I get so many notes from visitors who read this space and enjoy the recipes, but who have never picked up a gun and have little or no access to hunters generous enough to share some true wild game. So I get questions like, “Can I substitute chicken for pheasant? I can buy domestic ducks at the store — will they work in your duck recipes?”
The answer is yes. To a point. A wild duck is not a domestic duck, and while we call pheasants “ditch chickens,” they are different enough to not really be chickens. My recipes are designed for wild game and can be modified for domestic meat; most recipes are the other way around.
Modified how? Again, it depends on the critter. So I thought it might be useful to run through the domestic equivalents of the game animals I hunt most frequently. Funny thing is, most actually do have barnyard cousins. My hope is to make this a useful guide for those cooks interested in some of the wild game recipes on this site, but who can’t get their hands on venison or a mallard.
SOME UNIVERSAL TRUTHS
There are some universal constants about cooking wild game versus domestic meat. In general, wild game is…
|WILD GAME||DOMESTIC MEAT|
|Denser meat||More tender meat|
|Harder connective tissues||Softer connective tissues|
|More difficult to crisp skin||Easier to crisp skin|
|Smaller size per animal||Larger size per animal|
|Older animal||Younger animal|
|More flavorful||Less flavorful|
|Variable animal to animal||More consistent animal to animal|
This gets at the “wild game is tough” thing you hear all the time. Wild animals work for a living: Think of them as athletes, not cubicle hamsters. As a function of work and age, game meat muscle is denser, that muscle is linked by connective tissue stronger than that of its barnyard cousins — and will be covered by less fat.
All this can make cooking game tricky. How old is the animal? Is this one fatty, relatively speaking? Is that fat clean-tasting? Many questions. You eliminate a lot of guesswork and buy yourself some insurance by cooking with a domestic animal. What you lose is depth of flavor.
Here are some specific tips that might help when you’re cooking the lazy cousins of wild game:
TURKEY: I thought I’d start with this one, as the wild and domestic species are the same, and because wild turkey season starts here in California on Saturday. Both birds are equally large — a wild tom turkey can run 25 pounds — and both are walking birds, meaning the legs will be full of tough sinew. This is easily worked around with a domestic (think King Henry VIII), but with a wild turkey the tendons are so strong you really need to just shred the meat off the leg and eat it like carnitas. Or confit. Not that domestic turkey carnitas or confit is bad; but it will need less cooking time — on average about 60 minutes.
The breasts of wild turkeys are narrow, as domestics are bred to be “double-breasted,” because the White Meat Lovers apparently outnumber those who, like me, prefer dark meat. So you will need less domestic turkey breast to feed the same number of guests. A complicating factor, however, is that density of meat I mentioned: Wild game meat is more filling, ounce for ounce, than domestic.
You will also have an easier time getting a crispy, edible skin with a domestic turkey — the skin off an old tom can be rubbery, and generally needs to be simmered in broth before crisping.
WILD BOAR: Again, for the most part, wild pigs are the same species as domestics (although there are places where you can hunt real Eurasian wild boar here and there), that escaped off someone’s farm many years ago. The biggest thing to know when you are dealing with domestic pork versus wild boar is the smell and amount of the fat. Both animals typically have a decent layer of fat, but wild boar fat can be rank — it depends on what the pig was eating before you shot it. To make my wild boar recipes, you need to buy good domestic pork, with reddish meat and decent fat. Factory hogs will be mushy, white and full of water. With high-quality domestic pork, you need not do anything different to follow my recipes.
VENISON: Yes, you can get farmed or ranched venison (that from Broken Arrow Ranch in Texas is said to be the best), but for most people the equivalent is beef. Beef will always be fattier and coarser than venison, so you are losing something right there. If you want to approximate the flavor better, buy only grass-fed beef, such as that offered by Panorama meats. This will give you more of the iron-rich flavor you get with venison.
As far as cuts are concerned, substitute filet mignon for any of my venison medallion recipes. For braises, stew meat is stew meat. Use a rump roast or chuck for ground meat dishes — grind it yourself or have your butcher do it for you; I do not recommend you buy pre-ground meat. For offal recipes, you want to buy calf offal to get close to the taste of deer offal; beef is too strong in flavor.
