An Alternate Theory on Gaminess; Or, Take a Look in the Mirror

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During the twelve years that I’ve spent writing professionally about wild game and the hunting lifestyle, I’ve received hundreds of inquiries from hunters and hunters’ families asking how to keep wild game from tasting gamey. For the most part I’ve played along with these requests. I’ve stressed the importance of harvesting animals with an eye toward flavor and tenderness instead of just trophy quality. I’ve urged guys to promptly gut their animals and keep the meat cool and dry. And I’ve instructed people on how to properly wrap meat for the freezer.

While all of the above things are certainly helpful when it comes to putting up quality wild game, there’s one culprit for off-tasting game meat that I’ve always been afraid (or too polite) to mention: Us.

That’s right, us. More than any other factor—more than rutting hormones, more than heat, more than old age, more than poor field care—Americans are to blame for the fact that some of our wild game is off-putting.

Of course, it’s not entirely our fault. We’ve been duped by an over-engineered and industrialized food system into thinking that red meat should taste like the pale, flavorless, fat-infused, grain-fed trash that they mash into a paste and form into things with names that remind you of overweight professional wrestlers: Whopper, Big Mac, Baconator. And we’ve been fooled into thinking that birds shouldn’t taste like anything at all except whatever spices and saline solutions that processors pump into them in order to make every single one taste exactly the same way—across the world, and throughout time.

After a life of eating such offerings from restaurants and grocery stores, it’s no wonder some folks detect something “funny” tasting when they bite into the meat of an animal that lived in the wild and developed the strength and wherewithal to run, jump, evade predators, compete for mates, and otherwise fend for itself on an unmanaged and natural landscape. What I’m saying is this: When we complain about gaminess, we’re actually complaining about the very thing that is most inspiring about our precious wild game resources: wildness.

Instead of just complaining about this, I’m going to suggest a solution. As hunters, we do all kinds of things to make ourselves better practitioners of our discipline. We do pre-season workouts, we shoot at the range in the months leading up to season, we invest money and time to make sure our gear is in top condition. In addition to these things, there’s something else that hunters should be doing throughout the year. We should be eating the wild game we harvest, no matter the particular attributes of the animal’s flesh. Until it’s completely gone, our wild game should be the only protein in our freezer. The goal of this is to recapture our ancestral sense of normalcy. We should learn to taste the rutty buck and appreciate it as something novel, not something flawed. The fish-eating diver duck should be an unusual break from grass-fattened Canada geese, not an abhorrent derivation from feedlot cattle. I’ll know that we’ve succeeded in this when I get the following e-mail: “Dear Steve: I need some help with a problem I’m having. Whoppers have begun to taste funny to me.”

I look forward to the day.

28 Responses to “An Alternate Theory on Gaminess; Or, Take a Look in the Mirror”

  1. ICDUCKS

    Steve THANK YOU for saying what I’ve always wanted to! I HATE the word “gamey”.
    Not too sure I’ve ever experienced “gamey” .

  2. Sparky

    Well put Steve. We are the reason that wild game tastes ” gamey”. I try and harvest deer for my family every year and I enjoy spending time in the woods. I am the only hunter in my family but I am trying to show my youngest daughter the rewards of harvesting your own meals. We are guilty of buying at the store but sometimes you have to. When we do we try and buy grass fed beef, which I have noticed tastes like venison. Hmmm. Go figure. Keep up the good work love your show.

  3. natewou

    What I have noticed after eating wild game for the last couple years is how much sodium fast food has. Whoppers DO taste funny. Great article. Thanks.

  4. American Grouch

    Couldn’t agree with you more. A couple decades ago when I first got married my wife was somewhat reluctant when it came to wild meat, no matter the type. She’d grown up in a house of hunters but never gotten over the ‘gamey’ taste. A lot of that had more to do with how her dad and brothers handled their kills than her own diet though.

    Now she’s voracious about anything wild, from duck and goose to deer, bear, elk and so on. As a family of seven most of our meat is consumed within a matter of weeks of taking it.

    One of the things she did mention to me was she thinks there is a difference between bow killed and rifle killed game. Most of our bow killed deer are double lungs and quiet deaths. We often see the deer fall, having never ran off, just sort of quietly pass on. Rifle killed are the opposite obviously. Her theory goes that the bow killed deer do not die loaded up on adrenaline, thus a purer flavor. There might be something to that, I’m not sure.

