Whether it's a holiday or a big family meal, everyone has their favorite traditional dishes. But even the most beloved main dishes can become a little tired. We have a suggestion for making your meals a little different and possibly even more delicious: Bring game meat to your dining room table.
In addition to lamb, beef, pork, and poultry, numerous meat-centric wholesalers and retailers around the country also offer wild and farm-raised game meats. Game meats are usually categorized as the following:
- Winged game, such as quail, duck, and pheasant.
- Ground game, such as hare and rabbit.
- Big game, such as bison, venison, elk, and wild boar.
They're not only interesting from a culinary perspective but are uniquely sustainable proteins. Game meats are primarily raised on pasture, which is better for the planet, requiring fewer natural resources to raise. They provide lean, high-quality, nutrient-rich protein that's free of antibiotics and adds much-needed diversity to our diets.
This feature highlights some of our favorite game meats and how they can be used as alternatives to the common center-of-the-plate proteins such as poultry, pork, and beef.
Instead of Poultry, Try…
Pheasant is one of the most approachable game birds, perfect for those new to the world of game meats. Similar to the size of a chicken, a whole pheasant averages about 2 to 3 pounds. It has lean meat that is full of flavor, making it a great alternative to chicken and turkey. Its smaller size is perfect for smaller holiday celebrations or meals, when preparing a whole turkey may seem like overkill, but you want something more celebratory and special than chicken. Pheasant also makes incredible sausage, the perfect complement to traditional stuffing in place of traditional Italian sausage.
How to Prepare
Roast it whole or prepare the breast and legs separately. Because it is a lean meat, moisture needs to be added to the cooking process—it is prepared best using low heat to prevent it from drying out. For example, if oven or pan roasting (both dry heat methods), rub the bird with butter or oil and baste while roasting, similar to a whole turkey or pan-roasted chicken breasts. Alternatively, pheasant can be prepared in a quick braise, adding more moisture to the meat from the braising liquid.
Go with fruits such as apple, oranges, and prunes, sweet cooking wine or liquor like port or cognac, and fall spices and aromatics, such as sage and thyme.
Smaller than pheasant and often called a young pigeon, squab is a game bird usually only about 1 pound or less in size. Unlike pheasant, its meat throughout is a red dark meat (similar to duck or dark meat turkey), slightly gamy in flavor, and incredibly tender and delicious. One whole roasted bird is just right for a single-serving entrée, or several can be prepared for a small holiday feast.
How to Prepare
Squab is best prepared medium-rare to medium, similar to other red meats, and can be prepared in a variety of ways, including roasted, pan roasted, or grilled. There is only a small amount of meat in the legs (most is in the breasts), and because of its small size, it is typically prepared as a whole bird. Brushing with fat before grilling or basting while roasting is recommended to help prevent the lean meat from becoming dry, particularly if you are preparing it more well-done.
Fruit such as pears, apples, grapes, figs, and prunes; sweet vinegars such as balsamic vinegar or fig vinegar; and tender root vegetables such as baby turnips, beets, and carrots all pair nicely with squab.
As the smallest of the game birds on this list, quail is another great substitute for poultry. Its meat looks very similar to chicken but more intense and pronounced in flavor. Typically weighing just 4 to 6 ounces, one whole quail is just the right size for an appetizer or small entrée. Quail would also be perfect served family style among other plentiful sides. There are different breeds of quail, all relatively the same size with the exception of the Jumbo Brown Coturnix Quail, which is known for its meatiness compared to other breeds as it is nearly double the size of an average quail.
How to Prepare
Quail can be purchased whole or semi-boneless—both ideal for stuffing and roasting—resulting in a beautiful presentation. Whole quail can also be flavored with a short marinade and then spatchcocked and grilled, oven roasted, and even fried, while quail breasts or legs can be simply pan roasted.
Like other game birds, the meat is lean. While it should be cooked through until juices run clear, it cooks very quickly and can become dry if overcooked; basting or brushing with fat will help retain moisture. Because of their small size, quail is one of the easiest and fastest game birds to prepare, and it is also incredibly versatile.