PHEASANT: Pheasants and chickens are very close to one another. In fact, the flavor of stewing hen is superior to that of a pheasant — as this is one of the few cases where the domestic animal lives longer than the wild one. Look for stewing hens at Mexican or Asian markets — and they are called stewing hens for a reason, as they are too tough to roast or fry. Pen-raised, “country club” pheasants can be treated like roaster chickens, while wild pheasants will likely be tougher. Just like turkeys, pheasants are walking birds, so you will have the tendon issue in the legs. Domestics — except for old roosters — don’t have this problem.
My advice? Buy quality chickens that are air-dried and are allowed to age a bit (look for chickens about 3 months old if possible) for the closest approximation to a typical pheasant. Also know that many high-end supermarkets will sell you farm-raised pheasant in the freezer section.
As for a well-aged pheasant? Sorry, there is no substitute.
LAMB/GOAT: A tricky one. Wild equivalents are pretty rare, as few hunters regularly hunt wild sheep or goats. Most often you will find exotics, such as Corsican ram or nilgai antelope. Similar but different is the pronghorn antelope, which has a meat like a young lamb or goat — light in color and mild. Use any grass-fed (NOT Colorado) lamb or young goat in any of my antelope recipes and you’ll do fine.
DUCKS & GEESE: Size and fat are what you need to remember here. Domestic ducks are far larger than wild ones, and all domestics will be fatter than their wild brethren.
Wild fat can be variable, too, as I’ve written about before. With a domestic, you will need to trim off all extra fat from the edges of the cuts and the cavities of the birds; save it and render it for use later. When cooking domestics, prick the skin (not the meat!) all over with a thick needle to help let the fat render out. You really need to do this, for as much as I love duck fat, an inch-thick layer on a slice of breast can be daunting on the plate.
A word on size. Wild and domestic geese are about the same size, if you are talking about Canada geese. Specklebellies and snows are a little smaller, and Ross’ and Aleutians are basically ducks. A domestic goose feeds 4 hearty eaters, and 6 won’t feel cheated. A domestic duck feeds 2-3 easily. Remember again that wild duck and goose is denser and far more filling than wild duck — a mallard will easily feed 2, and even the little teal will satisfy 1.
RABBIT: The biggest difference between cottontail rabbits and domestic ones is size. And if you are in Europe and have access to those giant Euro rabbits, then there is even less difference. American cottontails are about half the size of a domestic you buy in the freezer section of the supermarket. Neither has much fat, and what fat it has tends to be bitter. I trim it off. Figure on a domestic rabbit serving 2-3 people; 4 with lots of sides — cut that in half for a cottontail. Cookingwise, they are the same.
Hares are not rabbits. They are larger, older on average, and have dark meat. Unless you get Scottish hares shipped in from D’Artagnan, there is no substitute.
QUAIL: Domestic quail tend to be Japanese quail, which take more kindly to living in captivity. Wild quail are mostly bobwhites and California Valley quail. Both birds cook the same, although domestic quail — especially those bought in Asian markets — tend to be pretty tasteless. They’re small, short-lived and not very fatty. I do cook them on occasion, but not often.
SQUAB/PIGEON/DOVE: Yes you can make my pigeon and dove recipes — with squab. A squab is a pigeon that has been raised in a pen for nearly a year, which makes it both tender and expensive.
Squab are about three times the size of a hunted dove, but are the closest in flavor and cooking times. DO NOT OVERCOOK THEM! Both should be served blood rare to be at their best. The skin on both crisps nicely.
As for pigeons, they are of course closest biologically to squab, but wild pigeon meat is very dense and can be tough as nails — pigeons can live for 10 years in the wild. Squab is a reasonable equivalent, but remember it will be twice as tender and so will not need as much cooking time.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Don’t let the fact that you don’t hunt stop you from enjoying the riches lurking in the hidden corners of the meat counter and the freezer section. And if you do hunt, this guide should help you explain to your non-hunting friends how to cook that wonderful goose or haunch of venison or brace of quail you just gave them. Enjoy!