Meat Week: Rules for Grinding Wild Game (And Mom's Meatloaf Recipe)

For some reason, in our modern, food-obsessive world, ground meat gets a bad rap--or maybe no rap would be a better assessment. Even offal, those bits that used to end up on the cutting-room floor, garner high praise, while what goes into the grinder is relegated to relative obscurity. There are no New York Times reviews of great loose-meat sandwich shops; hipsters rarely eat hamburgers (or wouldn't admit to it if they did), and meatloaf? Well, sorry, ma, but that's just not cool anymore.

Yet it's mom's Meatloaf, grandma's spaghetti and meatballs, and even dad's chili that we were all raised on, which maybe explains why a food culture obsessed with what's next would all but ignore what was first. They say familiarity breeds contempt, though maybe it's more accurate in this case to say that burger breeds boredom--unless you want to pay $25 for a hamburger at the hottest restaurant in town.

I say we shift the paradigm by putting the patty back on a pedestal. For foodies, especially those smart enough to eat within their means, there is no better everyday meat than wild-game burger, whether it is from elk, antelope, moose, or most likely, whitetail deer. No meat sold at the farmer's market is more local, humanely raised, drug free, and genetically unmodified than that from a wild animal cleanly killed by the hunter. And if you process it yourself, you know exactly what you're getting. No mystery meat or pink slime scares when it's done D.I.Y. If you do decide to do the grinding at home, there are a few things to note when processing wild game into ground meat. Here are few tips to get the best from your burger.

1. Buy The Best Grinder You Can Afford--and Keep it Sharp
An underpowered grinder, or one with a dull knife, won't grind meat cleanly. If the meat coming from the grinder plate looks like it's been extruded rather than cut, make sure the back of the plate is free from sinew and the retaining ring is on tight.

2. You Get Out What You Put In
Who knows what ground meat from the grocer contains. When you do it yourself, you control the final product. Make sure you clean your meat well and trim with a judicious, yet keen, hand. Trim sinew, yellow fat, silverskin, and all bloodshot meat before it goes into the grinder.

3. Keep Things Cold
You'll get a much better grind with less smear if your meat, and the grinder, is cold. Put cubed meat in the freezer for at least 30 minutes until it's firm, but not hard, to the touch. Also, throw the grinder neck, auger, blades, and plate in there as well.

4. Don't Forget Fat
Beef has fat built right in, but wild game burger needs a boost. You can use several things to up the fat content (and flavor) depending on what the final product is going to be. Bacon trimmings (sold in boxed form often called Ends and Pieces) add a distinctive flavor to burgers and meat loaf. Beef tallow and pork butt are both available from good butchers and make great fat additives. You can control the ratio of meat to fat, but I like somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 percent. Experiment until you find what's right for you.

5. Or, Cut The Fat
Some folks want to cut the fat altogether and that's fine, too. Just realize that a 100-percent wild-game burger can be very dry and will fall apart when cooked. To avoid crumbly burger, consider adding some type of moisture as you form your patties (same goes for meatloaf). This can be anything from eggs to bread crumbs soaked in milk. Last summer, Wild Chef readers turned in a bunch of great ideas for better burgers.

Mom's Meat Loaf

This is the recipe for Rilla Draper's meatloaf. It doesn't have any fancy ingredients or require special techniques. It's a simple American fare that sustained a hungry farmer and three bratty kids and, I suspect, pretty close to nearly every mother's recipe from the 1970s. I still enjoy it today, though with ground venison rather than beef. I also typically double the recipe so there is plenty left over for what is really the best way to eat meatloaf--in a sandwich the next day slathered with mayo and ketchup between two slices of white bread. It's hard to get more American than that.

Ingredients
- 1 lb. ground meat
- 8 oz. can tomato sauce
- 1 egg, beaten
- 16 to 20 Saltine cracker crumbs
- 1/2 cup of dry oatmeal
- 1/2 onion, chopped
- ¼ cup ketchup

Directions:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, mix ground meat with tomato sauce and beaten egg.

2. Crush the Saltines in a gallon-sized zip-top bag and mix in the dry oatmeal and chopped onion.

3. Add the dry ingredients to the meat-egg mixture and, using your hands, blend thoroughly.

4. Form meat mixture into a loaf pan. Liberally cover top with ketchup. Bake for 45 min to 1 hour.