Get Your Game On
If the warmer weather has you itchin’ to start grillin’—but you’re worried about the fat and cholesterol in burgers and steaks—there’s good news. Bison, elk, venison, ostrich, and grass-fed (as well as grass-finished) beef offer the flavor you crave with a lot less of the bad stuff—in fact, they have half the fat of chicken. Plus these “wild” meats also pack lots of vitamins and minerals. “Game meats are produced on small farms and ranches, and because they aren’t mass-produced, they tend to be healthier and more flavorful,” says Chad Luethje, chef at Red Mountain Spa in St. George, Utah, where you’ll often find elk and bison on the menu. “These animals get their natural diet and don’t require huge doses of antibiotics or hormones.”
Raising these animals in a more humane, craftsman-like way produces another health benefit: “Animals that haven’t been fed properly and are angry or scared produce stress hormones,” says Kelly Morrow, RD, nutrition clinic coordinator at Bastyr University. “And our bodies respond to that stress when we eat the animal.” Here’s how to take advantage of these healthy meats this barbecue season.
More commonly known as buffalo, bison’s flavor is slightly sweet—the way beef used to taste before it was mass-produced, says Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association. And while bison feast on grass, grain, or a combination (see “The Grass Is Greener” below) like cattle do, buffalo meat is still a more nutritious option. Three ounces of buffalo meat provides 40 percent more protein than regular beef, as well as 32 percent of the daily recommended amount of zinc (important for a healthy immune system) and 42 percent of the antioxidant selenium.
Chew On This: Marinate 1/2-inch slices of bison in lime juice, garlic, salt, and pepper. Then grill and serve in fajitas with grilled peppers and onions.
Ranch-raised elk are allowed to for- age on grasses, and their diet may be supplemented with alfalfa or grains. Milder than bison, elk has a “full flavor without being too overpowering,” says Luethje. Elk is also lower in cholesterol than beef, bison, venison, and even chicken. And with 25 to 30 grams of protein but only 2 to 3 grams of fat per serving, elk is a veritable nutritional nirvana. Luethje recommends buying thin elk cuts and cooking them quickly to help retain moisture and keep the meat tender.
Chew On This: Marinate elk in pomegranate juice, chopped red onions, a handful of dried cherries or walnuts, and a little beef stock. Cook on the grill in a pan over low heat, until the sauce has reduced and thickened.
The flavor of this meat depends largely on whether or not the deer is wild, says Luethje. “Wild deer tend to graze very heavily on sagebrush, and their meat has a very gamey, sage-infused flavor,” he says. “Farm-raised deer are not dashing around, leaping over things, so they have a little more fat, and therefore a milder flavor than their wild cousins.” Of all the game meats, venison is the richest source of iron and vitamin B12, which are important, respectively, for getting adequate oxygen throughout the body and for a healthy nervous system.
Chew On This: Grill venison London broil–style by searing it over high heat and then slicing it on the bias. Don’t like strong meat flavors? Marinate venison in red wine with juniper berries, citrus, or any tart fruit before cooking it to help reduce the gaminess and infuse other flavors into the meat.
More tender than beef and leaner than bison, ostrich could easily be called “the other red meat”—as a flightless bird, the ostrich has a very small breast and therefore no white meat. It’s a great source of iron, and because ostriches resist most diseases, they’re usually raised naturally and free-range, says Dianna Westmoreland, a spokeswoman for the American Ostrich Association. The AOA’s Certified American Ostrich seal on a package indicates that the bird was raised without hormones or antibiotics and without animal by-products in its feed. People often describe the taste of ostrich as a cross between beef and turkey; the most common and tender cut is the filet, which comes from the thigh area.
Chew On This: Grill ostrich medallions medium rare over a medium-high flame with a little salt and pepper. If using a marinade, only let the medallions soak for a short time, as the meat absorbs flavor quickly and could easily become overpowered.
5 Tips for Cooking Game Meats
Don’t overcook. Because these meats are super lean, avoid cooking them beyond medium rare or they will become dry, tough, chewy, and bitter.
Preserve the meat’s juices. If you’re making burgers, never press them with a spatula. That just squeezes out what flavorful fat they do have.
Know your cuts. If you’re using a tender cut, cook it quickly over high heat—think grilling, sautéing, or broiling. Thicker cuts should be roasted at low heat.
Let roasts stand. Roasted meats should rest for 10 minutes before serving to allow the juices to recirculate.
Season freely. Game lends itself to stronger flavors—try seasoning any of these meats with bay leaf, juniper berries, fresh rosemary, or thyme.
The Grass Is Greener
Choosing meat from grass-fed animals makes good healthy sense, and here’s why:
It’s better for your health. Compared with feedlot meat, meat from grass-fed beef and bison has less total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories. It also has more vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and omega-3 fatty acids.
It’s better for the environment. When animals are raised in feedlots or cages, they deposit large amounts of manure in a small amount of space. To cut costs, the waste is dumped as close to the feedlot as possible. As a result, the surrounding soil is overloaded with nutrients, which can cause ground and water pollution. When animals are raised outdoors on pasture, their manure is spread over a wide area of land, making it a welcome source of organic fertilizer.
It’s better for the animals. A high-grain diet (read: starchy, low-fiber) can cause physical problems for animals designed to eat fibrous grasses, plants, and shrubs. When they are switched from pasture to grain, they can become afflicted with a number of disorders and need antibiotics as a result.
Ellen Jacobson is a freelance writer in Longmont, Colorado.