If you never tried the wild game meat, you might have at least heard that it tastes gamey.
What gamey meat means requires a complex explanation, but in short, it can be two things: either a) an unfamiliar taste compared to what you are used to, or b) the meat is gone bad.
What Does Gamey Meat Mean?
If we go by definition, a dictionary would tell you that gamey (or gamy) is “having the flavor of game, especially having the flavor of game near tainting; smelly.”
Which in laic therms would be correct, but most hunters would disagree that this is all it means.
Gamey taste means a stronger and more defined taste, not necessarily a game meat taste. A lot of farmed animals would have a “gamey taste” as well.
Some say that gamey meat tastes strongly of cooked liver without the liver taste. Others compare it to the “wild” taste of nature, which can be loosely translated as tasting whatever the animal was eating before it became a meal.
A gamey taste is more apparent for people used to mild-tasting meats like corn-fed chickens, pigs, and cattle that end up on the supermarket shelf.
The mild taste of those animals became a standard, and many types of meat that taste stronger or simply different are considered gamey.
However, this is not entirely a bad thing unless the cause of the gamey taste is spoiled meat.
Why is Meat Called Gamey?
Over time, the “gamey taste” got a sort of negative meaning.
Most people would call the meat gamey from the lack of other descriptions. It must be gamey if they find that meat tastes stronger than grain-fed animals they buy from the store.
Some of them would also refuse to taste any wild game meat of prejudice – wild meat must be gamey and, therefore, bad.
However, as hunters, we know it is not entirely true. Most animals, like hares, rabbits, or small game birds like quail, taste mild compared to some bigger species, but the differences from the most commonly consumed meats play the primary role here.
Gamey taste is also used to describe mutton, goat meat, or even rabbit. The reason is that those animals, even though farmed, don’t have the same diet as other, milder-tasting animals most people are used to.
It all comes down to your umami, which is your sense of savory food alongside sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. It mostly describes cooked meats, but also fish, shellfish, and some vegetables, like tomatoes or spinach.
Suppose your savoriness is set on low from eating only mild-tasting meats. In that case, you can definitely taste the difference between your average store meats and wild game or other, more defined-tasting animals.
What Type of Meat Tastes Gamey?
Technically, any meat that has a different taste than mild grain-fed farmed meat can be called gamey. It pertains mostly to game animals like deer, elk, grouse, wild turkey, alligator, etc.
However, the gamey taste can also be attributed to grass-fed cows, sheep, goats, and farmed birds other than chickens.
They are not necessarily wild animals, as they are farmed for food. The gamey taste of lamb or mutton comes from the grass they eat. The same goes for goats or even birds. They usually eat what they can find, especially when free-ranged.
One can also use “gamey” to describe the taste of fatty meats or meats that have gone bad.
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Why Does Meat Taste Gamey
There are many reasons why meat can have a “gamey taste.” The main reason would be the animals’ diets. The saying “you are what you eat” becomes very true in this matter.
Another thing is the fat tissue – the pungent aromas and tastes are usually fat-soluble, and that’s where they live.
1. Gamey Taste from Animal Diet
Most wild game doesn’t have access to grain. Although deer, ducks, and hogs may nibble on it occasionally, they also consume various other foods in the wild, like acorns, shrubs, and various grasses.
It all contributes to the taste they have once on the table. Most upland birds, like grouse, would have a much stronger taste than chicken because they rarely eat farmed grain. Instead, they consume berries and forbs.
Whatever the animal consumes is turned into nutrients and stored under the skin and in the fat tissue, which brings us to another reason why the meat may taste gamey.
2. Gamey Taste from Fat Tissue
A lot of nutrients are fat-soluble, which means they dissolve in fat.
That, in turn, means the fat would have the most potent smell and taste. That’s true even with your grass-fed cattle and lamb.
A sea duck eating mostly clams would have a terrible tasting fat. However, taking the fat off properly before cooking would turn the meat mild. A similar situation is with other fatty animals.
Once the fat tissue is gone (or most of it), the meat suddenly tastes better – it’s more edible.
There are some exceptions. Many people wouldn’t touch scoter or northern shoveler without removing all the fat, but they gorge themselves in blueberry-fed bear fat, often using it for cooking.
