When it comes to potentially eating adventurous animal proteins, many diners are scared off by a notorious, but hard-to-describe 'gamey' quality inherent in any meat not raised in the global food industrial complex. What is it about venison, duck and rabbit that tastes gamey and unsettling to so many, while beef, pork and chicken are deemed fit for daily consumption by the masses?
What does gamey even taste like, and how does some meat get that way? We talked to two chefs to find out.
Isaac Toups, chef-owner of Toups’ Meatery in New Orleans, says gamey gets a bad rap. "I have a point of contention with ‘gamey’ that I’ve been fighting my whole life. I don’t think that gamey is a bad word at all. I grew up eating wild animals, and so to us, gamey never meant negative."
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"It means a stronger, wilder flavor," Toups added. "If you’re used to eating domesticated animals, then you can taste the difference right away. The animal is often stronger, and the protein leaner in fat. If you were to kill a wild elk, it would be nearly fat-free. But the intensity of the flesh is so strong, you need to know how to properly cook it."
Chef Daniel Volponi says gaminess, like so much in life, boils down to diet and exercise. "You have a very distinct, almost metallic flavor in game that can be the result of a higher iron content. Anything that is wild and not farm-raised is going to have a more active lifestyle, with a more active heart rate.
"So blood is going to be surging through the animal’s body at a much more intense level than if it were farm-raised. The type of animal doesn’t matter as much as the environment that it is living in. A domesticated animal is going to have a more subdued taste, because it is living a more subdued life."
Even the domesticated versions of what we think of as traditionally wild game – deer, rabbit, boar, bison, elk, moose – are unlikely to live as sedentary and uninspiring a life as today’s beef cattle, so some of that gamey taste still cuts through. But what exactly does the elusive taste, well, taste like?
Rack of lamb — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / vicuschka
Volponi says a description of gaminess is ambiguous because it's largely detected by the receptors of our harder-to-describe fifth taste, umami. "Umami, in a word, is savory. You can compare it to any number of things, but it’s a mysterious flavor. Not salty, not sweet, but certainly robust in its own right."
The trick to enjoying a gamey meal might just be as simple as not hearing the word gamey before digging in. Toups warns that neither he nor the servers at his restaurants would ever describe a dish as gamey to a potential guest because it immediately conjures negative connotations. But that isn’t to say that those same diners won’t still love a particularly gamey protein once it arrives on their table.
Volponi agrees that it’s the name, not the quality that’s the problem. "Gaminess isn’t a bad thing. Not at all. In fact, I think it’s being recognized more and more as not just a good thing, but a superior thing. The wild nature of the animal also makes for a potentially higher quality of meat, not filled with antibiotics or genetically-modified grains. If your food is finding its own food, then hopefully that food is pure and wild and clean as well."
Consider the impact of terroir, the set of environmental qualities and conditions in the land, on wine-making grapes and coffee, or even the milk from animals used to make cheese. If delicate crops are impacted by the resources they draw upon to the extent that their flavor can vary from region to region, then it certainly makes sense that terroir would contribute to the taste and quality of animal protein.
Asked if there was anything else he wanted people to know about gaminess, Toups offered some wise words: "If you’re reading this. Don’t be afraid of the game. Don’t be afraid you’ll get something a little gamey. You know what? Try it. Be open-minded. Don’t be afraid of some intensity of flavor. You might like it."