    Either way, we love our wild game and all of the flavor intricacies associated with such to the point that we have indeed gone over and don’t care much for commercially processed meat any longer.

    Keep up the great work Steven, just finished ‘Meat Eater’, outstanding read!

    Jim

  5. ts

    Thank you Steve. I dont want my deer to taste like chicken. I actually enjoy the taste of a deer. Thats how it suppose to taste like, and it aggravates me if someone complains about it. Deer will taste like deer.

  6. jryoung

    Great article Steven, there is much to appreciate about the game we taste. It should be appreciated like a wine, because much like wine the meat we eat is “terrior” driven. From the sage fed mule deer, to the whitetail that gorges on alfalfa, the elk living on wild grasses to the blacktail in CA eating up acorns.

    All have something different and special to offer and appreciate, and if you are really into cooking you’ll figure out how to best express those traits.

  7. azbuckbuster

    What a great article and logical perspective towards eating wild game! I love the show and the articles on the web site. I grew up eating wild game (coming from a long line of hunters) so it has never tasted “gamey” to me. My wife thought it did when I first introduced it to her, but she has finally come around. I just bagged a nice 3×3 mule deer in the flat grasslands of southeastern Arizona (Nov 2, 2012, 6:35AM), and it has been some of the BEST tasting meat ever! The same night of the kill we enjoyed backstrap tacos. Thank you for promoting “the hunt”, and keep doing what you do.

    A fellow MeatEater

  8. army.reeves

    I’ve lived so much of my life only eating wild game that I’ve only ever associated these flavors with the game. I’ve never thought there was anything off tasting about it

  9. Sluggo

    Exactly Steve! Until one can fully appreciate the natural taste of any game, using marinating sauces and spices should be avoided.

  10. noahjdunn

    A swift kill is the way my friends (one is a butcher so he has a little bit more insight than I do)and I have figured out as long as you can drop the animal pretty quick after the first shot hopefully one shot one kill type of deal. If the animals run off and you have to track them all over hell and back it makes the meat a lot more gamey. We have tried both of them and you can tell the difference. So the best thing to do is practice with the rifle or bow and make that first shot count.

    • MontanaMeatEater

      I’ve had many such experiences, and I used to agree with you, but I finally had to admit I was wrong. I suggest that the problem was that the wounded animal died and started spoiling before you found it. It is vital to get the body heat out of the carcass ASAP by removing the offal and letting the air circulate through the body cavity. I’ve had several animals that I had to chase all over and finally finish off, and I was pleasantly surprised that the meat was some of the best I’ve ever had. The bad ones were those that took me an hour or more to find.

  11. Madmerganser

    Figured this one out early on in my traipsing. If native game doesn’t taste right, your taste buds are maladjusted. Your twofold job is to learn to cook better and adjust to what is actually natural and healthy. I’m glad your out there preaching it. I watch the show and enjoy it. I’ve written some about it here and there myself. I can honestly say I haven’t had a bad game meal in years and we eat game as often as we can catch it. Of course there are a few things I’m more fond of than others and being selective about passing fish ducks makes me happy.

    In this age of people who find hunting distasteful I believe there is a shining chance for education. Because at the same time that most find our “sport” ugly and outdated there is also a growing and vocal number of people preaching the benefits of fresh organic and local. There is nothing more wholesome and natural than eating game meat. Many hunters gloss over it, not because they don’t know it, but because it’s completely natural to them and they don’t question it.

    Not only is hunting and eating wild game much healthier than eating supermarket fattened meat, it’s even profoundly less environmentally disturbing than even an organic garden. In nature there is no monoculture garden, plants group together based on soil, elevation, moisture, temperature and geography. In an area with a healthy game population there is zero harm to natural plants, wilderness or soil caused by harvesting game animals. I could go on and on, occasionally I do.

    Props to you for confronting it head on and educating.

