Turning an Elk into the Best Elk Burger in the World !

imagesI 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.

Commerical butcher shops simply cant spend a lot of time on your game animal. Trim meat is cut off the animal in large pieces with fat, sinew, tendons and silver connective tissue attached. This flavors the meat and impacts the tenderness of the burger.
Hanging your meat at the proper temperature will generally improve flavor while breaking down the proteins and tissues for a more tender cut of meat. While I believe this helps, I usually don’t have the ability to provide the consistent 34-37 degree temperature required for proper aging. On older bull elk, I have found that most of the meat is best ground anyway. Ground meat provides a lot of uses, so hanging has less value for me. After skinning the animal or quarters, I immediately process the carcass for preparation for grinding. . I first remove all hair, debris and blood shot meat. Next, as I cut each muscle group from the bone, I remove all tendons, linings, arteries and fat. Some times this entails cutting the muscle groups into smaller pieces to ensure all of the connective tissue is removed. I have some cheap white plastic tubs I bought at Wal-Mart to put the pieces into, which work great. Generally it takes me about four hours to reduce four elk quarters and backstraps into chunks of pure red, clean meat and a few steaks. The steaks I vaccum pack at home, the balance I take in my tubs to the butcher.
Grinding the Meat
Buzz and Patti Jones are the owners of Yellowstone Meat Processers here in Bozeman. Buzz is the head butcher and has processed thousands of game animals over the years. He provided me with some excellent advice for producing the ultimate elk burger.
While trying to figure out how much fat to add to my elk, Buzz reminded me that game meat has much less internal fat in the  lean tissue than domestic animals. Therefore, deer or elk ground with 10% fat added is still considerably leaner than store bought 90% lean beef. You need a certain amount of fat just to keep the burger together. A healthy option is to add olive or canola oil to lean ground elk. While arguably healthier, I prefer to add pork and beef trim to my ground elk to enhance the flavor and ensure a juicy burger. YMP uses only top, choice grade trim for grinding with your game meat. Buzz recommends adding 9 % pork trim and 9% beef trim. The trim that is added is 40% red meat and 60% fat, so the net added fat is about 11 %. Buzz likes to say that pork fat adds “sizzle” to the burger. Pork fat is also lower in saturated fats than beef fat.  If your thinking that 18% added trim and 11% fat sounds excessive, let me say that when I cook the burger in a pan for chili, there is very little fat in the pan to drain.  When figuring out how much trim to add, you need to figure the proper ratio out with your butcher considering the percentage of fat in the trim they use.
YMP will grind your elk and vaccum pack it for around $. 80 – $1.25 per pound depending on how much pork or beef trim meat you add. Since vaccum seal bags alone will cost me $.25-$.50 per lb, I consider that a great deal. Vaccum sealing your burger keeps air from the meat and extends the freezer life. I have taken vaccum packed elk burger from the deep freezer after three years and its still bright red when thawed and fine in flavor when prepared.
Cooking Your Burger.
I like to grill my elk burgers for the best flavor. I start by putting a pound of elk burger in a mixing bowl and adding a teaspon of black pepper, garlic powder, and about 1/2 teaspoon of Lawry’s seasoned salt. A little onion powder works too if you have it. I cook my burgers to medium rare or medum, leaving at least a little pink in the middle. Start with high heat to sear the meat and then slow cook until reaching desired doneness.
Well I hoped you learned something or picked up a few pointers from my steps to the perfect elk burger ! Enjoy !



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