By Steven Schwartz
If you live in the hunting world, you know that wild pigs are a divisive target. Log onto any forum or talk to any group of hunters, and you’ll hear adjectives ranging from “tasty” to “trash” in the same conversation. Personally, I’ve had plenty of experience on both sides. We’ve been trapping and hunting wild pigs on some family property for years, and I’ve been preparing the meat for my own family. Sometimes I get a positive reaction, and well, other times they quietly push the plate away when they find out what they’re eating.
Like many other wild game, your experience with the meat is wholly dependent on the preparation. If you’re going to throw a pig backstrap on the grill for 20 minutes, prepare for a tough chew and “bold” taste. But, when treated correctly, it can be delicious table fare.
It’s readily available table fare, too. If you live in the lower 48, chances are you’re passing up on one of the most prolific game species out there. They’re abundant (maybe too abundant), there’s no season, and you can hunt them in just about any way imaginable—from dogs and knives to rifles and bows. If you can learn to love them as a food source, you’re opening yourself up to a whole world of fun, free-roaming game meat from a wild place near you.
But, if I’ve learned one thing from years of cooking wild pigs, it’s that my ability to convince people of their edibility is limited at best. So, I thought I’d bring in some backup.
Michael Hunter is a Canadian chef and outdoorsman who owns and operates Antler Kitchen & Bar in Toronto. He’s made a name for himself as a true renaissance man—someone who loves to find wild food in wild places, then turn them into dishes revered around the world. His new book, The Hunter Chef Cookbook, dives all aspects of food gathering:
“The book covers all kinds of fishing, foraging, and hunting. It's a celebration of the outdoors and I’m trying to inspire people to learn a little bit more about where their food comes from,” Michael says. “I want to give people a way to do some research so they can get outside and try it themselves.”
There are a few different recipes for wild pig in the book, and I had the chance to catch up with Michael to talk about how he likes to prepare the meat for his own table.
“A lot of hunters think pigs aren’t good to eat, but people are starting to come around,” he says. “The meat isn’t exactly a prized deer backstrap. It just requires a little more care because of the gaminess and strong flavor it does have. But, that gaminess shouldn't turn people off. It should be a challenge to work with the meat and play with the flavor.”
In the spirit of defending wild pigs as table fare, Michael was kind enough to share a few basic principles for preparing the meat in your own kitchen. In this quick guide, he’ll offer up some broad advice for how to turn wild pigs into your new favorite source of meat.
Choose the Right Animal
Just like most big game animals, the size and age of your target is the first factor in the taste of the meat. Not that you should necessarily be over-selective when on a hunt, but be prepared to take extra care for larger boars—they’ll most likely have a much stronger, gamey taste. In general, many hunters regard pigs under 150 pounds as the best eating option.
“I went hunting for pigs in Mississippi with dogs and knives, and I got a fairly little one. It was super tasty. On the other hand, a buddy and I were deer hunting and shot two pigs that were huge. They totally stank,” Michael says. “We brined the meat of the large boars and it really took out some of the funk. And it ended up being great.”
We’ll get to the brine in just a moment, but the lesson here is two-fold. First, don’t be afraid to shoot larger animals and use the meat. Second, be prepared to take some extra time and effort to make the meat more palatable for the table.
Learn to Love Brining
Now, back to brining. If you want to cook any sort of wild game (or meat in general), you need to make brining your best friend. By soaking the meat in a salt solution for a long period of time, you’ll be adding moisture and tenderness to just about any cut, including wild pig.
For Michael, he suggests creating a brine with salt content ranging from 3% all the way up to 7%, which is closer to a curing solution. A 5% salt solution is generally a good choice. Brines can simply be water and salt, or you can dress it up with brown sugar, fresh herbs, garlic, or even some fruits.
“Traditionally, I'll brine pork, turkey, and some of the smaller game birds anyway just because it tenderizes them and I find that they're a little bit more moist after cooking,” Michael says. “That’s one of my first tips, is to brine your wild pig at least overnight if you can. The ribs are great for this. Have fun with the ribs. If you have a saw, you can do a rack roast or something similar. Soak it in 5% salt to water overnight. It makes such a huge difference in the final product.”
