I started hunting whitetails in Indiana back in the 1980’s. While those corn and soybean fed deer made pretty tasty fare, they don’t compare to the savory goodness of a well cooked elk burger. I always end up with more elk burger than I can eat so I love giving it away to friends who appreciate it as much as I do. Several have told me my elk burger tastes better than any beef burger they have eaten. While any elk usually tastes pretty darned good, I have learned a lot about game meat and it’s proper care that has a big impact on meat quality. I addition, how you process your game into ground meat contributes greatly to the final product. I follow these steps to ensure what comes off my grill is a tender, juicy and sweet tasting elk burger. Even if you have a lot of experience handling and processing game meat, take a quick read. You might pick up a few tips !
1) Recover and Clean Your Animal as Quickly as Possible and Cool It Down.
Bacteria starts to form in meat quickly after an animal dies. The formation of bacteria and food remaining in the paunch and digestive tract will form gasses and cause the animal to begin to bloat immediately. These gasses and digestive tract fluids will begin to flavor the meat, expecially if the gut has been punctured.
Secondly, you must cool your animal down as quickly as possible. Improperly cooled meat does not just “spoil”. Meat that holds its heat becomes exudated; the result of a rapid postmortem pH decline while the muscle temperature is too high. This combination of low pH and high temperature adversely affects muscle proteins, reducing their ability to hold water. In addition to heat, stress levels prior to death are known to affect the incidence of exudation.Normally, calcium ions are used by the body to activate muscles. Meat which retains heat, or animals which have been stressed prior to death may release twice the amount of calcium ions post-mortem, which causes excessive muscle glycolysis, and the buildup of lactic acid. Lactic acid is normally removed from the tissue through respiration, so after death it accumulates in the postmortem muscle. This condition will result in drier, tougher meat as well as potentially impact the flavor. While there is a lot of theory out there regarding wounded, stressed animals and the effect of adrenaline on the flavor of game meat, it’s probably not correct. The total quantity of adrenaline present in an animal is minute and is not likely to be tasted in the meat. As a comparison, domesticated animals endure significant stresses during the butchering process as well. More likely, personal experiences of tough and gamey tasting meat thought to be a result of stress are due to poor handling, improper cooling and/or the buildup of lactic acids in the meat.
Blood also imparts flavor to game meat. Wild animals have far more blood per ounce of tissue than domestic animals. As blood cooks, it becomes bitter. Thats why overcooked calf liver, which is very bloody meat, becomes bitter and unpalatable and is recommended eaten medium rare. If you have ever ate well done elk steak, you probably are nodding your head in agreement right now. Draining as much blood from the carcass will reduce the amount of blood retained in the muscle.
Step 2 – Processing the meat.
Years ago, I took my first whitetail to a local butcher for processing. The young buck was properly handled in the field but I still recall the burger had a distinctly gamey flavor. I began to notice that the fat left in the frying pan after cooking the ground venison cooled to a white, chalky consistency. When I tasted it, it wasn’t sweet, it was very gamey. Leftover burgers in the fridge cooled with a covering of white, chalky fat and if ate cold, tasted horrible. After talking to more experienced deer hunters I learned that deer bones and fat impart gameiness to the meat. I began to process my own deer and saw an immediate improvement in taste and texture.