Squirrel season is upon us here in California, so I reckon it’s time to offer up to you how I cut up a squirrel for eating. As with any sort of butchery, different people do it different ways. Some people simmer them whole. The Hmong hunters I know actually scald their squirrels and scrape off the hair — or just toss them into the fire to burn off the hair. I need to try that scalding sometime to see if squirrel skin is any good.
Until then, I skin and cut up my boreal rodents. If you’ve never done it, skinning a squirrel is harder than you might think. Squirrels have a thick, dense hide, whereas rabbits, their woodland colleagues, have more of a light pelt. Skinning a rabbit takes seconds. Skinning a squirrel takes minutes.
To skin, gut and break down a squirrel properly, you will want to have handy:
- A cutting board
- A small, sharp knife, such as a pocket knife or small paring knife
- Kitchen shears
- A trash bin
- A platter or tray to put the finished squirrel pieces on
Start by snipping off Mr. Squirrel’s feet and tail with the shears. Use the bone-cutting notch at the base of the shears. I do the same thing with the head, but it a) requires some hand strength and b) deprives you of that Appalachian delicacy, squirrel brains. I am not a fan, so I toss them. If you happen to be a squirrel brain enthusiast, by all means skin and split the skull in your own way.
You are now left with a sad-looking, tailless, headless squirrel. Take your knife in one hand, and with the other pinch up the loose skin at the center of the squirrel’s back: Use the knife to make an incision perpendicular to the squirrel’s backbone about 2 inches long. (Incidentally, the process is similar for cutting up rabbits for cooking. )
To skin the squirrel, work the fingers of each hand under the skin through the incision you just made. Now pull – I mean really pull! — and the skin will come off in either direction. You’ll get it most of the way, but the skin will hang up under the legs and at the center of the belly. Poke your finger through under the legs to free the skin off them. Use the knife to carefully start the belly skin going, then pull it, too. It takes a little practice, but it’s not rocket science.
To gut Mr. Squirrel, use the knife with the blade facing away from the guts to open up the wee beastie. His guts will spill out. Reach with your fingers upwards toward the heart and lungs and wrench them out. Save the heart. If you want, save the liver and kidneys, too. They’re tasty. Use the kitchen shears to split the pelvis so you can get the remaining bits of poop chute out.
Wash the squirrel under lots of clean, cold water and you are ready to break him down.
I start by removing the legs. The front legs of most mammals are completely free of the rest of the skeleton. Trippy, eh? But not you and me — we have a collar bone. So does Mr. Squirrel. He’s the only game animal I know of with one. Even so, use your knife to slice down to the ribcage behind the front leg, then slice along the bones toward the squirrel’s neck until you free the foreleg; you will have to slice through a skinny little collar bone at the end. Do this on both forelegs.
The hind legs on pretty much everything, including us, are attached with a ball-and-socket joint. So too with Mr. Squirrel. Use your knife to slice the meat on the inside of the squirrel’s leg where it attaches to the body until you can see the ball joint. Bend the leg backwards until you pop that joint out. Slice around it to free the legs. Do this with both sides.
You’re almost done. You are left with the torso and belly flaps. I slice off the belly flaps and save them for either stock or for stir-fries. That leaves the ribs and backstraps.
Use kitchen shears to snip off the ribs. Save for stock. Now you want to portion out the backstrap. A big squirrel might give you two pieces, but most are just one. You can either use your shears for this, although it requires a bit of strength, or you can use a cleaver and whack it into pieces. One thing you definitely want to do is chop off the hips and the neck portions, as there is not much meat there; again, save these bits for stock.
When you’re done, it should look like this:
Don’t sweat it if you mess up the first couple times, or if it takes you a while. You’ll get the hang of it, and when you do, this process can be done in less than 10 minutes per squirrel.
Now that you have a squirrel ready for cooking, here are all sorts of squirrel recipes to choose from!