Game are wild animals and birds. Farm-raised game are originally wild species of animals and birds that have been raised for sale. Large native game animals living in North America include antelope, buffalo, bear, caribou, deer, elk, moose, reindeer, and wild boar. Elsewhere in the world, even rarer varieties eaten by humans are camel, elephant, kangaroo, wild goats, wild sheep, zebra, and other species.
Small game animals include alligator, rabbit, squirrel, beaver, muskrat, opossum, raccoon, armadillo, porcupine, and other species.
Game birds include grouse, guineafowl, partridge, squab (young pigeon), quail, pheasant, wild ducks, wild geese, wild turkey, and other species. Rock Cornish hens -- thought by many consumers to be game birds -- are actually young domesticated chickens.
In culinary terms, venison can be meat from deer, elk, moose, caribou, antelope, and pronghorn. However, when this meat is offered for sale, the name of the specific animal normally is specified on the package label.
Bison (buffalo) is native to North America. Once about 60 million in number, bison were hunted almost to extinction by the 1890’s. Currently there are more than 150,000 animals being raised across North America.
Musk-ox is a heavy-set, shaggy-coated wild ox that lives in northern North America, the Arctic islands, and Greenland. The meat tastes similar to buffalo.
Collared Peccary (javelina) is a hoofed animal native to parts of Mexico, South America, and the southwest U.S. A substitute is fresh pork.
Rabbits sold for consumption are usually either crosses between New Zealand and Belgian varieties, Chinese rabbits, or Scottish hares.
Wild boar, along with feral (wild) hogs, are found in 23 states in the U.S. and are estimated to number over 2 million. Like our domestic swine, these animals are not native to North America, but were originally brought over from other continents. Originally domesticated and then released into the wild, these animals are now hybrids.
Wild Ducks – The Chinese were the first to raise wild ducks domestically for food. Today’s domestic wild ducks are descendants of either the Muscovy or Mallard species. America’s Long Island ducks are offspring of Peking ducks (a variety of Mallard) brought from China in the late 1800’s. A young duck or duckling (usually under 8 weeks of age) has dark, tender meat and weighs about 3 1/2 to 5 pounds. A mature duck is usually over 6 months of age and has tougher meat.
Goose – Geese were farm-raised in ancient Egypt, China, and India. Today’s goose weighs between 5 and 18 pounds. A young bird of either sex ("goose" is the female of the species; "gander," the male) has tender meat, while a mature goose of either sex has tougher meat.
Guineafowl – This relative of the chicken and partridge, sometimes called a guinea hen or African pheasant, was thought to originate in Guinea, West Africa. A young guineafowl, about 11 weeks old, has tender meat, while a mature bird has tougher meat. Female guinea fowl are more tender than males. The meat is light red and slightly dry with a mild gamey flavor. Due to their small size – about 2 to 3 pounds, including giblets – guinea fowl are usually sold whole.
Partridge – There are no native partridge species in the United States. Most partridge in the market are from European or African varieties. The Grey partridge, a European species, was imported from Hungary and raised in England. Found as far away as the Middle East, this variety is sometimes called Hungarian partridge. Chukar is a partridge species from India.
Pheasant - Originally from Asia, the female of this medium-size game bird (weighing about 3 pounds) has more tender, plump, and juicy meat than the male, which weighs about 5 pounds. Young birds can be roasted, but older birds need moist heat because their flesh is drier and leaner.
Quail – American quail are known regionally by various names: Bobwhite, partridge, and quail (blue, California, mountain and Montezuma). American quail nest on the ground and are not related to the European quail of the partridge family. A ready-to-cook quail weighs about 3 to 7 ounces, including the giblets. Due to their small size, they are usually roasted and served whole. The meat is dark, but mild flavored.
Squab, Pigeon or Dove – This species originated in the Middle East and Asia, and is one of the oldest birds known to man. A squab is a young, immature pigeon about 4 weeks old. Because it is too young to fly, the meat is very tender. Squab usually weigh about 12 to 16 ounces, including giblets, and have dark, delicately flavored meat. They are usually stuffed whole and roasted. A pigeon that has been allowed to mature and has tougher meat than a squab.
Wild Turkeys -- Turkey is one of North America’s native birds. The name "turkey" was originally applied to an African bird, now known as the guineafowl, which was believed to have originated in Turkey. When the Europeans came upon the American turkey, they thought it was the same bird as the African guinea fowl, and so gave it the name turkey, although the two species are quite distinct. Compared to their domestic counterparts, wild turkeys are leaner, less meaty, not as tender, and have a stronger flavor.
Because their diets and activity levels are not the same as that of domestic animals and poultry, the meat of farm-raised game animals has a different flavor – stronger than domesticated species and milder than wild game. The factors that determine the meat's quality include the age of the animal (younger animals are more tender), the animal's diet, and the time of year the animal was harvested. (The best is in the fall, after a plentiful spring and summer feeding.)
Equally important is how the animal was handled in the field. Hunters must be absolutely certain of their targets before shooting and should make every effort to get the animal down as quickly and as painlessly as possible. Once confirmed dead, the animal should be eviscerated within an hour of harvest, and the meat refrigerated within a few hours. Meat is damaged (and sometimes ruined) if it is not dressed, transported, and chilled properly.
In general, wild game is less tender than meat from domestic animals because the wild animals get more exercise and have less fat. Any fat is generally bad tasting and should be removed. For maximum tenderness, most game meat should be cooked slowly and not overdone. It can be cooked with moist heat by braising or with dry heat by roasting. Ways to keep game moist include basting, larding, or barding.
Are game "red" or "white" meat?
Game birds are poultry and considered "white" meat. Because they are birds of flight, however, the breast meat is darker than domestic chicken and turkey (which stand a lot, but do little, if any, flying). This is because more oxygen is needed by muscles doing work, and the oxygen is delivered to those muscles by the red cells in the blood.
All game animals are "red" meat. One of the proteins in meat, myoglobin, holds the oxygen in the muscle, and gives the meat a darker color.
General cooking guidelines
The tenderness of a particular cut of game is similar to the corresponding cut of domestically-raised meat or poultry. All game tends to be leaner than that of domesticated animals, which have been bred for tenderness and fat marbling. Overcooking can toughen game. You can use moist heat, basting, and larding or barding (inserting slivers of fat or wrapping in bacon) to help keep the meat tender during cooking. Fast searing over high heat can also work for smaller cuts, such as tenderloin medallions or rib chops.