Most hunters understand that the key to delicious, moist wild game that isn’t too gamey is a good brine. (Especially if you’re wanting to introduce non-hunters to this free-range delicacy.) Brining is an old-fashioned technique that requires soaking the meat in a flavorful saltwater solution to enhance the taste and help it retain moisture. Juicy is the keyword here. There’s nothing worse than investing a great deal of your time and resources into a hunt to end up with an overcooked piece of leather on your dinner table.
When meat soaks in a brine, the solution is slowly drawn into the meat. Of course, some of this moisture is lost during the cooking process, but it still makes a big difference. More liquid on the inside results in a juicier cut once cooked.
In her book, “Girl Hunter: Revolutionizing the Way We Eat, One Hunt at a Time,” Georgia Pellegrini says two tablespoons of salt (table salt is best) to four cups of cold water is the proper ratio for a successful brine. You can brine for a few hours or overnight. Just remember, the longer it soaks, the more tender it’ll be.
Note that, according to “Cook’s Illustrated,” brining works faster than simply salting your game, and the juiciness is a result of that salt adding moisture to the meat rather than merely retaining it (a key factor for lean proteins).
It’s important to remember that brining and marinades are two very different techniques. According to Pellegrini, “Brining does not break down the proteins in the meat the way that marinating does. Instead, through osmosis, it carries salt and sugar inside the cell walls of the meat, which causes the proteins to unravel, interact with one another and form a matrix that traps moisture inside the meat.”
In other words, the purpose of a brine is juiciness, whereas the purpose of a marinade is to tenderize the meat.
However, that effort for soaking your game in Italian dressing — something hunters and non-hunters alike are guilty of — to make it more tender and delectable may be for naught. A study conducted by Fine Cooking magazine reports that while they certainly add flavor, acidic marinades may actually make the meat tougher.
“When these proteins are exposed to an acidic marinade, the bonds break and the proteins unwind. Almost immediately, one unwound protein runs into another unwound protein and they bond together into a loose mesh. (This is the same thing that happens when proteins are exposed to heat.)
At first, water molecules are attached to and trapped within this protein mesh, so the tissue remains juicy and tender. But after a short time, if the protein is in a very acidic marinade, the protein bonds tighten, water is squeezed out, and the tissue becomes tough.”
According to Fine Cooking, dairy products are the only marinades that truly tenderize. Hunters are, in general, advocates of this technique and often use milk or buttermilk to marinate tough game meat. You can also treat it like a brine and let meat like poultry soak in it, salt and pepper for a few hours before baking, grilling, frying, roasting or — every hunter’s favorite — smoking it.
Now back to the brine. There are a few different methods on brining. The first is a wet brine, which is typically a liquid solution consisting of salt, sugar, water and an assortment of spices and aromatics — probably what you think of when you hear the word, “brine.” The only downside to this technique is that it requires a container that is large enough for all of the meat to be completely submerged in the mixture.
There are two steps to a successful wet brine: First, you must bring the solution to a boil and stir so that the salt and sugar dissolve. Then, and this is the important part, be patient and let it cool completely. Placing raw poultry in a lukewarm liquid is a major food safety no-no as the brine will raise the temperature of the meat to the point where it welcomes bacterial activity. Yuck. So, once the brine is completely cool, submerge the game in the solution and store the entire container in the refrigerator anywhere from 12 hours to two days. It’s wise to let your meat rest after removing it from the brining solution to let the moisture retreat back into it before cooking. Pellegrini says this comes in handy with white meats and ducks with fishy skin.
The second method is dry brining, which is essentially just the dry ingredients from the wet brine sans the water. According to Bon Appétit, “A dry brine does wonders for poultry, and is also a fine choice for off-the-cuff weeknight cooking.”
Dry brines are a good options when working with poultry or waterfowl where you leave the skin on because it can result in crispy, delicious skin. Just rub the salt, sugar and other seasonings directly to the skin and let sit for a few hours. Bon Appétit recommends keeping the meat refrigerated for the majority of the time it’s brining, but let it come to room temperature at least 30 minutes before roasting or cooking. Make sure to rinse off the dry ingredients and pat dry thoroughly before cooking.
Hank Shaw of “Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook” has a ton of awesome recipes that require brining the game beforehand, like this one and this one. Here’s one of our favorites from Georgia Pellegrini’s book, “Girl Hunter:”
(Good for 2 to 3 pounds of hog backstrap, chops or tenderloin; make sure all of the meat is covered in brine.)
4 cups water
1/8 cup brown sugar
1/8 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup kosher salt
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
2 teaspoons crushed black pepper
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1/8 cup white wine vinegar
- Combine all the ingredients in a large pot and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and let cool.
- Add the meat and submerge, using a plate or other weight to keep it under water.
- The optimum soaking time for portioned chops is 5 hours. Unportioned chops still on a rack can be refrigerated in the brine for 24 hours. The meat should be patted dry and allowed to rest for several hours and up to 24 hours in the refrigerator before cooking.
Try with: javelina, hog
Featured image: iStock