- Adapted from the public domain USDA article Focus on Food Safety of Rabbit
Fresh or frozen, rabbit meat is sold all year round. It can be used in most of the ways in which chicken is used.
Rabbits sold for food in the USA are North American cottontails, crosses between New Zealand and Belgian varieties, Chinese rabbits, or Scottish hares. The meat is fine grained and mild flavored. Like other lean meat, poultry, and fish, rabbit meat is a good source of high quality protein. Because the meat is so lean, it is possible to develop a syndrome known as "rabbit starvation" if rabbit is used exclusively as a food over time. In practice, rabbit starvation is highly unlikely to occur in modern society given the amount of dietary fat consumed by the average person.
Types of Rabbit Commonly Available
- Fryer or young rabbit — the terms "fryer" or "young rabbit" refer to a rabbit weighing not less than 1 ½ pounds and rarely more than 3 ½ pounds, and less than 12 weeks of age. The flesh is tender, fine grained, and a bright pearly pink color. These rabbits may be cooked in much the same way as young poultry.
- Roaster or mature rabbit — the terms "roaster" or "mature rabbit" refer to a mature rabbit of any weight, but usually over 4 pounds and over 8 months of age. The flesh is firm and coarse grained, and the muscle fiber is slightly darker in color and less tender. The fat may be more creamy in color than that of a fryer or young rabbit. The meat of larger rabbits may be tougher so the best methods of cooking are braising or stewing.
- Giblets--the liver and heart, see Organ Meat.
- Wild rabbit Has a slightly more gamey taste and is therefore cooked using a few different ingredients and techniques from the farmed rabbits.
In the United States, inspection of rabbit is voluntary. Under voluntary inspection, each rabbit and its internal organs are inspected for signs of disease. The "Inspected for Wholesomeness by USDA" mark of inspection ensures the rabbit is wholesome and free from disease. When a rabbit processor does not produce rabbit meat under FSIS voluntary inspection, they would be subject to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspection under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
Some states, however, permit the sale of rabbit only if it is inspected under their laws.
The FDA has jurisdiction over the shipment of rabbit meat in interstate commerce.
Rabbit in the US may be graded under the voluntary rabbit grading program performed by the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. It provides a national grading service based on official U.S. classes, standards, and grades for poultry.
Rabbit may be graded only if it has been inspected and passed by the FSIS, or inspected and passed by any other inspection system which is acceptable to the USDA, such as state inspection.
Consumer grades for rabbits are U.S. Grade A, U.S. Grade B, and U.S. Grade C.
Safe Storage Times
Take rabbit home immediately from the grocer and refrigerate at or below 40 °F. Use it within 2 days or freeze at 0 ° F. If kept frozen continuously, it will be safe indefinitely; however, quality will diminish over time. It is safe to freeze rabbit in its original packaging or repackage it for freezing. For best quality, use frozen whole rabbit within a year; pieces within 9 months.
There are three ways to safely defrost rabbit: in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave oven. Never defrost at room temperature.
- Refrigerator: It’s best to plan for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. Bone-in parts or whole rabbits may take a day or longer to thaw. Once thawed, rabbit may be stored in the refrigerator for 2 days before cooking. During this time, if you decide not to use the rabbit, you can safely refreeze it without cooking it.
- Cold Water: To defrost rabbit in cold water, do not remove the packaging. Be sure the package is airtight or put it into a leak-proof bag. Submerge the rabbit in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes so that it continues to thaw. Small packages may defrost in an hour or less; larger packages may take 2 to 3 hours. Plan to cook the rabbit immediately after thawing by the cold water method.
- Microwave oven: When defrosting rabbit in the microwave oven, plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some of the areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook.
- When roasting rabbit parts, set the oven temperature no lower than 325 °F. A 2-pound, cut-up rabbit should take approximately 1 hour to cook.
- A whole, 2- to 2 1/2-pound rabbit should take about 1 to 1 1/2 hours to roast. Stuffing it will add approximately 1/2 hour to the cooking time.
- Braising rabbit (cooking it in a small amount of liquid in a covered pan on the range or in the oven) also takes about 1 hour. Rabbit can be broiled about 15 minutes on each side.
- For safety, USDA recommends cooking rabbit to an internal temperature of at least 160 °F. The use of a food thermometer is recommended to make sure that your rabbit is safe to eat.
- It is safe to cook frozen rabbit in the oven or on the range or grill without defrosting it first, although the cooking time may be about 50% longer.
- Do not cook frozen rabbit in a slow cooker; thaw first. Cut whole rabbits into smaller pieces so heat can penetrate the meat more quickly.
Safe Handling of Leftovers
- Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours after cooking. Use within 3 to 4 days or freeze.
- Use frozen, cooked rabbit within 4 to 6 months for best quality.
- Reheat leftovers to 165 °F.