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Game meat is safe with correct prep, cooking
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- The thrill may be in the hunt, but unless the game is kept clean and processed well, the meat won’t bring pleasure to the palate.
Mississippi has a rich diversity of game animals for hunters to bag. As a result, many freezers across the state are full of venison, turkey, duck, squirrel and more, and recipes for how to prepare them are often are passed down through families.
Bronson Strickland, Mississippi State University Extension Service wildlife biologist and associate professor in the MSU Forest and Wildlife Research Center, said the biggest priority is to keep game meat clean.
“It’s very easy to get stomach and fecal content on the meat, so be very cautious when field dressing,” Strickland said. “When you have access to clean water, be sure to wash the carcass thoroughly.”
The next priority is to chill the harvested animal to a temperature below 40 degrees as soon as possible.
“Field dress big game like deer as soon as possible, then get the carcass to a cooler or processor,” he said.
Brent Fountain, Extension human nutrition and food safety specialist, said hunters have plenty of time to chill carcasses on days when temperatures are about 40 degrees or lower. However, if the temperature is above 50 degrees, the meat must be chilled within three to four hours.
“Wild animals are exposed to a lot of microorganisms by being in an uncontrolled environment,” Fountain said. “E. coli and salmonella are two bacteria of primary concern. Viruses such as norovirus and Hepatitis A can also be present, and wild game can also be infected with parasites.”
Cooking the meat correctly prevents these from becoming problems.
“For wild game, the recommendation is to reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees, and I’ve seen the recommendation to be even higher than that because of the risk,” he said. “That’s counterproductive in an animal that is really lean, because you will have a tougher piece of meat. To compensate, some people turn their venison into jerky, combine venison with fat products that allow it to be cooked at a higher temperature or choose moist cooking methods.”
Fountain said game birds, such as turkeys and pheasants, should be cooked to an internal temperature as high as 180 degrees, but meat from these animals is typically not as tough.
Game animals have a tougher meat than commercially produced animals because of the conditions under which they live.
“Game animals are much more active, and by being active, they have a much higher muscle-to-fat ratio,” Fountain said. “They’re a lot leaner, and you have to compensate for that as you cook them.”
In addition to using moist cooking methods, such as slow cooking or stews, game meat benefits from marinating or mechanical tenderizing. Aging the meat also tenderizes it, and some game processing facilities offer this service.
While some people like the distinct flavor of wild game, others prefer to minimize it. Fountain said the trick is to remove as much fat from the meat as possible.
“Game animals do have some fat, and this fat tends to become rancid quicker than commercially bought meat,” he said. “A lot of the gamey flavor is in the fat, and the longer the fat stays on the meat, the more gamey that meat seems to be.”
Soaking game meat in a saltwater brine can minimize the game flavor and enhance the overall flavor.