Photographs by Christopher Testani. Food Styling by Roscoe Betsill.
Chances are you have more ground game in your freezer than you know what to do with. Or maybe you’re new to the grinding game and hungry for the basics on how to get started. Either way, we’ve got you covered. Here are the tips and recipes to keep you busy, and full, all year.
Rule 1: Grinding Is a Project
Grinding game is always more work than you think it’s going to be. There’s the tedious, yet crucial, chore of carefully trimming the meat before you crank it through the grinder. Then you have to portion and vacuum-seal the meat. And just when you think you’re finished, you realize there’s a massive mess before you that needs to be cleaned, immediately. Here’s the thing, though: Grinding game is also a lot of fun—provided you approach it the right way. Think of it as a project—kind of like setting trail cams. When you grind game, you’re scouting meals for the season. This’ll be for burgers. I’ll use this batch for sausage. Hello, chili. Set aside a Saturday or Sunday when you can devote a couple of hours to grinding your game, and invite a buddy over to help. Also, a six-pack in the fridge never hurts. —C.K.
Rule 2: Build a Better Burger
The perfect venison burger starts with cold, coarse ground meat—about a quarter pound’s worth—formed into a loose patty. Don’t overwork the meat or press it too thin, or it’ll dry out. To prevent your patty from blowing up into a ball as it cooks, push your thumb about halfway into its middle. Grill the burger over a very hot fire. This’ll give you a better crust, which is where the rich flavor resides. If you want a little smoke, throw a handful of wood chips in with the coals. Cook the burger for 3 minutes, then flip once—and only once. Grill it for another 3 minutes to get a moist, medium-rare finish.
There’s a reason American cheese is the classic choice—it melts without turning greasy. And it’s delicious. Use two slices, laid on top of the burger after you flip it. If you insist on being different, melt a slice of Swiss over a handful of sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions placed atop the patty.
Skip the brioche, ciabatta, or other fancy bread, and stick with a sesame bun. Just make sure it’s not so big that it overhangs the burger. Toasted or not is up to you. I’m not going to get into that argument. Sauce is key. Amp up the flavor by spreading the bun with garlic mayo, Sriracha-spiked ketchup, or good yellow mustard.
The perfect burger is a monument to meat, so let the venison shine through. Too many toppings create a muddled mess that’s impossible to eat. As for veggies, think texture. Crisp lettuce, hamburger pickles, and onion add crunch, while juicy, ripe tomatoes can save a dry, overcooked burger. If you’re in the South, coleslaw is permitted, though I prefer to save that for the chili dogs. —D.D.
Rule 3: Reinvent a Classic
Wild Boar Scotch Eggs
The Scotch egg—a soft-boiled egg, wrapped in sausage, dipped in breadcrumbs, then fried—is a beautiful thing. Award-winning chef April Bloomfield, of the Spotted Pig and the Breslin in New York City, adapted her killer Scotch egg recipe for us to include ground wild boar instead of domestic pork. You can enjoy this dish for breakfast, but we suggest waiting till dinnertime because it pairs perfectly with a cold beer. —C.K.
Have a Ball Slice the Scotch eggs length-wise so the yolk can run a little bit and mix with the meat.
10 soft-boiled eggs (cooked for 7 minutes in boiling water), peeled
3 parts wild boar, cubed (about 2 lb.)
1 part domestic pork fatback, cubed (about 10 oz.)
1 recipe of sage paste (see below)
1⁄2 cup milk
1⁄2 cup breadcrumbs
21⁄2 Tbsp. kosher salt
3⁄4 oz. sage
1⁄2 tsp. sea salt
1⁄2 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Generous splash of milk
11⁄4 cup fine breadcrumbs
2 cups coarse breadcrumbs
1. Grind the wild boar and fatback through the grinder using the coarse grinding plate. Grind the mixture a second time with the fine plate.
2. Pulverize the sage with the salt and olive oil to create a paste.
3. Combine the milk and breadcrumbs for the sausage. Then hand-mix with the ground meat, sage paste, and salt until everything is evenly mixed.
4. Portion the sausage into 4-oz. balls. Using your hands, carefully flatten out one ball at a time into a pancake, making sure the thickness is even all around. Place a soft-boiled egg on top of the sausage and wrap it around the egg. Continue with the remaining eggs and refrigerate until they are cold.
