As you're putting away the venison you just got back from the butcher, or better yet a tub of tasty cuts you and your family packaged after your last hunt, you might find yourself facing a scary situation. There, at the bottom of the freezer, sits a blood-stained wrapper with no discernible markings. You pick it up and slowly unwrap it only to discover -the horror !-a lumpy piece of meat scarred white with freezer burn. If, like me, you hate the thought of wasting food, especially that which you've hunted yourself, this might be enough to make you scream. I call this the freezer freak-out.
It's easy to end up with good meat that looks like it has gone bad. It can happen when you're in hurry and simply toss a bag of pheasant breasts into the icebox, or, during the meat-processing party, your bratty little brother gets put in charge of labeling and skips a few packages. Fact is, it happens to the best of us. Though I take the extra time to package my wild game with care, I encounter a freezer freak-out a few times a year. Luckily, you can learn from my experience and turn that sorry-looking meat into a delicious meal.
You might be asking yourself “how can something in the freezer get burned?” Technically, meat that's exposed to cold, dry air for an extended period of time isn't “burned.” It's actually dehydrated and oxidized, as the water molecules within the meat find their way to the surface where they form ice crystals. Even if there aren't crystals visible, freezer burn is still obvious. You'll notice it right away by the patchy whitish-gray areas on an otherwise fine-looking cut of meat.
Freezer-burned meat isn't dangerous to eat, but it is kind of unpalatable. The burned portion will have a dull taste and dry, leathery texture-kind of like mushy, bland beef jerky. However, in all but the most extreme cases you can still save a cut that has been burned. Simply take a sharp knife and shave off any areas that are discolored and discard them. Then you can proceed with cooking as planned and your friends and family will be none the wiser.
Another hazard in the hunter's freezer is mystery meat. When going through the freezer you might find a something labeled simply “deer.” Or maybe the package is blank, leaving you to speculate just what's inside.
These chunks of meat, whether they are roasts, shanks or just random scraps, are among my favorite. Sure, a deer steak is delicious, but a well-cooked lesser cut is often more flavorful, and offers up a ton of options in the kitchen. The key to cooking them so they're tasty and tender is through braising, a cooking method that entails low temperatures and long cooking times. It's easily accomplished in a Crock-Pot or slow cooker, though I do my braising with a Dutch oven set in the stove. Either way, after some initial work, it's a no-hassle way to make dinner great.
Braised Mystery Meat
2 pounds mystery meat, cut into fist-sized pieces
¼ cup flour
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup red wine vinegar
2-3 cups beef broth
1 cup sliced mushrooms
Preheat oven to 300°. Heat Dutch oven or deep cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. When the pot is warm, add about 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. Pat meat with paper towels to dry. Liberally season it with salt and dust with flour. When oil is just to the point of smoking, carefully add the meat, in batches if necessary. Cook for 3-6 minutes, turning every few minutes so each side gets nice and brown. Transfer meat to plate and lower heat to medium. Dump onion, celery and garlic into the Dutch oven and stir. Cook until onions turn translucent (about 3 to 5 minutes). Deglaze the pot with a few glugs of vinegar, scraping loose any tasty brown bits from the bottom. Simmer for a few minutes until the liquid is reduced by half. Place meat back in the Dutch oven and pour in broth until it reaches about halfway up the meat. (At this point, you can transfer everything into a Crock-Pot set on low and cook for several hours until the meat is falling apart.) Cover and cook in the oven for 3 hours, adding mushrooms and lots of fresh, cracked black pepper for the last 30-45 minutes.
The Sausage Solution
Making homemade sausage is another great way to use game meat from the freezer. It can be as easy or complicated as you want, but at its most basic sausage is simply meat, fat and spices. Other than something to grind the meat, you don't even need any special equipment and can probably get by with just an inexpensive handheld grinder unless you're going to get serious about meat processing. (If you don't have a grinder, ask a local butcher if he can grind your meat for you for a small fee.) As for stuffing the sausage, you can improvise using a funnel or make fresh, uncured sausage in loose form and use it in soups or mixed with pasta.
The best way to get started making is with pre-packaged sausage seasoning kit. I've had great success with the summer sausage and breakfast sausage kits from Hi-Mountain (www.himtnjerky.com/) and really enjoy the Italian blend from Cabela's Smokehouse series (www.cabelas.com). It's delicious made into meatballs for spaghetti or on homemade pizza. Some other great sausage-making sources on the Web include The Sausage Maker (www.sausagemaker.com) and wild-game chef Hank Shaw's blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook (www.honest-food.net).