Making Your Game Meat More Tender: The most common mistake

tender game meat

Long, moist cooking almost always makes falling-apart tenderness. It pays to be patient.

We all know what it looks like. There’s even a rural legend about it: a freshly killed deer loaded into the trunk of a car that turns into a block of stone on the way home. And is impossible to unload—until it ‘softens up’ again in a couple of days.

pheasant with rigor mortis

I killed this pheasant one fairly moderate October afternoon, and by the time I rolled under the next fence, it was in total rigor. About 30 minutes total. And, yes, it’s lying on my flat, outstretched palm.

keeping wild game meat tender

A frigid day on the Missouri River. So cold our host had removed the outside thermometer. He just didn’t want to know. To keep this handsome guy prime for the table, we transported him home, quartered, with no ice, in a big cooler. He had plenty of room.

It’s called rigor mortis. From Alaskan moose to tiny doves, no matter what you use to dispatch it, how well-placed the shot, how far you are from home. It may be loosey-goosey while taking the trophy photo, but that will change pretty soon after death. Here’s how it works:

Shortly after the animal is dead, it begins to go into rigor mortis. How soon depends on ambient air temperature, but it starts at the neck and ends at the toes. How soon the animal comes out of rigor also depends on air temperature. The warmer the weather, the faster it happens, but at minimum, count on 24-36 hours to come out of rigor.

This is important for tender game meat because if you put that animal in the freezer before it’s gone out of rigor, the meat will be tougher than if you wait just a few hours longer. Same thing if you’re hunting in frigid weather. So rule 1 for not making your animal more tough to chew than when he/she was on her own two feet is to not let it freeze before rigor has gone out.

Rule #2 for tender game meat?

It’s simple physics: Rigor is the contraction (and shortening) of the muscles. Leave the meat attached to the bone and

spaghetti with tender venison meatballs

We bought a 1/2 horsepower meat grinder many years ago from Cabela’s. It makes fast work of tougher meat whether you’re grinding it for meatballs (Slice of the Wild), or Italian sausage (Sausage Season). It’s also lighter than the higher horsepower models–and has proven very durable at our house.

that attachment will force the meat to un-contract. If that connection has been severed, there’s nothing to force the muscles to stretch out again. When I took a small bull moose years ago, we quartered it to walk it back to the truck, leaving the meat connected to the bones. That works. Yes he was a small bull, and was naturally tender, but we didn’t mess that up. When he came out of rigor, he was just as tender as when he hit the ground.

But that’s not always possible.

My friend Bill took a big bull moose years ago about 10 miles up a walk-in-only trail. He was young and strong, but was also alone and needed to bone the moose to get it out. But he took the time to quarter it first, and arrange a makeshift platform over a creek, in the shade, with a bunch of fallen limbs. Then he waited until rigor was out before boning the meat.

If you possibly can leave the meat on the bones until the animal has gone out of rigor, you have a much better chance of having a freezer full of tender meat. If that’s just impossible, there’s always the burger pile.

In short:

Don’t let Mother Nature freeze the animal before it’s out of rigor. (That’s the other reason to have 100 quart coolers in your hunting vehicle. They’ll keep the animal from freezing solid.)

Don’t butcher and freeze it before the animal is out of rigor.


0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *