For many hunters, the thought of a nice backstrap sizzling on the grill or the smell of venison chili on a cold winter day beats out just about any store-bought beef you can get. Game meat may be tough to cook—and, well, gamey—but with a little bit of experience and the right spices, it can offer something new to your taste buds that farm-raised meat won’t. Not to mention that it came from an animal that you harvested yourself. Of course that’s also one of the downsides. Since many of the tasty critters on this list are game animals protected by state or federal regulatory authority, they usually cannot be sold. If you want to sample one, it’s likely that you’ll have to hunt one yourself.
Who’s up for a new adventure?
Here is our list of the 10 North American game meats that you need to try in your lifetime. For brevity’s sake, we have narrowed it to just big game animals. In that limited category, many of our readers can already guess what’s on the list. Set your taste buds to salivate.
Arguably one of the harder selections on this list to cook, many hunters still list the pronghorn as one of their favorite eats. Rich and lean, pronghorn is very easy to ruin and can be virtually inedible. When cooked just right, this American antelope can be tender with a mild, sweet taste.
The American bison have a sad history of being nearly hunted into extinction based almost purely on how good they tasted. Thankfully, one of the strongest conservation efforts in recent memory has restored the population to nearly half a million strong, meaning you can chow down on some bison burger guilt-free. Bison meat is comparable to beef, due to some hybridization between bison and domestic cattle, but generally is lighter and sweeter. Bison meat also has the advantage of being lower in fat and calories.
3. Mountain sheep
Mountain sheep such as bighorn or dall are among the hardest to obtain on this list, but also are among the most delicious. If you are incredibly lucky and manage to score a tag, you might find that wild sheep tastes a bit like mutton, with great texture and a mild flavor. Make sure to read up before cooking it however. It may be your only chance to prepare that dish.
Hunters who harvest moose may be surprised just how close it tastes to grass-fed beef, especially if the animal was recently on a leafy diet. As they get later into the year and switch over to a more woody diet, the meat becomes noticeably gamier, but is still pliable.
5. Wild hog
Wild hogs are a bit of a mixed bag. If you harvest an old boar, you can expect an uphill battle in the kitchen—as well as a stench that is almost too much to ignore. Most of the time, however, these invasive swine are great in just about every way that farm-raised pork can be cooked. And remember, for every feral pig you harvest and eat, that’s one less causing problems for your state.
One of the most popular choices on this list, elk is often less gamey than deer and sweeter than beef. If you’re to ask many hunters, they will tell you that elk is one of the few meats that they can stomach for two meals a day and seven days a week. Elk also happens to be the favorite big game meat of Steven Rinella of MeatEater fame.
“Honestly, they don’t make a bad-tasting elk,” Rinella wrote on his blog. “Every one of those critters is as perfect as the next. If I had to pick one meat for the rest of my life, this would be it.”
Odds are that if you’re reading this, you’ve had venison sometime in your life. Whether it’s mule or whitetail, deer are the most popular big game animals in North America, and as a result, the most commonly consumed. There are a lot of factors to having a great piece of venison, and work begins right in the field. Poor field care or failure to cool quickly could affect the meat’s flavor, resulting in a tough, gamey backstrap.
Described by some as a cross between beef and venison, caribou meat is roughly comparable to moose. When cooked correctly, caribou is mildly flavored and very nutritious. Like the other animals on this list, time of harvest plays a huge role in the taste of the meat, although cows are usually less gamey than bulls year-round.
9. Black bear
Hunters who have tasted bear while tell you one of two things: it either tastes like the bottom of a well-worn boot dragged through foul-tasting mud, or that you have to slow cook it. As with all predators, bears don’t get nearly enough love on the dinner table, but can be quite palatable if prepared correctly. However, it will probably be chewy no matter what you do to it.
10. Mountain lion
We never said anything about this list necessarily being about the most tasty meats, simply ones you should experience. Mountain lion, well, doesn’t taste like chicken. According to people who have had a chance to sample it, the closest equivalent would be a cross between bear and pork loin. Despite his expert taste buds, Steven Rinella was once fooled into eating several pulled cougar sandwiches before he was told it wasn’t pork, so that’s something we can believe.
What are your favorites? Did we miss any? Let us know below.