Rangifer tarandus: In North America and Canada, it’s known as caribou. But to the rest of the world, this arctic land mammal is better known as the reindeer. And within this small category, you can find a surprising range of sizes — from the diminutive Svalbard reindeer to the massive boreal woodland caribou.
Caribou meat has been an important source of nutrition for indigenous peoples and settlers across the Northern reaches of North America and Eurasia. But we wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t tried it, not least of which because it’s a very uncommon meat to cook with.
We’ve contacted chefs and family members living in Canada to get the inside scoop on caribou meat, then combined those first-hand accounts with dozens of hours of recipe research and comparison. Now, we’d like to share the fruits of that labor with you, by covering everything you need to know about caribou meat.
You’ll learn what it tastes like, how its nutrition facts stack up to common meats, how to cook it safely and effectively, and where to buy caribou meat to cook in your own kitchen.
What Does Caribou Meat Taste Like?
The flavor of any animal’s meat is determined by its unique genetics, combined with the amount of exercise it gets and what it eats as the majority of its diet. Of the three, exercise is what gives game animals (like the caribou) their “gamier” flavor and tougher texture.
But fear not: Caribou is a versatile meat that’s been used by indigenous populations in cold weather areas for centuries. And for every dish that could be too tough with reindeer meat, there are a dozen other ways to prepare it that will garner the best possible flavors (more on that in a moment).
Hunters and chefs have remarked that among game animals, caribou has a very mild flavor. It’s much less gamey than deer meat, all while maintaining a low fat content that makes it quite healthy. So overall, the flavor of caribou meat is gentle and mild, while the texture is very similar to low-fat cuts of beef.
A word of warning, though: The time of year that caribou is hunted and killed will make a big difference in its flavor. Over the winter, caribou subsist on a diet almost entirely of lichens — they’re actually the only mammal known to do so, thanks to a special enzyme produced in their stomachs. Meat harvested in this season will be leaner, with a distinct grassiness to it. And if it’s mating season for the caribou, avoid the meat altogether, as it will taste particularly awful.
Caribou Meat Nutrition
Caribou meat is a great nutrition source for many Arctic cultures. According to nutritionvalue.org, a 4 ounce serving of caribou game meat has the following nutritional values:
- 144 calories
- 3.8 grams of total fat, with 1.5 grams of saturated fat
- 94 milligrams of cholesterol
- 26 grams of protein
- 29% daily value of iron
- 7% daily value of potassium
In addition to these, caribou meat is particularly rich in B vitamins and minerals. It’s a complete protein source with a very low fat content, making it an exceptionally healthy protein choice.
By comparison, lean ground beef has nearly twice the calories and over five times the fat per serving. Chicken is nearly identical in protein and fat composition, but has significantly less vitamins and minerals in comparison to caribou.
Risks and Considerations for Eating Caribou Meat
As with any game meat, there are dangers inherent to eating caribou meat. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has this advice about common wildlife parasites and diseases:
- Never eat raw wild game meat. This goes for feeding scraps to dogs or cats as well, as they’re even more susceptible to parasites transferred through game meat.
- You cannot tell from a glance whether meat is infected with parasites or diseases. Don’t attempt to “eyeball” whether the meat is clean and safe.
- Always cook game meat thoroughly to prevent parasites and diseases. This means cooking to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees F.
Additionally, it’s advisable to keep caribou meat frozen until ready to cook. When defrosting, leave it on a plate in your refrigerator, not out on the counter where it could develop bacterial infections. Freezing will kill the bacteria and viruses that cause toxoplasmosis, adding a further layer of safety to your preparation.
How to Cook Caribou Meat
Because of its mild flavor and good nutritional content, there are myriad ways to cook with caribou meat. Its low fat content, however, means that it’s best to cook it similarly to how you would cook chicken breast — either with wet heat cooking methods like braising, or with plenty of time to marinate.
But unlike chicken, caribou is a red meat. This gives it a flavor and texture closer to beef, pork, bison, and other game animals like deer, elk, or moose. So when you’re looking for recipes to make the best of caribou meat, you can often substitute it directly for lean cuts of beef. Let’s unpack that one a little with a few “no recipe” recipes.
Ground Caribou Meat
Ground caribou meat makes a darned fine burger. It’s lean enough, though, that you’ll need to add a little bit of fat to keep it together and prevent it from drying out on the grill. Adding a portion of bacon to the ground caribou won’t do any favors for your waistline, but it’s a great way to insulate the lean caribou meat against the heat of a roaring grill.