Opt for winter citrus, grapes, tart dried fruit such as cranberries or goji berries, pomegranate; sweet cooking wine or liquor like port, sherry, or cognac; BBQ flavors, fall spices, cumin, coriander, honey, or maple.
Instead of Beef, Try…
For someone new to game meat, one of the easiest ways to get an introduction is by substituting a favorite beef dish with bison. Although very similar to cattle in its nature, farmed bison does not come with the same concerns around antibiotics (they're not routinely used); is a nutritious, sustainable substitute for beef (particularly when 100 percent grass fed); and has a unique earthy flavor with a subtly sweet finish that may convert you for good.
Bison steaks, tenderloin, short ribs, stew meat, and ground meat are all ideal for swapping in place of beef. At the holiday table, bison can take its place center stage in the form of a roast, stew, braise, or delicious grilled steak. Or it can be incorporated into elegant hors d'oeuvres—for example, braised bison short rib crostini or bison carpaccio.
How to Prepare
Bison should be prepared similarly to beef with different cooking methods according to the cut. It can be used ground or in whole cuts, which can be grilled, braised, and more.
Use earthy flavors such as mushrooms, root vegetables such as beets, turnips, parsnips, carrots, and rutabaga; caramelized onion and roasted garlic; savory herbs and spices such as rosemary, thyme, and black pepper, as well as parsley and cilantro.
Perhaps one of the more familiar game meats, venison refers to the meat from deer. Although hunting for deer is legal in certain areas and at certain times of the year, the venison available for purchase from commercial retailers is farm raised on commercial ranches. Historically, venison was known for its strong gamy flavor, but the venison from farm-raised animals is much less gamy than the meat from hunted animals due to their consistent diet. Its iron-rich red meat can be prepared in a variety of ways similar to beef and is extremely versatile. Unlike beef, it does not have fat marbled throughout and is extremely lean, which is important to keep in mind when preparing since it can get tough if overcooked.
How to Prepare
Venison is the perfect special occasion meat for a table centerpiece and nearly every cut of venison can be used as a swap for beef. For real holiday showstoppers, replace beef with venison in celebratory dishes like beef Wellington or osso buco or even a straightforward venison strip loin or roast in place of beef tenderloin or pot roast. For something more rustic, use venison stew meat and make a hunter's stew. Or use ground venison in a traditional meat pie. Note: Elk is often described interchangeably with venison; while they are not the same animal, they are both in the deer family, and elk can be used in place of venison in any recipe due to its similarities.
Fruits including blueberries, cherries, cranberries, pomegranate, and dates; hearty vegetables including winter squash and root vegetables as well as mushrooms; aromatics such as savory, thyme, sage, juniper berries, black pepper, and even cocoa powder all pair nicely with venison.
Instead of Pork, Try...
One of the wildest of the game meats, wild boar is one of the oldest species in existence, dating back to before the Ice Age. Native wild boar is found in various regions throughout the world and has been a predominant part of numerous global cuisines. In the U.S., the majority of wild boar is pasture raised, although some are still humanely trapped in the wild. Although it is an ancestor of the pig, its meat is much leaner and darker than pork and has a much sweeter flavor due to its wild diet of acorns, nuts, and natural forage.
How to Prepare
Similar to other game meats, wild boar is best cooked gently over low heat and, if using a dry heat method, not overcooked. Instead of a crown pork roast, make a crown wild boar rack. Instead of Christmas ham, try wild boar shoulder roast. Instead of pork tenderloin? You guessed it, swap with wild boar tenderloin. And for smaller gatherings, look for a wild boar mini roast that will feed three to four people, making it perfect for a meal for two (plus some bonus leftovers). Similar to venison and bison, wild boar can also be used in winter stews—opt for braising cuts like shoulder or stew meat for this preparation and cook low and slow.
Ingredients with robust flavors, such as cooked tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, root vegetables, red wine, and aromatics such as rosemary, sage, and thyme are all-natural pairings for wild boar.
Where to Buy
Game meat can sometimes be found at meat counters and specialty butchers. Check with your local farmers market as well. There are a variety of retailers selling game meats online that offer nationwide delivery.