Roast haunch of venison. Wild boar ribs. Elk. Moose. Pheasant. These meats are the stuff of legendary medieval feasts, conjuring visions of hunting parties returning victorious, large roasts seared blood rare and served in barbaric splendor, then washed down with copious amounts of wine. Today, these meats are also usually used in hearty preparations, featuring in barbecues, stews, roasts, burgers, and sausages, and the usual beverage of choice is beer. A far cry from the science-lab techniques and artful platings of modern cuisine, which usually relies on such pedigreed proteins as Berkshire pork, Bresse chicken, and Wagyu.
But another look at game meats shows their potential compatibility with that mainstay of molecular gastronomy – the sous vide water bath. Game is, after all, usually lean and can be tough and dry. Traditional remedies involve hanging (aging) the meat to improve its tenderness and adding fat by larding. These methods have their downsides, though: Aging adds its own flavors to the meat, and not everyone finds the taste of aged meat agreeable. Larding with bacon or ham negates one of the health advantages of using game.
Sous vide is the perfect technique for solving such problems: cooking in a sealed bag immersed in water at a precise temperature allows the low temperature to preserve moisture, and the long cooking time to tenderize the meat. Another problem that sous vide conveniently addresses is gaminess, which can be difficult for cooks to temper using conventional cooking. The long cooking times of sous vide, however, allow for really good penetration of whatever flavoring agents the cook places in the bag along with the meat.
Some tips for cooking game sous vide:
Get Good Meat
Using sous vide with game meats has its own challenges though, not least of which is the unpredictable flavor of wild game. Anyone who talks to a range of people who’ve tasted wild game will see a wide range of preferred meats, with sometimes contradictory descriptions of meat from the same species. This is because a number of factors can have a large effect on the taste of wild game: the sex of the animal, the forage it was feeding on, its age on slaughter, the season when the animal was slaughtered, how much the animal ran, how fast it died, how cleanly the carcass was dressed, how long it was aged, and the conditions it was aged in will all affect the taste and texture of the meat.
For example, the meat of a full-grown boar taken in rutting season, which was chased for some time before being taken down, then dressed carelessly and aged for too long under less than perfect conditions, will most probably be edible only to the most adventurous palates. Meanwhile the meat from a young doe taken with a single clean shot while at rest, which was then dressed and frozen quickly, will probably be able to please even the pickiest eaters when served with only minimal seasoning. What all this means to the home cook is that sourcing your meat is especially important with wild game and is the first step to creating a great meal.
Taste, Taste, Taste
Tasting the unseasoned meat is also important before finalizing your recipe for marinade and seasonings: slice off a piece of raw, unseasoned meat and sauté with a neutral-tasting oil so you can gauge the level of funk, and then adjust your seasoning plan accordingly. Doing a taste test of the cooked recipe is also good if you have the time and it’s a special meal.
Don’t Overdo the Aromatics
A note for the sous vide newbies though: with sous vide, any seasoning you put in the bag goes a long way, and even something as innocent-seeming as a sprig of rosemary can easily overpower all other flavors when it’s had 24 hours or more to let its natural oils seep into the meat. This means that even a strong gamy flavor isn’t license to throw in a kitchen sink’s worth of herbs into the bag along with your roast.
Go for Rare
Set your sous vide cooker to 131F for venison and similar meats. How long depends on how tough the cut is and how tender you want it. Cooking times can range from about 4 to 24 hours, all the way to 72 hours. More detailed cooking times are available at Douglas Baldwin’s Site.
Maillard is Golden
Once you’ve finished cooking your game sous vide, you need to do one more step since while sous vide done right will result in tender and juicy meat, straight out of the sous vide bag your future culinary masterpiece will resemble nothing so much as a gray hunk of boiled protein, and its texture and doneness will be uniform throughout. What we need next, then, is to introduce the high temperatures that initiate the Maillard reaction that creates a beautiful brown crust and all the flavors associated with it.
Luckily, options for doing this abound, ranging from a short stay in a very hot oven to a pan sear with some high-smoke-point oil, to that other favorite of the space-age cook: the blowtorch. Another option for adding texture is a quick dunk in the deep fryer, and for hard-core molecular gastronomists, nuggets or chunks of game are excellent when covered with the kind of light batter you can make with an espuma maker and a cartridge of N2O.
Game is not the easiest choice for beginning sous vide enthusiasts, but for those who’re willing to try, it promises bold flavors to accompany the tender, moist meat that is the hallmark of sous vide cooking.
Brandon Peters is an entrepreneur, writer, and foodie. He loves to experiment with different ingredients and cooking techniques.