread bone marrow and bone dust across the surface of the meat, potentially producing a bad flavor and increasing the rate of spoilage. If you do use a saw to make cuts, you should scrape the bone and marrow residue off the surface of the cut.

Soaking venison in salt water or other liquid is not recommended. Vacuum packaging produces the most storable product, but wrapping tightly in a plastic wrap and then freezer paper will adequately protect from freezer burn.

Cooking-Cooking may do more to make or break flavor and tenderness of wild game than anything. Lack of fat makes wild game susceptible to drying while cooking. Many experienced chefs feel that fully cooked venison is unpalatable because it becomes tough and bland tasting.

Marinating or cooking for long periods with moist heat produces the most flavorful product. By undercooking one risks exposure to pathogens naturally present or introduced while processing. Ground meat especially should always be cooked thoroughly because in the process of grinding much surface area is exposed to potential pathogens.

Intact pieces of venison are less of a problem and the best choice for those who do not like their venison well done. To be safe, it is recommended that venison be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees.

Practical Health Considerations

Avoid eating large quantities of any type of meat, regardless of how lean it is. Most Americans consume about twice the amount of dietary protein they need. Two to three ounces of meat is a recommended serving size; it's about the size of the palm of your hand, or a deck of cards.

Use low fat cooking methods-broiling, baking, grilling or stewing-instead of frying.

Harvest plenty of fruits and vegetables along with your game. Start looking at meat as a "side dish" with whole grains, fruits and vegetables taking up a larger portion of your dinner plate. Try to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

Get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week. If hunting season is the only time you enjoy a hike in the woods, see your physician first, and then develop some regular heart-healthy fitness habits.

Nutritional Values of Game Meat

Wild game could be a meat of choice for the health-conscious consumer.

Meats from most wildlife species hunted in Missouri contain concentrations of nutrients, such as protein, iron and lower amounts of total fat, saturated fat and calories. Compared to domestic animals, cholesterol tends to be lower in upland game, such as pheasants and rabbits, and higher in deer, ducks and doves. All in all, wild game contains generous quantities of beneficial nutrients, while being low in total fat.

You might be surprised to learn that the cholesterol content of venison is higher than similar servings of beef and pork. Yet venison contains significantly lower amounts of saturated and total fat.

 Although human blood cholesterol level is useful in assessing heart disease risk, it is not the only risk factor. The American Heart Association has determined smoking, a sedentary lifestyle and overall dietary habits play major roles in heart disease risk. Furthermore, the level of saturated fat in the diet affects blood cholesterol levels to a greater extent than simply the amount of dietary cholesterol consumed.

The United States Department of Agriculture recommends choosing a diet low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Keep cholesterol intake below 300 milligrams per day, saturated fat to less than 10 percent of total calories and total fat to less than 30 percent of total caloric intake. On a 2,000 calorie per-day intake, that would mean keeping total fat to below 65 grams.

Nutrient content of domestic and wild game meats (cooked, 3-ounce serving, unless otherwise indicated)

Food Calories Protein Iron Total Fat Saturated Fat Cholesterol
Beef 184 25 3 8 3 73
Pork 180 25 1 8 3 73
Chicken (roasted, skin off) 161 25 1 6 2 76
Chicken (fried, skin on) 229 24 1 13 4 77
Deer (roasted) 134 26 4 3 1 95
Rabbit (roasted) 131 19 2 5 2 54
Squirrel (roasted) 116 21 3 5 less than 1 81
Duck (uncooked) 123 20 5 4 1 140
Pheasant (uncooked) 133 24 1 3 1 52
Quail (uncooked) 123 23 2 3 1 -
Turkey (uncooked) 121 26 - 1 - 55
Dove (uncooked) 145 23 4 2 - 94

1 Average of major cuts

 For more information about cooking wild game, consult Cy Littlebee's Guide to Cooking Fish & Game, which is available for $3 (Missouri residents include 19 cents sales tax) plus $2 for shipping and handling from the Nature Shop, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180, or telephone order to (573) 751-4115, ext. 325.

 For safe food preparation, contact your local county extension office, or the USDA's Meat and Poultry hotline: (800) 535-4555.

 For heart-healthy lifestyle habits, contact your extension nutrition specialist at your county Extension Office, or the American Heart Association.

Spicy Venison Salad (Serves 4)

 16 ounces venison steak

Meat marinade

 1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce

3 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 tablespoon peanut oil

2 jalapeno peppers, finely chopped

2 tablespoons packed brown sugar

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 sweet red and/or yellow peppers, sliced diagonally

1 medium cucumber, seeded and sliced diagonally

3 large carrots, sliced diagonally

2 cups fresh bean sprouts

4 green onions, thinly sliced

2/3 cup coarsely chopped, salted, roasted peanuts

3 tablespoons sesame seeds, lightly toasted

4-6 romaine lettuce leaves

 Salad dressing

 2/3 cup fresh lime juice

1/4 cup fresh orange juice

1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce

1/4 cup rice vinegar

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1 tablespoon peanut oil

1 teaspoon hot oil or 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper

3 tablespoons fresh ginger, finely chopped

8 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 jalapeno pepper, finely chopped

1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped

  1. Place steak in a container which has a tight seal. Combine and stir all marinade ingredients together. Pour over steak. Marinate in refrigerator 8 hours, occasionally shaking container.
  2. Remove steak and discard marinade. Grill or broil steak until desired doneness. Remove from heat; let rest 15 minutes. Thinly slice steak across grain into 3- by 1/2-inch strips. Set aside.
  3. Combine and briskly stir salad dressing ingredients in large bowl. Add the venison steak strips, red peppers, cucumber, carrots and bean sprouts. Toss to combine well.
  4. Using a slotted spoon, place salad on large platter lined with romaine leaves. Garnish with onions, peanuts and sesame seeds. Pass remaining salad dressing if desired.

-Bernadette Dryden

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