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Using the Whole Animal

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Game Isn’t Just Burgers and Steaks

If you asked 10 hunters what caliber of rifle or which bow and arrow combination is the best for taking game, you’ll not only get 42 different answers, but you’ll also get an entertaining debate where folks trip over themselves trying to say the same thing. We, as hunters, can be an obsessive bunch when it comes to our gear and which hunts to choose (particularly in the west). It’s a Ford-versus-Chevy type of thing.

When it comes to gear, folks will focus down to every detail. Once an animal is killed, though, too often the details of processing and expanding on culinary opportunities presented to us are missed. Often I talk with people, or anecdotally see discussions on social media, where someone’s wondering what to do with yet another package of frozen ground venison, and they’re tired of burgers or classic meat sauce. This article is the first in a series to help you get more out of your wild game.

For me, using the whole animal has a lot to do with respect for the animal, nature, and the life I’ve taken to sustain my own. That respect is realized through expressing the animal to its fullest potential from both a nutritional and culinary perspective. If we’re at a party talking about the bounty, I’ll usually describe the decadent meals I’ve prepared using whole animals. What I don’t share is how I got there; often people will glaze over the details — yeah, I learned that lesson.

Butchering, both in the field and back at home, are the first steps needed to yield more from your game. Butchering isn’t a complex process, but it’s time-consuming and requires a bit of attention to detail at some key moments. It is, however, incredibly rewarding. If in seasons past you’ve simply dropped off your animal at a processor, we’d encourage you next time to take matters into your own hands. The results are worth it.

wild game preparation

There are several great resources, like Hank Shaw or Steven Rinella, as well as YouTube videos to help you understand the basics. Please take advantage of them for more details; here, we’ll get you thinking about what else you should be doing with your game.

My mother used to say, “Reduce, recycle, reuse.” She was an amazing woman who kept well away from the kitchen, so it was early in life that I learned I’d have to figure out how to feed myself. There were, and still are, many culinary failures. I grew up in Seattle and would frequent Pike Place Market in search of the freshest ingredients. I’ve always enjoyed using cooking as a creative outlet. It was in my 30s when my love for cooking met my love for hunting.

wild game butcher

I quickly realized the way in which I processed my meat and what I chose to harvest could define the most unique dishes. When I begin planning for a hunt in the spring and summer, I scout, evaluate my gear, shoot my rifle or bow, and think about what dishes I’d like to make in anticipation of success in the field. This is especially true with the rarer species available to us, like moose, sheep, and mountain goat.

I always try to do something new, but I haven’t found this to be true with many of my best hunting buddies. I’m not sure if it’s a lack of knowledge on the part of some other hunters, or a sense of complacency mixed with a dash of fear of screwing things up. Hopefully, we can encourage you to challenge yourself and try new things. A dead deer is full of treasures from the basic soft tissues to organs to the skeleton.

wild game soup stock

Consommé made from moose bones. Parisian chefs stay up at night dreaming of this stuff — you can make it for free.

It’s Good for Ya
Since the dawn of time, stories and meals shared are part of being human. If you dig into history, you’ll find the use of animal parts to heal the body and strengthen the spirit. In my house, I’m blessed with the knowledge of my wife, Dr. Renee Young, a naturopathic doctor, hunter, and angler. She often talks about how organ meats have been traditionally used in cultures for healing purposes — some of the first hormone replacement therapies came from eating organs. Whether it worked or not is another topic, but eating testicles didn’t just spontaneously start — it came from some type of tradition.

whole animal 1

Although using the whole animal is a more of a spiritual part of the hunt, you’re probably happy to know that organ meats pack a nutritional punch, as do the bones (a “low hanging fruit” means of enhancing your health and cooking is to make stock from them). Bone stock contains 19 amino acids and is high in glucosamine and chondroitin, great for your joint health.

Don’t Squirm
Americans, in particular, are a bit prudish about their food, and it’s not clear exactly how we came to this place. Certainly, our ancestors relished the variety of meats available from just one carcass, and some organ meats were highly prized. The word “offal” refers to the inedible or inconsumable portions of animals, or the part that falls off. I feel sad for the guy who came up with that thought process. The liver, heart, tongue, and thymus have all contributed to some of my favorite dishes.

whole animal 2

Getting over our aversion to eating anything that isn’t skeletal muscle is a big step, but it isn’t impossible. In my experience, you just have to offer the finished product— once it’s on people’s plates, most folks will come back for seconds. In this series, we’ll introduce you to a distinct thought process and tips on the more unusual topics. We’ll cover an introduction
to non-steaks and burgers, which comprise flank and rib meat, neck meat, and shanks. Next, we’ll use bones and stock, and end on an offal note.

Expand Your Horizons
We invite you to take the information in the upcoming articles of this series and expand on it. Using the whole animal is part of who we are. If you’re lucky enough to source an animal, then enjoy the whole bounty. Open your house to friends, family, and even people you’ve just met to share in connecting with where this incredible food came from. Interest in the eld to table movement is strong, and many people don’t know where to start or how to source their meat. Make it your mission to have as many people as possible try something deliciously wild.

whole animal 3

Remember that like fine wines, every animal is different. Sommeliers talk earnestly about terroire, and like wine, where an animal lived has a huge impact on the flavor of its meat. An elk I shot in Arizona this past year — my first from an area loaded with pinyon and juniper — is very different from the elk I took previously in Montana. I made the mistake of trying to cook them both the same way, with the same flavor profile. It hasn’t always turned out well.

If you’re a little tentative about the prospects of ruining your favorite game with potentially bad cooking skills, then why not try your recipe on a store-bought animal? There’s no shame building up some confidence first before you try something new, especially with an animal you worked so hard to get.

We hope that your next hunting plan involves figuring out how you’ll use the whole animal. Take it slow, start with the easy stuff, work your way up, and don’t get discouraged.

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