Believe it or not, I tried my very first piece of game meat a few months ago—venison loin cooked in carbon crust, prepared by chef Massimo Bottura himself. While I found some similarities to beef, there was an indescribable quality that set it apart, both in taste and texture. An earthiness, a wildness, something dense and rich. A friend asked me about my dinner the next day—“it was gamey,” I replied with certainty. It was the only word I could think of, even though I couldn’t tell you what gamey tasted like, or even what it meant. However, I realized in that moment just how distinctive game is from meat you’d typically find at the grocery store.
To do some digging, I tapped chef Mike DeCamp of Jester Concepts restaurant group (which includes Minneapolis’s P.S. Steak) for his expertise. He grew up in Minnesota, and hunting for ducks and pheasant was a big part of his life—in addition to those two birds, venison is the other game meat he works with regularly. DeCamp gave us a few recipe ideas for working with game meat, as well as a “starter” meat for people (like me) who haven’t really eaten game before. Below, find some of his tips.
Pheasant is the most “gamey”…
From the three meats DeCamp previously mentioned, pheasant is the most gamey, he says, followed by venison and then duck. Here’s how he likes to prepare each one:
Pheasant: “When I cook pheasant I like to stew the breasts slowly in a ton of onions, thyme, and olive oil until they are just done,” he said. “Most of the time I like to mince all of that together with raw foie gras and fill in into a simple pasta. Also, pheasant thighs are great fried and can be treated like chicken wings—sauced however you like. The legs can be done well when braised, but mostly I use them for stock since they are filled with tendons, meaning there isn’t a lot of meat on them which makes it difficult to eat.”
Venison: "My favorite part of the venison is the back strap," DeCamp said. "I like to pan sear it in a very hot cast iron pan to get a nice crust or grill it over a fire made from hard wood. I love to sear it and then serve it with an agro dolce sauce which is basically an Italian sweet and sour sauce. I serve it with rapini and creamy polenta, just very simple."
Duck: "For the duck I like to roast it whole, glaze it with sorghum and serve it with seasonal roasted root vegetables and brussels sprouts."
But it’s also incredibly versatile
“I think that pheasant would be one of the easiest game meats to open the door for the uninitiated since it is the most similar to chicken,” he said. “ A close second would be squab. To me, it is the most meaty game bird. It’s versatile and takes on sauce wonderfully or can simple be seared and served on the rarer side.”
Game meats "are a lot more versatile then one might think. A good place to start is to pick a recipe you’re comfortable making and simply substitute in a game meat,” DeCamp said. “If it’s your first time cooking game and you’re entertaining, try making a small piece of meat ahead of time to get comfortable with it.”
Always use a thermometer
While you might be tempted to stick to a cooking time, DeCamp says a thermometer is a safer bet—some meats cook differently than others.
If you’re looking for a little recipe inspiration, DeCamp says he always enjoys cooking game with pasta. At the moment, he’s particularly into venison bolognese “as a twist on comfort food.” For summer, he’s been smoking a lot of meats, and testing out a venison barbecue brisket served with sides and white bread, Texas-style.