  12. MontanaMeatEater

    Appreciating all that’s been written, I’ve spent a lifetime on this one. Quick kill vs slow kill, running all day vs unspooked early morning kill, etc.
    In my experience:
    #1. It’s what they’re eating. Grain and alfalfa fed animals have more fat, but do not have nearly the flavor as animals eating native forage. Deer eating juniper are awesome! High country elk that haven’t hit the hayfields are the best!
    #2. Don’t overcook it. Less pink = less flavor.
    #3. Get the body heat out of the animal ASAP or you get “spoiled” or “rancid” flavors, that some people call “gamey”.
    #4 Aging. Once the carcass is chilled, age it at least a week, longer if the ambient temp is near freezing.
    Incidentally, I use something called Nature’s Seasons, made by Morton Salt. It’s just salt, pepper, onion, etc. but in just the right proportions to enhance the flavor of the food, rather than competing with or overpowering it like most seasoning blends and sauces.
    Only marinade meat if the dog won’t eat it raw.

    • MontanaMeatEater

      And another thing or two: The age of the animal doesn’t seem to affect the flavor, but old animals can be tough! I got a cow elk one year and the guy at the check station took one look at her teeth and said, “Over twenty.” She tasted fine, but dinner could take hours because she was so hard to chew. I ended up grinding the rest of the steaks and roasts.
      The other thing: Fat animals may not be the best, but starving animals taste awful! We used to have a late hunt for elk near Yellowstone Park that ran through February. Twice I took elk in February. YUCK!!! No fat on the carcass, and an amazingly powerful nasty flavor and smell!

  13. bobbyb

    Chocolate tastes chocolatey…….

    It’s all about being able to cook. Unfortunately, a lot of hunters spend more time worrying if this years camo is better than last years than how to prepare food. Marinate it, dredge it with flour, chicken fry it, and cover it with gravy. Might as well feed it to the dog. Pan sear, finish to an internal temp of 138 (yes, 138) make a port wine reduction and your gal with think she married Gordon Ramsey…….

  14. Robin Follette

    I’m teaching a workshop called Cooking Wild Game this winter. This is one of the topics we’re going to cover very early in the workshop so that participants understand from the start that wild game is not supposed to taste life factory farmed beef, pork or poultry.

    “Gamey” is a blanket word that makes it sound like all game has one flavor. I hope people learn to appreciate the flavors in each cut and between each bird and animal.

    • MontanaMeatEater

      XLNT!! I’m sure you have many good things to teach. I suggest you try that seasoning I use, I’ve tried so many other things and keep coming back to it. I just haven’t found anything better than sprinkle both sides with Natures Seasons and grill it on low heat. I even grill burger for chili and casseroles and lasagna, rather than browning it in a skillet. Incidentally, 1/3 of a good brand of pork breakfast sausage mixed with 2/3 game burger makes an incredible meatloaf, with whatever else the recipe calls for. I also learned that everyone prefers elk burger, so we’d always run out. One year, I mixed the elk, deer, and antelope trim for burger. That elk flavor came through!!

  15. kburrell

    I wholeheartedly agree. My Wife and her family run what we in the south call a “fish-camp” and the one request that I hear customers make more than anything else is, “I want to order some fish that doesn’t taste so FISHY.” Really? It’s fish. It’s not supposed to taste like chicken. If you don’t want to taste fish, why not go to Chick-fil-A? I feel the same about vennison. And your show is by far the BEST ON TV. Bar-none. Can’t wait to read the book. It is on my Christmas List.

  16. MontanaMeatEater

    Isn’t it interesting what marketers do to us? The industry sells us bland food so that they can also sell us all sorts of spices and sauces for “flavor”. As a kid, I learned that store-bought chickens and eggs were pale compared to our home-grown, table-scrap-fed poultry products. That’s why Hutterite chickens, eggs, and turkeys command a premium price. (Google Hutterite if you don’t know.) But lately I’ve seen even higher-priced chickens in the stores, labeled “raised on a vegetarian diet” as if that made them better! LOL!! The more bugs and worms and other animal protein the chicken eats, the better the flavor of both the meat and eggs!

