Once upon a time, all meat tasted gamey because all meat was hunted in the wild. Nowadays, because we are used to commercially-grown meat, like chicken or beef, we have grown unaccustomed to the gamey taste of wild meat, like bear, elk, moose, or quail.
This leaves some to ask: What makes meat taste gamey? More specifically, if I’m interested in eating game meat, which kinds of game meat taste the gamiest and which are the mildest?
What Does Gamey Meat Taste Like?
Many food writers suggest that gamey meat has a flavor that is both strong and intense. Some might even say that it has earthy flavoring.
Very often, we associate the gamey flavor with meats like deer, caribou, and elk meat. However, even small game animals like rabbits, squirrel, ducks, pheasant, and other game birds can have a gamey flavor. Further, domestic animals like lamb, emu, ostrich, and goat can taste gamey.
Additionally, gamey meat also has a particular texture that most people find to be tough and chewy unless it is cooked in a specific way.
What Makes Meat Taste Gamey?
In order to answer this, we must first define what we mean by gamey meat. Most people who taste the meat of a wild animal, for example, a deer or a rabbit, say that it has a much stronger, more “wild” flavor.
Generally, that wild flavor results from the wild animal’s lifestyle. That is, a wild animal is more active than a domesticated animal.
This results in the animal having a higher heart rate, which creates more oxygen in the blood and a more metallic residue in the muscles (think testosterone from male animals).
For example, wild sheep climbing mountains will have a different muscle structure than a domestic sheep strolling around a pasture. This affects the taste of the meat.
The animal’s diet, which often consists of wild grasses, leaves, and other matter, contributes to this flavor. Much of their diet varies by season.
A sheep grazing on young Spring shoots will have a different taste than it will in Fall while grazing on dying grass. An animal that eats this seasonal type of diet will have meat that tastes different from an animal that has eaten grain all its life.
Some people further state that, by definition, gamey comes from wild meat. In other words, it’s meat like deer or bear that you get from hunting and not from domestication and ranching. (There are some exceptions to this, which we will explain a bit.)
This also answers the question: what would make a domesticated animal taste gamey? For example, what would make beef taste gamey? The answer is above.
That is to say, if beef cows are allowed to roam and get more exercise and have a more natural diet, like grass instead of grain, then their meat would also taste gamey, a fact, which Cooks Illustrated confirms.
This is attributed to the adrenaline that’s released during the slaughter process. A poor diet is further said to cause a gamey taste in certain types of beef.
What Is The Most Gamey Meat?
The answer to this can be a bit tricky, according to Alaska Fish and Game. For example, bear meat can taste a bit strange if the bear has been eating a lot of fish.
The meat of wild animals can also taste a bit off if the meat is taken during what hunters call the rut. This is mating season.
During the rutting season, the male of the species will use their own urine to attract females of the species, which in turn can make the meat taste bad. It is for this reason that it’s difficult to say what meat tastes the gamiest.
Additionally, Cook’s Info had this to say about the gaminess of different kinds of meat. It suggests that what was once wild meat, like deer, is often now farm-grown.
However, the animals are given more free reign to roam, so their muscles get more exercise, which contributes to a gamey flavor.
Of all of the domesticated animals, rabbit is said to have the mildest flavor. Of the bigger types of game meat, deer meat is the most common of the domestic-wild meat types.
Even though this meat is technically not wild meat, it’s still going to be leaner than other kinds of meat grown in a domesticated environment due to the animal’s living conditions and diet.
As such, it is suggested that the fat from even this “domesticated wild” meat be trimmed away because it doesn’t taste very pleasant. And in keeping with the wildness of the meat, this type of “wild” meat is going to be less tender than an animal raised in a more ranch-like setting.
In the latter case, those animals get less exercise and eat a grain-based diet, so their meat tastes less gamey and is more tender than “wild domesticated” animals.
What Types Of Meat Are Gamey?
Encyclopedia Britannica allows us to further clarify the different types of game meat.
The first class of game meat is the small birds. This would be the quail that you eat at Thanksgiving or the thrush bird.
The second class of game meat is medium-sized animals. This classification includes larger birds like goose cartridges and woodcock.
However, it also includes game animals like rabbit and squirrel. Animals in this category can have fur or feathers. This category kind of represents a bridge between the small and the large game categories.
The third class of game meat is probably what most people think of when they think of eating gamey meat. This category includes very large animals like moose, deer, and elk. Wild boar and bears are also in this category.
FAQs about Gamey Meat
What makes a deer taste gamey?
What makes deer meat taste gamey is the same thing that makes all meat taste gamey. A gamey quality comes from animals who have access to a more natural diet and have the opportunity to move about freely.
This usually happens in the wild, but some animals, like deer, are raised domestically but in a setting that more replicates the wild environment. As such, the meat from these animals – whether they are in the wild or grown domestically – gets a high iron content from all the exercise animals get and from what they eat. This lends itself to a gamey taste.
How should I cook meat so that it tastes less gamey?
There are a few tricks that you can employ if you want your game meat to taste a little bit milder. You can immerse it in either brine, which is a salt and water mixture, or in acidic water, which is a combination of vinegar and water. This breaks down the meat, making it less tough as well.
Some home cooks also swear by a milk bath for the wild meat. You can also use plain yogurt or buttermilk to the same effect. If you go this route, you need to immerse the meat in a freezer bag filled with milk and store it in the refrigerator for a day or so. The meat will also be more tender due to these treatments.
It’s also important to say that the fat and any of what’s called silver skin – that is, a thin layer of connective tissues between the skin and the meat – in wild animals also contribute to the meat’s gamey flavor. It is for this reason that you want to trim the fat off the meat before you cook it.
Can meat taste gamey even if it’s domesticated?
In theory, it can. If it is grown in an environment that allows it to have more roaming space and a more natural diet, then it could replicate the conditions that make wild animals like deer or bears taste gamey.
How do I preserve wild game meat?
You have a couple of options with this. Some people, if they do a lot of hunting, will simply cut up the deer or elk or whatever they get during their hunt and freeze the meat once they get it home. You also have the option of smoking the meat, drying the meat (like jerky), or curing the meat.
Smoking, drying, and curing are more old-fashioned ways of preserving meat that go back centuries. Incidentally, the art of charcuterie began when, hundreds of years ago, butchers started to cure their wild pork.
What side dishes should I eat with game meat?
It may be because eating wild game is associated with the fall hunting season that many of the foods that taste good with it are fall harvest foods. For example, you may enjoy side dishes like: Roasted potatoes or sweet potatoes, Sauteed carrots, Mushroom soup, Southern fried corn, Wild mushroom soup, or Squash.
That said, game meat also tastes good with a salad that has an assortment of different vegetables in it and that’s topped with a lighter dressing made with vinegar, oil, and spices. If you go this route, you allow the meat to take center stage in the meal. The salad is a compliment that clears the palate.
There’s really no wrong way to do this. Any meal that features wild meat can be a hearty fall treat.