5. Put the breading ingredients in separate bowls (mix the eggs and milk together to create an egg wash). Take each sausage-wrapped egg out of the refrigerator, and proceed with the following steps: Dredge the egg in flour, coat with an egg wash, and cover the egg with a layer of fine breadcrumbs. Repeat the egg wash and then coat a second time with a layer of coarse breadcrumbs.
6. Return each breaded egg to the refrigerator until you’re finished with all 10 eggs.
7. Heat the oil in a deep fryer to 350 degrees. Fry each egg for about 7 minutes, and let it rest for 1 minute. The yolk should be slightly runny and warm inside.
Rule 4: Buy a Good Grinder
Kind of like buying an expensive binocular, a high-quality motorized grinder will significantly enhance your experience, so get the best you can afford. Sharp blades and tight tolerances will ensure that your ground meat comes out of the plate in distinct ropes, rather than pink mush. If you can swing it, a commercial-grade grinder, like Cabela’s 1⁄2-hp model ($410; cabelas.com), is the way to go, but smaller, affordable models in the range of Weston’s #8 Heavy-Duty Meat Grinder ($130; westonsupply.com) work nearly as well. —D.D.
Rule 5: Be Clean
Processing and grinding meat creates ample opportunities for contamination, so when you grind at home everything needs to be spotless. Wash your hands, all utensils, and the work surface with hot, soapy water; follow up on the counter with a bleach- or citrus-based kitchen cleaner. Make sure your grinder gets special attention—before and after each use. Again, a hot, soapy scrub of the disassembled parts followed by a cold-water rinse washes away residual grease, fat, and any hardened meat you missed since the last use. A set of small brushes is great for cleaning grinder-plate holes, but a toothpick and blast of hot water also works. After they’ve dried, lightly coat the plates, blade, and auger with a food-grade lubricant to prevent rust, then wrap them in wax paper and store in a zip-seal bag. —D.D.
Rule 6: Flavor With Fat
Fat equals flavor. It also equals moistness and texture. How much fat to add and what kind comes down to personal preference, but consider 20 to 30 percent a good rule. Any more than that and you risk greasy, and unhealthy, ground game. Any less, and the meat will be dry and crumbly. Experiment with different types of fat until you find one you like. Bacon scraps and beef tallow work great, but my favorite is pork fat, cut from the shoulder. —D.D.
Rule 7: Explore New Cuisine
This recipe is from chef Jesse Griffiths, the author of one of my favorite cookbooks, Afield: A Chef’s Guide to Preparing and Cooking Wild Game and Fish (welcomebooks.com/afield). Moussaka is a Greek casserole made by layering spiced meat, roasted eggplants, béchamel sauce, and cheese. In other words: perfect comfort food. —C.K.
Winter Layer Venison moussaka—with its spices and rich flavors—is a great cold-weather meal.
2 lb. ground venison
2⁄3 cup olive oil, divided
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 medium onions, chopped
6 garlic cloves, chopped
1 Tbsp. dried oregano
4 Tbsp. tomato paste
28-oz. can of crushed tomatoes
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
4 medium eggplants, cut into 1⁄2-inch slices
8 Tbsp. (1 stick) unsalted butter
3⁄4 cup all-purpose flour
5 cups milk
8 egg yolks
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
3⁄4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1⁄2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1. Heat 3 Tbsp. olive oil in a stockpot or Dutch oven over high heat and add the ground venison. Brown the venison very well, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Lower the heat to medium, season with salt and pepper, and add the onions, garlic, oregano, and tomato paste. Cook until the onions are tender, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes and parsley and cook, stirring often, for 10 minutes more. Set aside to cool slightly. Adjust the seasoning.
2. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Toss the eggplant in the remaining olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Lay the slices out in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast until tender, about 30 minutes. Set aside to cool.
3. Make the béchamel: Melt the butter in a pot over medium-low heat, then add the flour, whisking constantly. Cook this roux for a couple of minutes, then add about 1 cup of the milk, whisking the sauce smooth until it thickens. Add 2 more cups of milk; continue to whisk, allowing the béchamel to thicken. Add the remaining milk, and cook at a gentle bubble until it is quite thick, 10 to 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside to cool. Whisk the sauce occasionally to keep it smooth.
