What is “Gamey”?

I hear this word tossed around frequently and I wanted to explore it for some people who may have the wrong impression.

First, the word “gamey” is loaded.  It basically means the meat has an off-flavor, but by calling it gamey it becomes tied to wild game.  This is bullshit.  You see, it’s all in how the animal is butchered.  If I wanted to, I could make a piece of cow taste gamey as all hell, which is not the easiest feat since cows are generally bred to have pretty much no actual flavor, but I’ll explain later.

Like I said, it’s all in how the meat is butchered.  Hang the animal for a week in perfect conditions if you want, this won’t affect the flavor (although if done properly it will have a drastic effect on the texture).  Deer, moose, and elk are not cows and pigs, and therefore should not be butchered as if they were.  Unlike those domesticated critters, the venison does not have good tasting fat.  In fact, the fat tastes funky as hell and it’s not meant to be eaten.

A good comparison is lamb.  Lamb fat has a strong flavor, almost earthy.  Personally, I love this flavor, but I understand why some people don’t since it’s just on the tasty side of funky.  Venison fat is even more strongly flavored than that.

Most good butchers know to remove as much as they can and they do a fine job.  However, they get inundated by wild game all at the same time and can’t possibly spend as much time and attention on the meat as a knowledgeable person only doing a few for personal consumption, specifically on the ground meat.  The steaks are usually final trimmed just before cooking.

The bottom line is to limit the white flecking in the meat.  If you see it, remove it.  The white is one of two things:  either fat or tough, chewy tendons.  Both have bad flavors and one contributes a texture that no one likes, so get rid of it.

All wrapped up in shiny white bits

All wrapped up in shiny white bits

The piece of meat above is cut straight off a deer and is destined for the grinder.  You can see some of the thicker tendons have been removed already, but plenty of white is still there and needs to be removed.  This is easy to accomplish, but it adds time to the process which is why people generally just toss this chunk into the grinder without the extra step.

eeek...i'm naked!

Eeek…I’m naked!

The next picture is the same piece of meat pretty much ready for the grinder.  After this I would cube it up, trim off any other little bits of white, and feed it to my deer-O-matic 5000.  The above step took around 2 minutes, at the most.  It doesn’t sound like much but it will add up to around a half hour over the whole animal, which is an excellent investment if you ask me. My wife and I have done this for several years now and it takes us 30 minutes total per animal to go from the large de-boned chunks of meat straight off the carcass to finished, ground deliciousness.

Since deer has  little intra-muscular fat, the finished product is very nearly totally deep red. Deer meat does not marble, as cows do.  It doesn’t have, and shouldn’t have, the characteristic white splotches that you find in ground beef.  Yes, this is why deer meat is so lean.

Om nom nom nom!

Om nom nom nom!

You can see a small amount of white in there because no one is perfect (and we butchered four deer that day), but as long as it is almost completely absent you won’t have any problems.  After shooting our deer in the woods, we remove the fancy meats (tenderloin and backstrap) and then de-bone the rest and freeze it.  Once hunting season draws to a close we pull it all out and finish the processing.

The other culprit of off-flavors is far more sinister, and much worse tasting, than fat.  The meat has various lymph nodes all over the place, just like you do.  They are important in proper immune system functioning. Consider them to be military bases for your body to send troops out of to fight an infection.  Some are easy to find and live inside the fat just on the top of the meat, so they get trimmed off normally.  Others can be better at hiding…

You sneaky bastard!

You sneaky bastard!

See the gray looking circle shrouded in fat but hidden under a cap of meat?  Yeah, that one little marble sized thing, if allowed to go through the grinder and mix with the rest of the meat, will funkify a whole batch.  This one was hiding just inside the front shoulder, essentially in an armpit.

lymph nodes are not good.  Ever.

I said I could make cow taste funky, this is how.  Include a few lymph nodes.

These are different than scent glands, which are just under the skin of a deer in certain spots and they exude funky oils into the hairs which allow the deer to rub their scent on various things to mark territory.  Some folks remove those glands (especially the tarsal glands on the hind legs) before even field dressing the animal, but I never mess with them. They are like little grease bombs and anyone who has ever worked on a car knows that once you get a small bit of grease on you, it spreads….everywhere.  It’s extra tricky in this situation since you can’t actually see the grease.  Cutting off a scent gland greatly increases your chances of getting that oily funk on the meat. Just leave those tufts of discolored hair alone and discard them along with the rest of the carcass.  If you like a musky, deep forest smell, take a strong whiff….

Some believe older deer taste worse.  This is simply not true.  The meat from an older animal can certainly be more chewy and tough, but a marinade, or even letting it sit on a rack in the fridge for a few days before cooking, can solve that problem.  The reason this is a common belief is because older deer tend to have more fat.  With more fat it becomes more time consuming to remove it all and corners tend to be cut during processing with more bad tasting white stuff making it into the final product.

A quick word about flavor:
Venison, like most wild game, has not been domesticated.  They eat a varied diet that depends on season and can be greatly different from year to year depending on the growing conditions of any given year.  Flavor is good.  Deer meat naturally has a rich, meaty flavor.  This is not gamey.  This is the opposite of gamey.  When you remove the funky stuff from the meat, you allow the true delicious flavor of the animal to shine through.  Here in the southern half of Missouri, our deer eat primarily acorns, hickory nuts, and other forest goodness.  In my opinion they are the best tasting deer anyone will ever find.  Acorn fed meat tastes delicious, just ask the Spaniards that make Jamon Iberico.  The deer in the northern half of the state eat lots of corn and lack the richness in the meat.  Some of them taste more like lean beef, which is to say they don’t taste like anything at all.  Flavor is good.  Off-flavors are bad.

I would love to start a campaign to stop using the word gamey entirely, but I feel it’s probably too ingrained now.  Instead, just try to remember that gamey doesn’t really have much to do with wild-game, but is instead a butchering error.  Blame the person with the knife, not the delicious animal.

Speaking of animals, you know what two hound dogs do while over 100 pounds of meat is sitting on large trays for hours in the kitchen?  Pretty much just this:

Drop something? Drop something? Drop something? Drop something? Drop something? Drop something? Drop something? Drop something? Drop something? Drop something?

Drop something? Drop something? Drop something? Drop something? Drop something? Drop something? Drop something? Drop something? Drop something? Drop something?


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1 Response to What is “Gamey”?

  1. jthomasnagle says:

    Excellent. That’s very similar to the way I butcher. I’m also a firm believer in a reasonably quick field dress and cool down.

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