  17. Cate

    I remember sitting at the kitchen table in our smart Wellington suburb till 10pm because I refused to eat Dad’s wild venison. I was expected to sit there till I ate it all, so it could get pretty late. And I never did eat it.
    I used to smother it in tomato sauce from a bottle and hope it’d cover the hideous taste. To me it was like poison.
    Also, to a city kid only exposed to wild country a few times a year, to see one’s father butchering a stag in an exclusive suburban garage was too intense when compared with daily shrink-wrapped cuts. He never hung it to drain either.
    The upside is that he taught me to shoot, and I could hit his targets with ease, and I realised I still could eat meat in spite of seeing a very fresh carcass spread out before me in various states of skin-undress. I’m still fascinated by lamb shanks and brought back to that day in the garage. He grabbed my finger and made me touch the eyeball staring at me. Sicko. My big brother is a vegan. Hahahahaa… Oh that’s beastly.
    I’m now very interested in buying a bow and arrow. Like ye olde Scottish ancestors.

  18. youhavetocookitright

    you make an excellent point. When I first married my wife she told me she wouldn’t eat venison because she didn’t like the taste. I told her that she hadn’t had it cooked right and if she did she would enjoy it. She disagreed with me and told me that an old boyfriend of hers said the same thing and she didn’t like it. I made a deal with her that if she tried it again and didn’t like it I would never bring it up again but if she did we would make it our primary meat. Needless to say I shoot 3 deer a year and a couple of antelope usually not to mention ducks, squirrels and pheasants. As it turns out I was right, You have to cook it right. Complimentary flavors, right temperature proper seasoning make a world of difference.

  19. eklumb

    To me the adjective “gamey” doesn’t necessarily need to always be negative. People use the word “earthy” to describe wine all the time. It doesn’t mean it tastes like dirt, and it is not a negative quality. Instead of using the word “gamey” to describe an off taste, we should use it to describe the taste of an animal who lived a wild and free life. A non-commercial, natural taste.

    As a side note, have any of you noticed how much sugar is added to fast food. You can taste it in everything from the buns, to the ketchup.

  20. coyote hunter

    “gamey”…If i hear that one more time i’m going postal….what the heck is WILD meat supposed to taste like?….When people say its too gamey for them, my response is “good, thats just more for me.” My next project is to get my new daughter-in-law to try wild game…she was bred,born,raised in the big city, had a bad experience with someone who fed her venison but didn’t tell her what it was, now she won’t even try anything…My son has a lot of work to do with his wife…

  21. RobF

    Very well said, I hear alot of people complain that wild game tastes well “gamey”. I have also never had anyone be able to explain to me what “gamey” actually tastes like. I have news for you, in my opinion there is no such thing as “gamey”. Its the way meat is SUPPOSED to taste. Ever have a steak from a cattle that was raised on a farm for someones own consumption? Yup, you guessed it. Tastes nothing like you get from that crap you buy in a grocery store. America wonders why is getting fatter and fatter and sicker and sicker. Take a look at the crap your eating folks! I am proud to say that in my house we eat alot of wild game and fish that get myself. I have two daughters, 9 and 7 and they will tell you their favorite meat is venison. Makes me so proud!

    By the way, my favorite way to cook is simple. A drizzle of olive oil some salt, pepper and maybe some garlic. Toss it on a grill until rare then take it off and let it rest to medium. Overdone meat is another reason people dont like it.

  22. shul2975

    Great article. Reminds me of a time nearly 30 years ago. I’m a forester and avid hunter. Lived on a ranch in Eastern Oregon a long way from most stores. My 2 kids were raised on deer and elk. For a special occasion one time, we bought some beef steak. My daughter’s reaction: “I don’t like this meat; it tastes greasy!’ Keep up the good work. I enjoy your show.

  23. djcam

    I so agree with you. I had always read that antelope were not the best table. It was with fear and trepidation that my daughter and I harvested our first two antelope. Twenty years earlier, I had harvested a deer, and did not know how to prepare venison very well, and my husband pretty much refused to eat it. We quickly cleaned our animals. I processed them in my kitchen. I had heard that the quicker you get them out of their stinky skin, the better! Well, being girls, we were pretty meticulous to not get any hair on the meat, or get it dirty. I have to say, our antelope tasted better than any deer I have ever had in my life. Clean the animal quickly, be meticulous about hair, wrap it well, and embrace the wild taste. I found out that juniper berries and red wine are the perfect additions to a slow cooker antelope roast! My antelope burgers disappear five times faster than brats when I serve them to hungry teens who don’t hunt!

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