March 19, 2021
By Josh Dahlke
There are certain situations in which dropping off your kill at a trusted butcher shop makes sense, but whenever possible it’s much better to take meat matters into your own hands. I continually hear about hunters who process most of their game at home … except for any meat products that involve grinding. Burger, sausage, ground jerky—for some reason many folks are intimidated by grinding meat. That shouldn’t be the case.
Grinding your own game meat is economical. These days, commercial-grade meat grinders are inexpensive and extremely powerful. Invest in a high-quality grinder, and it will pay for itself within a season or two of use. Plus, modern grinders are so efficient that you won’t burn too much of your precious time or energy pushing wild protein through the blades.
Flexibility, freshness and creativity are further benefits of DIY meat grinding. There’s no need to grind all your meat at once. It can be fun and efficient to have a grinding party and bust out massive batches of hamburger and sausages all in one sitting, but consider keeping a grinder on your countertop for on-demand access. Fresh ground meat is almost always better, so running a couple of pounds through a grinder right before firing up the grill or making pasta is pretty awesome. By limiting your grinding to a meal-by-meal basis, you can get creative in the kitchen by trying new recipes; you won’t end up being forced to use 50 pounds of the same boring sausage till next season.
Grinding is usually synonymous with big game, but you can grind waterfowl, upland birds and wild turkeys into delicious concoctions as well. Lately, I’ve been grinding gobbler legs into breakfast sausage.
It’s taken me two decades to become proficient in butchering and processing wild game, and that includes becoming comfortable with grinding. Here are some hard-won shortcuts to help you get your grind on.
My first at-home grinding experience involved a hand grinder, a wobbly table and plenty of cursing. Early on I didn’t have excess income to fund my budding meat processing addiction, but since then I’ve constantly upgraded my grinding equipment. Looking at the bright side, all this experimentation allowed me to appreciate a good grinder. What I’ve learned might save you a headache.
Small, low-horsepower meat grinders will work for light grinding jobs, and you might even want a compact grinder to keep on your countertop like I mentioned earlier. However, small grinders have their limitations—don’t count on using one to grind meat from a whole deer. If space isn’t an issue, splurge on a medium- to high-power grinder that can handle everything. Shoot for a grinder with a 1/2- to 2-horsepower motor. You can expect somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 pounds of ground meat per minute from a 1/2-horsepower motor.
Premium grinders are also typically designed better. You’ll find smoother seams on grinder parts for easier cleanup, and the bodies will usually be strong metal instead of flimsy plastic that’s prone to cracking.
There are hordes of accessory options for today’s grinders. Sausage-stuffing tubes, mixing attachments, various plate sizes and other smart options tailor the grinder to your specific needs. Upper-end grinders typically include more accessories in their stock packages.
Keep It Cool
Grinders operate better, cleanup is easier, and meat will stay in optimal condition if you keep everything cool. Perform operations in an environment with a cool ambient temperature. Pre-cool all metal grinder parts in a freezer. Partially frozen meat is usually ideal for grinding.
A grinder will naturally generate heat from friction and the motor doing its job. Meat will quickly warm up to meet room temperature while simultaneously getting sticky. Plan ahead and work in batches to keep meat and grinder components as cool as possible throughout the process.
Texture is one of the most overlooked aspects of meat preparation. “Bad” texture can often be a turnoff to new wild-game eaters. Final texture should always be considered when grinding meat.
A quality grinder will mash up silverskin and large tendons into edible ground, but try your best to eliminate these undesirable parts from the meat before grinding. Clean meat will allow your grinder to run more smoothly with less clogs and will improve the texture of the finished product (i.e., it won’t be chewy).
Another texture decision you’ll need to make while grinding is how coarse you want the ground. When making snack sticks and most sausages, you’ll probably want finely ground meat. (Many sausage recipes that use casings call for the addition of ice water to create more of a paste prior to filling the casings.) Coarse ground is often preferred for burger patties or taco meat.
Fat vs. All Natural
Wild-game connoisseurs can have strong opinions about adding fat to game meat. I love hunting and harvesting wild meat because it’s pure, lean and generally healthy. The idea of mixing domestic animal fat into all of my ground game meat is crazy to me.
When it comes to straight-up burger, I almost always keep it 100 percent wild with no added fat. Many folks claim all-natural game is too dry or too lean to make burger patties, but I don’t have those problems. Just like wild-game steaks, don’t overcook your burger and it won’t dry out. When pattying burgers, thoroughly roll the ground into dense balls before flattening into patties. If you’re still having trouble, consider adding egg or mix your burger toppings (such as cheese) into the meat.
Sausage is the notable exception to my no-fat rule. Sausage shouldn’t even be called sausage unless it’s fatty. It’s up to you how much fat to add, but pork and beef fat are the two most popular options. A week before grinding sausage, I reach out to my local butcher shop and ask it to save all the fat scraps for me to purchase.
Handling and Storage
You’ve probably heard that ground meat from domestic animals should be cooked medium to well-done. This is mainly because ground meat gets handled more than primal cuts, thereby increasing the odds of harmful bacteria finding its way into your next meal.
The beauty of processing your own game meat is that you are able to control your food from start to finish, so with due diligence your burger should be just as clean as your steaks. Keep your meat processing sanitary, and you don’t need to worry about overcooking your ground.
Properly packaged and frozen ground-meat products can last for years. Wrap your ground meat or sausages tightly with plastic wrap and then cover with butcher paper, or splurge on a vacuum sealer for the best results. The key is keeping air out of the packages to prevent freezer burn, and limit direct light exposure to minimize discoloration.
Meat Makers: New grinders and more
There’s a sweet new line of gear—including killer grinders—on the block for DIY meat processors. Aptly named, MEAT! has established an attractive brand across social media during the past year. But it’s not all just flashy marketing; MEAT! products have proven to be ultra reliable among at-home processors, restaurant chefs and even commercial butchers. Perhaps the most alluring part of the MEAT! brand is that its products are sold online, direct to consumer, removing middleman markup and allowing working-class ladies and gentlemen to get more (and better) gear for less cash.
I’ve been using most of the new equipment from MEAT!, including the 1/2-horsepower grinder ($350; meatyourmaker.com). It grinds meat faster than I can cycle the bolt on my rifle. This model includes sausage-stuffing accessories and a handy drawer to keep things together.