Maggie Bonham is a long time hunter and game meat cook. She is also a writer on The LocaCarnivore, a website dedicated to local hunting.
As dyed-in-the-wool carnivore, I'm a huge fan of game meat. The taste is hard to beat, in my not so humble opinion, and it's healthier for you. I'll admit it: I prefer venison over beef now (even though I'm a sucker for a good prime rib), and deer meat is some of the best meat there is.
But not every hunter shares my enthusiasm for venison. I hear all the time how the meat is "gamey," how people only like elk meat (a form of venison), and how other game meat is simply awful. I've seen hunters pass up deer because they were looking for a milder meat, or maybe they donated their meat to the local food bank.
It doesn't have to be that way. In fact, you may be doing something to ruin the taste of that game meat, which makes the problem easily corrected.
Enemies of Game Meat
Enemies of game meat? Sounds like a bad B-movie, but they really do exist. Heat, time, moisture, bacteria, blood, dust, dirt, insects, urine, offal, digestive juices, and tarsal glands are all enemies of your game meat. Once you kill an animal, you're on a race against decomposition, which will definitely make your game meat taste bad. Certain things, both inside and outside your kill work against you to make decomposition a reality. This is why it is important to care for your animal the moment it dies. That means keeping the things that can ruin game meat to a minimum and caring for your meat properly. A little conscientious effort on your part will equal great meals for months to come.
Failing to Field Dress Properly
Hunters, I know you're excited you got your animal down, but hunting and shooting are only half the battle. The next step is to field dress your game animal immediately. As in NOW. As in, don't wait to take it to the butcher to have him field dress it. As in, don't take it home to field dress it. As in, field dress it right there where it landed. Unless you're on a cliff where you might fall off, but even then...take care of your kill. (Okay, get it to a safer place and then start gutting.)
Look, I know you're tired. I know it's icky. But you killed the animal, the least you can do is respect the animal and get it field dressed now. Field dressing does a lot to remove the heat from the animal and gets it cooled down quicker. It also removes a lot of blood that can keep the meat warm and moist, making it a perfect place for bacteria and other nasties to grow.
For those who don't know what field dressing is, it is removing the organs from the body cavity. Since most hunters shoot animals in the lungs or heart, it makes it imperative to get the animal opened and cleaned out. Those organs hold a lot of heat and the blood in the body cavity will start working on that meat. Bloodshot meat and meat tainted with gut contents tastes awful, which makes it important to get the animal opened up and cleaned out quickly.
It's also important to keep the guts and bladder intact when gutting. That's what a gut hook is for when you're opening up the gut. Use it. If you accidentally do open the guts, get it out quickly and wash out the cavity with water or snow. Put the animal in a position to air dry quickly while you transport it to the butcher or home.
I remember going to a butcher shop with my field dressed deer and seeing an entire elk, not even gutted or skinned, there at the butcher. I looked at the guy taking animals at the store. "He didn't even gut it?" The butcher shrugged with resignation. We both knew the hunter would have pretty nasty venison because he failed to field dress the animal.
Killing an Animal Where it's Difficult to Get Out
I know it's incredibly hard to find some animals; trust me. Elk are elusive critters. Bear are too. Sometimes when you're looking for the perfect animal, you have to go deep into the back country. I get it. But it does you no good to kill an animal where you need a Sikorsky Skycrane to get it out. I'm talking about those valleys five hours away or more from a road. I'm talking about major wilderness here.
It's good if you can bone out the meat and pack it out on yourself or a horse. But each hour that passes is an hour you can't get back. If you do find yourself in such a situation, field dress and cool the meat off as quick as you can. Quartering and boning the meat will help immensely. Then, pack it with ice or snow and get it to the butcher or butcher it yourself.
Don't leave the meat in the hopes of returning to it. Depending on the area, scavengers and predators will be looking for an easy meal, and leaving your meat to the elements is never wise. So, if you must leave it for a day, consider moving the meat away from the gut pile and bones, wrapping it well, and concealing it where it can stay cool.
One guy I know shot his elk and it went right into a river it was nearby. Accessing it from the river's bank in that remote location took days, and I presume getting it either to the butcher or home to butcher it took quite a bit of effort. I don't want to know what that meat tasted like; I don't have to guess.
Poor Handling of Your Meat After You Field Dress It
Let's say you get a buck down in the morning. You follow my advice and field dress it quickly. Now, you truss it up on the hood of your car or your roof rack. Or maybe you put it in the back of your SUV or in your truck's bed and continue to hunt.
Seriously, what were you thinking?
Okay, yeah, there are animals to be gotten. Yes, you need to hunt more. But if the temperatures are above freezing, your venison isn't going to fare well. The old saying goes one bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Take care of the meat you have and get it in a place where it is being butchered or at least being kept at a consistent temperature between 32°F and 40°F. Heat is the number one enemy of game meat. You need to cool down your venison and keep it cool until you can butcher it.
As for driving around with the deer strapped to the hood of your truck--really? (And yes, I know at least one case of that happening.) Never mind the temperature fluctuations--what about the dirt, oil, gravel, and general debris that occurs with driving? I can just imagine how disappointed that guy was when he tried that meat. I imagine it tasted a lot like road kill.
Hanging Your Meat
I talk extensively about hanging and aging meat in my article, Should You Hang Your Game Meat? Hanging meat, when done properly, will age your venison and make it less tough (although I haven't yet eaten a tough deer). But, most hunters don't hang their animals properly and the meat experiences wild temperature swings, including higher temperatures. These temperature swings cause bacteria to grow that impart a gaminess to the meat. You end up with tender, gamey meat and not tasty meat.
If you do decide to age your venison, age it on ice or in a refrigerator (I talk about how in the article mentioned above). If you hang your venison, be sure to do it in a climate controlled area.
Your Choice of Game and Circumstances
This last reason why your venison tastes gamey is more along the lines of what you hunted and how you hunted. If you're always going after the big bucks during rut, you can have game meat that might be less tasty than a doe or a younger buck. If you hunt mule deer on the plains that eats nothing but sage, you're going to have a vastly different experience than a deer that has been grazing on a farmer's field. A deer that has a bunch of bloodshot meat due to multiple hits is not going to taste as good as one that was hit accurately. Even whitetails and mule deer taste different, although they both taste pretty good.
You may argue that you can't change those variables. I would argue that you most certainly can. Don't pass up the tender buck for the testosterone-fill mega-buck. Don't stress your elk with multiple bad shots that end up causing bloodshot meat throughout. Hunt where you know the diet of the animals you hunt will give flavorful meat and not a mouthful of sagebrush.
Lastly, learn how to cook venison properly. There are many good books out there on how to cook venison, including Steve Rinella's books, that give you some excellent cooking advice. That way, you can enjoy not only the hunt and the antlers, but the meat as well. Happy hunting!
© 2018 MH Bonham