Most hunters understand one way to delicious, moist wild game meat is to use a good brine to infuse the meat with additional flavor.
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 key word here. There’s nothing worse than overcooked meat on your dinner table.
The salt in a brine helps penetrate the meat with the flavor of the herbs and spices while helping it retain moisture. This is done through osmosis. Some of this moisture is lost during the cooking process, but it still makes a big difference. Moister meat 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. The juiciness is a result of that salt adding moisture to the meat rather than merely retaining it — a key factor for lean proteins.
Brining and marinating are different techniques. Marinating can break down proteins in the meat and add flavor while tenderzing. In other words, the purpose of a brine is juiciness, whereas the purpose of a marinade is to tenderize the meat.
Soaking wild game meat in Italian dressing in an attempt to make it tender 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 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. After a short time, if the protein is in an 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.
But About That Brining Technique
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. A downside is it requires a container large enough for all of the meat to be completely submerged.
There are two steps to a successful wet brine: first, bring the solution to a boil and stir to dissolve the sugar and salt. 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; the brine will raise the temperature of the meat and increase bacterial activity. Yuck.
Once the brine is completely cool, submerge the meat and store the entire container in the refrigerator for 12-48 hours. Let your meat rest after removing it from the brining solution to help retain the moisture it before cooking. Pellegrini says this comes in handy with white meats and ducks with fishy skin.
How About a Second Method for Brining?
With a dry brine it’s exactly as it sounds: you’re using the dry ingredients from the solution but no 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 with skin-on upland birds or waterfowl because it can result in crispy, delicious skin. Rub the salt, sugar and other seasonings directly on 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. 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:”
Hog Brine Recipe
(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