Stews and Soups
Stews and soups are a perfect way to make use of most cuts of caribou meat. Because you’ll be cooking the meat in a liquid base, it never really has the chance to dry out. Try searing 1-inch cubes of caribou meat for just a minute in a hot pan, then set them aside. Make a simple base of sautéed onions, celery, and carrots, with plenty of salt and pepper.
Cube up a few potatoes, and sear them on one side with the base vegetables. Then return the caribou to the pot, and fill it with beef, chicken, or vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and let sit for 30 minutes to an hour. Served this way, caribou stew can make an excellent one pot meal. For a special twist, use a cup or two of red wine as part of your stock, then sprinkle in fresh or fried herbs before boiling.
Braising is my preferred method for cooking larger cuts of lean meats. Sear a caribou steak for 30 seconds on each side, then set it aside. Add onions and garlic to oil in the bottom of a Dutch oven, and let them caramelize slowly while your oven preheats to 350 degrees. Return the caribou steak to the Dutch oven, cover it halfway with a stock of your choice, and then put the lid on the Dutch oven. Put it in your preheated oven and let cook for 40-50 minutes, until tender enough to pull apart with a fork.
Jerky and other drying methods are a great way to prepare caribou, too. In this case, the lack of fat in caribou meat is actually a big benefit: It’ll prevent the dried jerky from going rancid at room temperature. Jerky spice mixes are widely available, but you’ll need a dehydrator and/or jerky slicer to really make the best quality jerky possible.
Marinated Caribou Meat
Marinated caribou meat can take on a huge range of flavors. Try marinating a caribou steak with olive oil, lime juice, cumin, salt, and pepper for a Mexican style flavor, then sear it and use it for fajitas. Or make a marinade of soy sauce, garlic, ginger, honey, and rice wine vinegar, and serve with rice for a Japanese-inspired dinner.
So how should you not cook caribou meat? Well, I’m not a fan of using lean meats like caribou for grilling or pan roasting. The texture of caribou tends to dry out and get tough and chewy when it’s heated too much, too quickly — it just doesn’t have enough fat to really make for great steaks.
Where to Buy Caribou Meat
If you live outside of the natural range of caribou herds, finding their meat to try in your own kitchen can be next to impossible. There are reindeer farm options throughout the US, but again, not many sell directly to consumers. Where it’s rarely available online, it will often be very expensive — or used as an additive for sausages, rather than as the main ingredient.
Where caribou/reindeer meat is available, it’s usually in very short supply or by special order only. At the time of writing, the only online source we could find for buying caribou meat was Exotic Meat Market. Expect to pay around $100 for a pound of unadulterated caribou meat.
Indian Valley Meats makes meat sausage with reindeer meat as part of their recipe, but has no fully caribou products. When in stock, their caribou medallions wrapped in bacon are a very nice purchase.
Great Northern offers caribou seasonally by request, but you’ll have to put in an order for a large portion of the animal. Prices change based on yearly availability and hunting restrictions.
FAQs for Caribou Meat
And to wrap things up, let’s take a look at some of the most common questions people have about caribou meat.
Are caribou and reindeer meat the same thing?
Caribou and reindeer both refer to the same animal, so yes — caribou and reindeer meat are the same thing. And it’s completely fine to use the terms interchangeably. Caribou is the common term in North America, while the rest of the world more commonly refers to these animals as reindeer.
Can caribou be eaten raw?
Technically yes, caribou can be eaten raw. Among game meats, it poses a relatively low risk of disease — but there’s always a risk. To prevent some of this risk, caribou should always have been frozen before being served raw. This will kill a wide range of bacteria and viruses. Still, it’s advisable to always cook game meat fully to prevent the possibility of infection.
Do caribou and moose meat taste the same?
Caribou, moose, and deer meat all have a a very similar flavor. Moose meat has more fat than caribou or deer, while caribou is usually less gamey than deer or moose. It’s worth noting, though, that deer and moose meat are much easier to buy online (and much less expensive, too).
Is caribou meat called venison?
You’ll sometimes hear caribou meat referred to as venison. That’s because venison is an old English word that refers to a broad range of animals, from deer to elk to moose and reindeer. Some purists insist that only deer species can be venison, but the word can be used to refer to any of the animals in these closely related families.