A menu for those who thrive
Success tastes like a chunk of Dall sheep backstrap over a pile of burning willows in Alaska; stew in a buried Dutch oven outside a wall tent; pan-fried antelope heart slapped on some burger buns shared in a dusty camp trailer in the middle of the desert; coues deer fajitas in an adobe house in Mexico with a few cervezas and fresh tortillas with friends; a tenderloin wrapped in bacon on the grill in front of the cabin. Success for a hunter tastes good.
Many of my best hunting memories are directly tied to a meal we had shortly after success. The after-kill meal is a right of passage and as much a part of the hunt and experience as lining up your sights or packing out your quarry. While there are some external factors to making the meal a little better, even with very little – physical exertion, a long day, and success in itself can make a leather-tough steak taste like a wagyu ribeye – I am going to share some of my most classic post-hunt meal preps.
The Best Fresh Cut
After an animal is killed, it goes through the process of rigor mortis. There is plenty of chemistry involved in the process but to spare you the science lesson, it is what causes fresh meat to be fairly tough and often not super flavorful. It is also what causes stiff, tight muscles while either processing the animal or in fresh meat that is hanging. In most instances, a good success meal means dancing around rigor.
There are many factors that are involved in the time it takes to set in but it generally kicks off around six hours or so and lasts for a day or two. The peak of rigor is about the time you have packed the animal out and made it back to camp. Most the timing and prep I will mention heavily takes this into account, although a steak on the tougher side is sort of the deal within the first 24-48 hours.
While some people shy away from eating internal organs, the heart can be one of the best fresh cuts. Rigor does not seem to affect the heart as quickly or as drastically as other cuts in my experience. While I will admit that liver is not my favorite and I regularly turn my nose up at it, the heart is a muscle much like other cuts (backstrap, sirloin, tenderloin etc.) but stays more tender and flavorful off a fresh kill when rigor has set in on your other choice cuts. For this reason, it is often where my camp meals start.
Preparing the heart well comes down to trimming. Slice the heart in ¼ inch or ½ inch pieces from bottom to top. You will be left with a pile of ring-shaped pieces. From there you will cube out pieces of muscle, removing any of the internal arteries and slicing away the outer skin. What you should be left with is chunks of heart muscle ready to be fried or sautéed in a skillet.
Heart can be cooked as simple or as complex as you want to make it. I find that in a camp setting easy is best. Garlic salt, pepper, and oil are on the low end of supplies. If you have more items, some great additions include garlic, onion and believe it or not, cheese. I prefer to make a Philly cheesesteak with fresh heart. It is the best success sandwich you can find and I have enjoyed many in some pretty remote camps.
Heat some oil in a pan add onion and peppers if available. Allow to cook down and caramelize. Season heart with garlic salt and pepper. Place heart in a hot skillet and start to brown, stirring to prevent burning. After about two minutes, add cheese and allow to melt while constantly stirring. Because there is no fat in the heart, you want to eat it medium-rare at most. It cooks fast; most people who have tried heart and did not like it had it over-cooked. This is easy to do and is something not many people would like. If cooked right, it is tender and delicious, especially fresh.
Remove your cheesesteak from the pan and place on whatever bread you have available in camp. A backcountry favorite of mine is on the top of a bagel. While in our hunting lodge, we serve it up a little fancier on top of a crostini garnished with fresh parsley and seasoned with a little lemon juice, fresh garlic, and thyme in the cooking process.
Pro tip: If using a Jetboil stove in the backcountry with a pan, setting a pan not made for that burner on top of it will melt the Jetboil and destroy it. You can use a regular pan with a Jetboil stove if needed; just build a support for the pan with rocks so there is a gap between stove and pan. This also works if your backpacking stove cooks too hot and burns everything.
Fire cooking is a staple of hunting in the backcountry. Most success meals involve very little in the way of equipment, skill, or foreplanning, and the primal nature of it lends to the experience. Cooking over fire – while very basic – has an art to it. I will cover my favorite fire cooking methods which involve cooking above, in, and below the flame.
Above The Flame:
Cooking above the flame is one the most iconic ways to prepare meat in the wild. Steak on a spit over the flame and coals is the original barbeque.