4. Reduce the oven to 350 degrees. Put the venison mixture in the bottom of a high-sided 9×12-inch baking pan. Layer the eggplant over the venison. Add the egg yolks to the béchamel and whisk again to combine. Pour the béchamel over the eggplant. Sprinkle the cinnamon, nutmeg, and Parmesan on top and bake for about 45 minutes. Serves 8
Rule 8: Get a Cold Start
Keeping your meat and your grinder cold results in a better-tasting end product. Rather than tearing at soft, warm meat, the blades cut the firm, nearly frozen fibers for a cleaner texture. And when you’re adding fat, it prevents the mixture from separating—known in the meat world as breaking. Before you grind, lay out cut cubes onto a sheet pan and place it and the grinder’s throat, augers, and blades in the freezer for a half hour. —D.D.
Rule 9: Grind the Good Stuff
While the grind is a great place for all those little bits of meat that pile up during the butchering process, don’t discount grinding bigger cuts for better burgers. Blade roasts from the shoulders and the rear quarter’s bottom rounds are ideal candidates because they’re tough, yet full of flavor. But for a real treat, consider grinding some of the backstrap, such as that flat piece that sits just above the front quarters. —D.D.
Rule 10: Mix Things Up
Pat LaFrieda wrote the book on meat, literally. Meat: Everything You Need to Know (Atria Books), a collection of recipes and butchering tips, was released this year. I met him at a food festival where he was tending a 1,000-pound steer that he’d cooked—whole. The CEO of one of the country’s finest meatpacking companies, LaFrieda is also a hunter—which explains the bounty of game in his recipe. —C.K.
Ingredients 1 lb. ground venison
1 lb. ground wild boar
1 lb. ground wild turkey
1 lb. ground elk
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups finely chopped yellow onion
4 cloves garlic, minced
11⁄2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1 cup grated pecorino romano cheese
2 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1⁄2 cup Italian-style breadcrumbs
4 tsp. kosher salt
2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
4 large eggs
4 tsp. paprika
3⁄4 cup tomato sauce
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat until it slides easily in the pan, about 2 minutes. Add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion is tender and light golden brown, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
2. In a medium bowl, combine the mozzarella, pecorino, and parsley.
3. Put each game meat in a separate bowl. To each bowl, add 2 Tbsp. breadcrumbs, 1 tsp. salt, 1⁄2 tsp. pepper, and 1 egg. Divide the sautéed onion and garlic among the bowls. Add 1 tsp. paprika to each bowl. Use your hands to gently combine each meat with the other ingredients.
4. Put the venison into a 9×5-inch perforated loaf pan and pat it down with a rubber spatula to create a flat surface. Sprinkle on one-third of the parsley-cheese mixture. Put the wild boar on top of this. Smooth it out in the same way, and top it with another third of the parsley-cheese mixture. Repeat with the wild turkey, top it with the remaining third, and finish with a layer of the elk.
5. Set the loaf pan on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour. Remove the meatloaf from the oven, then spoon on the tomato sauce, spreading it over the surface of the loaf. Return it to the oven and bake until a meat thermometer inserted into the center registers 145 degrees, about 30 minutes.
6. Take the meatloaf out of the oven. Let the loaf rest in the pan for at least 15 minutes. Remove it to a cutting board and slice. Serves 8
Rule 11: Eat Like an Animal
The best wild-game dinner I’ve ever made wasn’t cooked at all. The meat was raw. The meal was venison tartare—a classic French dish of ground or chopped raw beef mixed with a fresh egg yolk and herbs. It sounds gross, but trust me: It is exceptional. (And, yes, it is safe to eat, provided you freeze the venison first.) There’s something wildly pleasurable about eating raw game. You taste the essence of the animal. —C.K.
Rule 12: Test for Seasoning
When seasoning sausage or working up the perfect burger blend, take a moment to taste the meat before you stuff it into casings or package it for the freezer. Press a chunk a little smaller than a golf ball into a patty and sauté it in olive oil. The flavors of ground game will intensify overnight, but this brief taste test will give you a good idea of where you stand spicewise. Add salt, pepper, or spices in small doses and be sure to mix the meat again thoroughly before trying a second sample. —D.D.