3. Gamey Taste from Active Animals
Some game animals, like deer, elk, or moose, have very little fat. They are some of the leanest meats one can find in the wild, yet they still taste stronger.
It is more than likely due to their age and what they do every day to survive.
Because most farmed animals don’t need to move a lot, their muscles are more relaxed, making meat mushier. On the other hand, wildlife must constantly be on the move to find food and water or escape predators.
Their muscles will be taut and packed with nutrients due to exercise and high blood flow.
Wildlife will also be older when harvested than an average chicken or cow. Older age also contributes to a stronger and more defined taste.
4. Gamey Taste from Aging the Meat
Have you ever tried aged beef? It smells and tastes stronger than fresh steak.
Dry-aged meat would always taste stronger and more intense the older it gets. It all has to do with the lean part of the cut shrinking faster, leaving a more fatty part as it retains more water.
Considering that fat is where more flavor resides, it makes the meat gamier in taste.
5. Gamey Taste from Processing
Probably the most important part when it comes to eating anything is the way it was processed – from growing through harvesting to the table.
The gamey taste can be a result of improper handling of the animal after dispatch. It is the most common reason when it comes to game animals.
During warmer weather, the game animal should be quartered and cooled down as soon as possible to prevent the meat from going bad.
The longer it takes to cool down the meat, the stronger the taste; after a certain point, the meat is spoiled and not fit for consumption.
The heat is the culprit. Bacteria can double their amount every 20 minutes at 70F, so the 101F of your deer is a perfect stage for growth, spoiling your meat fast.
The process is not like purposely aging your meat. The dry aging happens in a controlled setting, under cool and dry conditions, whereas dispatched deer is hot (often from stress), and the muscles inside the body are moist. Those are perfect conditions for bacterial growth.
6. Gamey Taste from Bad Meat
The thing people fear the most is the gamey taste of spoiled meat.
Although many people unfamiliar with game animal meat would claim there is something wrong with the meat, even if it’s perfectly good, there is a chance that the meat tastes strong and intense because it’s gone bad.
The first tell of spoiled meat is the smell – sour and bitter. It’s nothing like the fresh and earthy smell you get from a good cut of venison. You can recognize it straight away. The most common visual effect of spoiled meat is a green tinge.
Sp spoiled meat will taste awful, and the gamey taste may as well turn into a horrid rotten one.
Another thing is the hormones. Although some people may get lucky and get a mature buck or boar without the strong taste, most aren’t as lucky, and the testosterone-filled meat would have a much more potent taste.
It’s still edible, but mostly to those used to wild food.
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Can You Get Rid of Gamey Taste?
There are a few tricks that can help you get rid of the gamey taste from your meat to a certain degree.
The most commonly known is to soak the meat in milk. The mild pH of milk and its gentle lactic acid neutralizes the gamey taste. It’s not only an old trick. It’s a real one.
The protein in milk is fat-soluble (lipophilic) and works great at getting rid of most of the strong flavors from the meat.
However, this method doesn’t work on all types of meat (wouldn’t try it on a duck).
Salt can tenderize your meat and make the juices move, making the meat absorb a lot of water, ultimately changing the structure and, with it, the taste.
There are two types of brine – wet and dry. Each can be good for different types of meat. I.e., dry brine goes better with birds, and wet brine with larger animals.
Soaking in red wine is good for larger cuts and something you intend to cook whole, like venison roast or pulled hog.
The wine should be boiled before soaking to get rid of the alcohol. Otherwise, you risk adding a strange metallic taste to your dish.
It’s got nothing to do with soaking but more with spices and grinding.
The solution doesn’t work for 100% of cases, but if you have a strong-tasting grass-fed beef or sagey-tasting piece of venison, you can always turn them into sausages.
Spices and thermal processing can hide most of the strong tastes.
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One can experience a gamey taste eating anything from venison to lamb to farmed quail.
The gamey taste means the meat tastes stronger than what you are used to, and it’s not necessarily a negative thing.
Apart from eating meat that’s gone bad, the gamey taste can be an adventure in your mouth. There is a lot you can try with an open mind.