Start by building your spit. For the standard construction, it will take three green sticks. One long stick as the skewer, and two stakes or stands to hold the skewer above the fire. Use a knife to scrape the bark and add a point to the skewer. This will make it easy to put meat onto it.
For the stakes, you will need a stout, forked stick where the skewer will rest. You will want to carve the end of your stake into a point to assist in securely pounding it into the ground. Another option is to construct two tripods – one for each side – using three sticks of similar length bound together with paracord and then spreading apart to create a stand for each side. This works well in very rocky terrain.
You can start your spit while the fire gets going, but it is always better to wait if you can and cook over coals. It is easier to control temperature over the coals. Start your fire and get it going. As it burns down, pull coals to where you have placed your spit and let the main fire continue burning to maintain your production of coals. The ideal location of the spit is going to be 6-8 inches above your coal bed.
Now, season your steak and skewer onto the stick. Tenderloins and backstraps cook up great using this method. This is also my preferred method for cooking smaller game like rabbits, grouse, and fish. For big game, I prefer to cube up the larger pieces of steak into about one-inch chunks. That way, they can be easily removed when done. I will often roast small game whole.
The number one mistake with this method is burning the outside while the center is still raw. This happens when the flame is too high and the meat is too low. It also takes some tending. If the spit is not turned often, it will start to burn and cook unevenly. It can take a little while, say around 10 minutes, so be patient and turn often.
Pro-Tip: Make a Burrito.
This is my go-to success camp meal because it works great in the backcountry with very little. I pack in a packet of taco seasoning and a tortilla (which is my backcountry bread of choice anyway). Season meat with taco seasoning then place over fire on spit. Once cooked, slide onto the tortilla. I will often bring a bag of dehydrated rice and beans that can be cooked in a pot of water. I will add this to the burrito and enjoy. While the meat is plenty good on its own, that burrito is next-level.
In The Fire:
While the spit is a classic, I believe that this next method is one of the best ways to camp cook game meat with a fire. It involves cooking directly in the fire. Over the past few years, this method has even become popular in upscale restaurants and is often referred to as a caveman steak. It is done by laying meat directly on the coals. For some reason, even fresh, tougher meat turns out more tender when cooked this way.
Start by pulling very hot coals into a pile. Next, use your breath to blow as much of the ash off the coals as you easily can. Ash acts as an insulator from the heat and you want the steak to lay directly on the hot embers. Now place the steak directly on the coals. I prefer about 1-1 ½ inch steaks. Sirloin, backstrap, or even tomahawk steaks with the rib attached to a cut of backstrap are excellent for this.
The water content in the meat when touching the coals sears the steak but prevents the coal from sticking. It only takes a few minutes per side and you have a deliciously cooked steak. It also adds a great mild smoke flavor you only get from woodfire cooking. To season I normally just use some salt on the meat before throwing on, then a little after if needed.
Below The Coals:
The third fire cooking go-to is the Dutch oven. If you want a classic post-success meal, nothing beats a good stew in the Dutch oven. This is great for truck camps or horse trips. It is also great for fresh meat that still might be tough in the rigor stage. A solid cast iron pot with a lid and some vegetables do the trick.
Build a solid fire and get a good coal bed going. Set the pot over coals and get it hot with some oil in the bottom. Now, toss in a pile of cubed-up game meat seasoned with salt and pepper. Brown the meat in the pot and once browned, add a few tablespoons of flour to it if you have it. I add about two packets of brown gravy mix into about 4 cups of cold water (or one regular Nalgene bottle). I just pour the packets in and shake it up. Mix in some cubed-up potatoes & carrots and throw in some garlic.
Now, cover with a lid and scoop coals onto the top. Push your fire around the pot. You can stoke the fire up right on top if you need to leave it. In about three and a half hours, your stew should be perfectly cooked. It is pretty easy and a classic post hunt meal.
Meals in the field, prepared with a fresh kill are as integral to the hunting process for me as punching the tag. A hunt would not be complete without that first meal. Although they don’t often take much to be amazing, taking a little time to celebrate your success in this way is a time-honored tradition as old as man and really embodies the spirit of what it is to be a hunter.