How to Cook an Elk

A successful hunt filled your freezer with a few hundred pounds of steaks, roasts, backstrap (yum!), and ground elk. Now let's get cooking!

Elk Shepherd's Pie
Photo: Meredith

Elk: Nature's Perfect Food

Elk is a healthy red meat, naturally low in fat and cholesterol. In fact, according to the USDA, ounce for ounce, lean elk meat is lower in both fat and cholesterol than even boneless, skinless chicken breast—while providing an equivalent amount of protein. The flavor is similar enough to beef that it can be substituted nearly anywhere you would use common moo-cow.

The reason for elk's superior nutritional profile also happens to be its chief culinary downfall: lack of fat. Elk is so lean that it is more prone to overcooking and drying out than beef or chicken. The key to cooking elk well is to either cook it hot and fast, or low and slow.

Low and Slow

Cooking meats gently with a bit of liquid breaks down the tough connective tissues over time and infuses the meat thoroughly with the flavors of the dish. Turn to cooking methods like stewing, braising, slow cooking, and pressure cooking for tougher cuts taken from the shoulder, neck, rump, and shanks such as stew cubes, chuck roast, and osso bucco. (OK, so pressure cooking is actually hot and fast, but the EFFECT is a low and slow one. Just go with it.)

Large roasts and ground elk can benefit from long cooking times too. A nicely seasoned and browned elk roast makes an excellent deep woods pot roast. Ground elk makes great chili and sloppy joes. As with a lot of other game meats, the slow cooker is your friend.

Elk Chili—Try this easy chili recipe as written, or just substitute ground elk for ground beef in your favorite recipe. The longer the cooking time, the more tender the elk will be.

Elk Shepherd's Pie—Ground elk isn't only destined for the chili pot. Spread with a variety of fresh vegetables and topped with mashed potatoes, it makes a wonderful shepherds pie.

Onion-Elk Roast Stroganoff—Slow cook large chunks of tough elk for hours over low heat to make them tender. The long, gentle cooking will infuse the meat deep down with flavor. Shred before serving, and scoop over a plate of egg noodles or other plain starch.

Mom's Shredded Elk Sandwiches—Sloppy joe treatment in your slow cooker. Slap this smoky, tangy mixture onto a seeded Kaiser bun and start off with a big bite.

Mom's Shredded Elk Sandwiches
Photo by Lynne64.

Hot and Fast

Tender cuts, especially from the tenderloin (a.k.a. filet mignon) and backstrap (loin) are best cooked hot and fast. Because the meat has very little natural fat, it's important not to overcook, or else it will toughen and dry. Aim to cook your roasts and steaks to medium-rare or medium for best texture. Remember that thick steaks will continue to cook a bit once removed from the heat, so remove them just before you think they are done.

Large roasts and ground elk benefit from quick cooking as much as they do from slow cooking. Cook a lean roast quickly in a hot oven to medium-rare or medium. Burgers made from ground elk cook on the grill just like their beef counterparts.

An elk carcass yields a lot of nice steaks which may be cooked in a skillet or on a grill just as you would beef. True game lovers need little more than some pepper and garlic salt to season their grilled steaks, but if you're concerned about a gamey flavor, look to marinades and sauces to make the meat more palatable.

Elk Steak Marinade—This marinade imparts a nice, bright oniony flavor to your elk steaks. Double the recipe to make sure you have enough to generously cover the meat.

Beer Marinated Elk Steak—This light marinade works on all kinds of game meat. Leave your steaks to marinade for two days to minimize the gamey taste.

Bacon-Wrapped Grilled Elk Backstrap—A quick marinade in liquid smoke and Worcestershire sauce adds some quick flavor to elk backstrap. Cook these bacon-wrapped, nuggets-of-pure-awesome over hot coals until the elk is medium-rare and the bacon is slightly burnt for best flavor.

Peppered Elk Skillet—Brown strips of elk meat in a smoking hot, oiled skillet, then finish the dish by combining the cooked elk with stir-fried vegetables and sauce. See? Easy!

The Big Thaw

Most of your elk is going to be coming out of the freezer, so know how to thaw it safely to avoid getting sick.

The best method of thawing is in the refrigerator a day or two ahead of time. Place the wrapped packets onto a baking pan, pie plate, or some other container to catch any drips. Thinner packages should defrost fully in a day, while thick roasts might take two days or more to fully thaw. A gradual thaw leaves the meat in the best condition with minimal moisture loss.

If you can't wait and need to use the meat right now, thaw it under running water. Remove the butcher's paper wrapper and place the meat into a resealable plastic bag. Press out as much air as possible, seal the bag, and place into a large container in the sink. Fill the container with cold water, then reduce the flow of water to a trickle—a stream the thickness of a pencil will do it. This keeps the water circulating around the meat and will thaw it quickly. Even though the water is cold, it ain't frozen, so it will cause the meat to thaw. Avoid the temptation to increase the temperature of the water. Too hot, and the outside of the meat will start to cook before the center even thaws. Lukewarm, and the growth of bacteria on the meat is promoted.

Avoid using the microwave to thaw packages of elk (or any meat for that matter). Microwaves usually thaw the meat unevenly, cooking some parts while leaving other parts still frozen.

Eager to learn more about thawing meat? The USDA has all the information you could ever want to know on the subject of Freezing and Food Safety.

Just the Beginning

With a full freezer, you're gonna be eating on that elk for a while. Use the recipes above as a jumping off point, then start incorporating elk meat into your favorite beef recipes. Remember which cuts are best cooked hot and fast, and which are best done low and slow, and you'll have no problems at all!


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