By Liz Lynch
When I shot my first deer, I decided to bring it to a wild game processor to have everything but the backstraps and tenderloins turned into different types of sausages. It was, unfortunately, a disappointing experience, and I resolved to be more hands-on with processing everything I hunted; after all, knowing where my food came from and being more self-sufficient were my main reasons for taking up hunting in the first place.
Getting started with DIY processing and cooking is daunting. You might find yourself wondering what gear you actually need to stock your kitchen with, and how big of a hole it’s going to burn in your wallet. Here’s a list of hardware – besides freezer space, somewhere cool to hang meat, and standard utensils – that I find myself using the most often. They’re listed in order of “essentialness.” I hope it helps make your journey towards 100% DIY wild game cooking a little bit easier.
When it comes to wild game, choosing the right “weapons” in the kitchen is almost as critical as choosing the right weapon in the field… almost. Investing wisely in good cookware doesn’t have to break the bank, but choosing the right items will make a big difference in DIY processing and cooking.
Good kitchen knife: I was skeptical of the value of a good kitchen knife until my hunting mentor – who is a great chef in his own right – let me use his Shun santoku. It makes a world of difference. If you only want to use one, I recommend a chef’s knife; I find them to be the most versatile. Hand wash and dry your knife after each use to get more mileage out of it.
Large cutting board: to keep your knives in good shape, choose a cutting board made of a natural material like bamboo or wood. If you only want to buy one, choose one with grooves on one side for carving meat, and consider making the other side a veggies-only zone. Like your knives, being sure to hand wash and quickly dry your cutting board will help it last longer.
Meat thermometer: learning to cook meat according to internal temperatures, rather than relying on an appliance’s settings, can help prevent overcooking (venison steaks and burgers, game birds) and undercooking (bear meat, anything with added pork). I use a digital thermometer that covers a wide temperature range.
Food storage system: while vacuum sealers make a lot of packaging easy, they don’t always work well for large, irregular, or “pokey” things. At the very least, large rolls of plastic wrap, freezer paper, freezer tape, and a sharpie are a must. For everything else, I’m a fan of Mason jars, but be sure to read up on the food safety side of canning.
Cast iron pan: if you only want one, I recommend a chicken fryer. These are about 10” wide and at least 3” deep, and sometimes come with a lid. They’re lighter than a Dutch oven, and also lack the feet that can make stovetop and oven use of a Dutch oven cumbersome. Keep it well seasoned and – you guessed it – always hand wash and dry immediately.
Cast iron is versatile, too. I love to make skillet cornbread in my pellet grill with mesquite; it goes well with huckleberry swirl butter and venison chili.
Large enamelware pot: while they’re more expensive than a stock pot and more “analog” than an Instant Pot, lidded enamelware pots are highly versatile. I’ve used mine for making small batches of stock, curries, tagines, stews… just about anything that requires you to go “low and slow.” They’re suitable for use in the oven or on the stovetop.
Non-reactive mixing bowl: Pyrex bowls are also highly versatile. They’re easy to sanitize, are fine in the freezer or the oven, and can be used for everything from bread-making to making culinary ash. Just make sure to not subject it to thermal shock; sudden temperature changes will cause Pyrex to break.
Non-reactive bowls, like this Pyrex dish, are versatile and easy to keep sanitized. In the case of this venison gravlax, I measured my salt by volume, not weight—but for many cured meat recipes, a scale is a necessary investment.
Butcher’s saw: SawzAlls are fantastic for making quick work of bone-in cuts, but they’re louder, bulkier, and more expensive than their non-electric counterparts: butcher’s saws. Butcher saws are easiest to use when meat is very cold, if not frozen.
Grinder: having a grinder, especially one with sausage-making attachments, opens a whole realm of possibility for processing game. Like a butcher saw, grinders are best used while meat (or fat) is very cold. If you decide to buy a grinder, I recommend also buying a vacuum sealer; flat packets are space efficient and thaw easily.
Kitchen scale: a scale is essential for anything involving curing, because you measure the salt by weight, not volume. A scale is also nice for calculating weights for mixing fat into ground venison. I like my digital one that can switch between ounces and grams.
Fine mesh strainer: strainers are the key to success for stock, and can play a role in making bitters, making some kinds of syrups, sifting flour, and making simple, fresh cheeses like ricotta. Be sure to invest in some cheesecloth, too.
Wood-fired grill (or planks, at least): I was lucky enough to get my Traeger through a raffle. I use it lots of different ways: as a smoker, an oven, or a regular old grill. There’s something magical about the combination of the flavors of wood and wild game. However, they’re expensive. If a smoker or pellet grill is out of the question, consider Wildwood Grilling’s planks and wraps, which come in a variety of “flavors” and can be used in the oven.
Slow cooker: a slow cooker is a magical thing for a wild game cook. You can make everything from pulled “pork of the woods” to hot sauce in it, and having the freedom to set it and forget it is great for busy people on the go, and for primal cuts that require a longer cook time than their domestic counterparts.