Fat is wild game cookery’s ultimate conundrum. It is the arbiter of a meat’s taste, yet stinky or bitter wild game fat can ruin an otherwise fine joint of venison or breast of mallard. What to do?
Keep in mind that fat and flavor in domestic meat are more or less predictable: Most meat animals live relatively sedentary lives eating similar foods (grains, mostly) and are then slaughtered at about the same age. Toss all this out with wild game, and by “wild game” I mean truly wild game — not the farmed products of deer ranches in Texas or of our many pheasant and quail farms.
Most of the animals hunters kill are young and stupid. But sometimes a hare of advanced age or a gnarly old rooster pheasant or a goose born during the Clinton administration will fall to our guns. Maybe I am deer hunting during the rut when the bucks are all flush with testosterone, which, while fun to have in abundance (as I can attest), does not make for good eats. Boys are smelly.
Maybe it was a hard winter, or a lean fall. The animals will be likewise lean. My friend Kevin in Canada has chased emaciated ducks and geese for years and has until recently accused me, scandalously, of telling tall tales when I report about the plump waterfowl here in Northern California. We have shot pintails here with a layer of fat nearly equal to that of a domestic duck.
Flavor in all meat is a combination of age, exercise, species, breed and diet. Every one of these factors are infinitely variable when hunting wild game. But of all the variables, diet — how much and of what – is the most important for the true flavor of a meat.
A good diet means the animal will have fat on it, and fat equals flavor. Period. Meats stripped of all fat taste miraculously alike. Scientists have done blind taste tests on mutton — that strongest-flavored of domestic meats — and prime steak, each with every scrap of fat removed. No one could tell the two apart. On a smaller scale, I used to shoot coots with some regularity, and I skinned and trimmed the fat on all of them. Coot fat is notoriously fishy. But skinned, de-fatted, salted well and seared simply in olive oil, I defy anyone to distinguish coot from venison.
A few general points about wild game fat:
- It is nearly always less saturated than domestic animal fat, largely because wild game fat is mostly built on grass or seeds or bugs, not corn or soybeans. Wild game fat’s unsaturated nature also meas it goes rancid faster.
- There is rarely that much fat on a wild animal, because wild animals work for a living. I have found some wonderful exceptions, however.
- Wild game fat is loaded with vitamin A and E, both of which are fat-soluble. Venison fat tends to be very high in omega-3 fatty acids — if that deer had been eating grass.
Fat is also the home of any weird or odd smell you might find in wild game. The varied diet of a game animal means that any fat-soluble ester or terpene or other flavor molecule that critter has metabolized will end up on your dinner plate.
Take Northern shovellers as one example. Known to California duck hunters as spoonies, spoontang or Smilin’ Mallards, these ducks use their enormous bill to filter mud and water for yummy bits, like zooplankton, algae, snails and plant matter. Shot near salt water, spoonies taste like low tide. Shovellers will, however, eat seeds when they are abundant — and rice (which are seeds) is everywhere in the Sacramento Valley. Spoonies shot there tend to have clean-tasting, white fat that is more saturated than fat from many other ducks. Holly and I shot a few in Tule Lake last week that were clearly eating little aquatic bugs or crustaceans: The birds were enormously fat, but with a bright yellow fat that smells…well, hard to say. It is a touch fishy, but it’s also grassy and a little sweet-smelling. An odd combo, I know. It is also liquid at room temperature; in the trio of fats pictured, the Tule Lake spoony fat is the yellow one in back that is already melting.
Other ducks are less dodgy, fat-wise. The main image for this post is my wild duck fat collection from this year; it is mostly from mallards, pintails and wigeon. But you can see variability even here. The grayish layer at top is from Klamath Basin pintails, which had pure white fat; the gray is because I let it get a bit too hot — the fat now smells like bacon. I consider this a good thing.
Look at the three spoons. The front spoon is from a semi-wild pheasant, which we shot earlier this year. Looks like chicken fat, doesn’t it? It tastes similar, but more complex, a little muskier. Pheasants eat a more varied diet than store-bought chickens, and this is reflected in the fat — and the resulting flavor.
The middle spoon is domestic goose fat. Snowy white, neutral-tasting and pretty darn saturated, although nothing like beef or lamb tallow. Farmers do their best to feed their animals things that make their fat this way. Alfalfa, as it happens, is one good plant to feed cows and sheep to make them clean and nice-tasting. It is also why a whitetail doe I shot in Wyoming last year was so amazingly delicious: She had taken up residence in a farmer’s alfalfa field and had been ravaging it. That deer had a two-inch thick layer of fat on her back, which made for some mighty fine wild game sausages.
This is why it is such a pity that so many wild game manuals tell their readers to trim off all fat from their animals. Doing so robs you of the highlights of wild game cookery, and dumbs down your meat to the status of a mere domestic — and if that’s what you want, go to the store.
Think about the gustatory marvel of an acorn-fed mallard. Or a black bear that had been pillaging avocado groves in Ventura County. Or a spruce grouse, heady with a balsamic tang. This is true terroir, and is not to be missed.
But you need to know what you are doing. This is why I highly recommend a simple test to see what the natural, wild fat on any game animal will taste like. The key is that much of what we perceive as taste is in fact aroma. Cut off a small portion of the fat and render it slowly in a frying pan. Smell it. Is it clean-smelling? Does it smell funky or fishy? Fishy is never good, but funky can actually add something to the flavor of a meat — remember that there will typically be very little fat on a steak or a roast, so that funkiness may well fade into an interesting background note.
Those of us who love to eat wild game revel in the mystery of it all — how will this deer or pig or duck taste when it’s all said and done? Will it be old or young? Fat or lean? Funky or sweet? As a cook, mastering these variables is half the challenge. Once you do, your wild meals will shine far brighter than the game equivalent of a boneless, skinless chicken breast. Give it a go. You may surprise yourself.