For larger cuts of meat in salt solution, like a shoulder or ham, brining for three to five days isn’t out of the question. Particularly if you’re smoking meats, you’ll have the ability to smoke it at lower temperatures for longer periods without drying the meat out, which brings us to Michael’s next point.
Low and Slow
With some smaller pigs, a backstrap or tenderloin straight to the grill may not be a bad idea. But, if you’re using the meat from a larger pig or are working with a larger cut of meat, you’ll definitely want to take the low and slow approach with any method you’re using.
“Larger animals are definitely going to be tougher and the same goes with deer, bear, and whatever else you're hunting,” he says. “I find the slower, gentler cooking methods, like smoking the shoulder overnight or something like that, really helps break down the toughness, whereas if you just were to cook a steak it can be a little tougher. It can be a little funkier. Definitely the patience factor comes in when cooking wild pig.”
This doesn’t just apply to smoking, either. Wild pig is especially suited for stews and long braises in the oven, so don’t be afraid to start something in a slow cooker and let it go all day. You’ll be amazed at how chewy, dense cuts of meat will eventually turn into fork-tender, moist and delicious recipes. Just give it time.
Balance Strong Flavors
When Michael opened his restaurant, he was concerned about people’s picky tastes when it came to wild game. In our modern culture, we’ve developed very specific preferences for what we think quality meat should taste like, and he wasn’t sure how adventurous his customers would be.
“We initially put a chicken dish on our menu because we were nervous about people not wanting to try wild game,” Michael says. “But, we couldn’t sell the stuff because people were coming here to try the game. So for us it was really positive.”
Don’t be afraid to expose your family or dinner guests to something new because they may be more adventurous than you think. And, according to Michael, people will get used to eating wild game with stronger flavors over time; they just need to get used to it. While you’re “training” them on these bold flavors, try balancing them out with other bold flavors they’re already accustomed to.
“If you're dealing with picky eaters, try playing with that gamey flavor and putting lots of spices with it. I find that braised dishes for a stew, or pork and bean dishes, or smoked dishes, take that gamey flavor out. Maybe do some kind of soy stir fry with an orange glaze to take that gaminess away.”
For people who’ve eaten grocery store meat their entire life, you can’t expect them to jump on the wild pig train from day-one. Throw out some dishes that they’re familiar with, and they’ll feel more comfortable to step outside their comfort zone.
Work Up to New Recipes
One of the beautiful things about hunting wild game is the holistic approach to food. You’ll be harvesting your own meat from a wild place, preparing it yourself, and using more parts of the animal than any commercial process would. Organs like heart and liver, and even the head itself, can be used to create incredible dishes.
Of course, you won’t want to start here, but as you get used to eating wild pig, don’t be afraid to push yourself in the kitchen. For an advanced course in pig cooking, Michael suggests making the unfortunately named dish known as head cheese.
“There’s a pig-head terrine recipe in the book called head cheese, which is a funky name. But we cook the head and then reduce the braising liquid down until it's a natural gelatin and set it that way,” he explains. “It’s really, really cool. If you don't want to put the whole head, you just put the cheeks. The jowls are almost like bacon. There's actually an Italian dish called guanciale that they make from the pig cheeks. We'll cook it down then we'll add mustard and chopped pickles and capers and thyme to it, minced onion and garlic and then when we reduce that liquid to a gelatin. We mix it all together and set it in a terrine so it's like a square.”
This is just one example of some of the more “advanced” dishes you can create with wild pigs. Because the meat is tougher than some other meats, there’s more leeway to experiment in the kitchen with cooking times and methods, so don’t be afraid to go crazy with it.
In a world of regulations, habitat loss, and fluctuating populations in game species, it’s an extremely rare opportunity to have hunting access to something like wild pigs. Sure, they cause their fair share of destruction, but that’s all the more reason to hunt them. In short, if you’re not pursuing wild pigs for both recreation and eating, you’re really missing out on an opportunity.
There aren’t many wild-pig specific recipes out there, but you can adapt just about any recipe that lists pork as the main ingredient. Here are a few great recipes you can adapt by simply swapping the meat: Bon Appetit’s Chili Colorado, New York Times’ Old Fashioned Beef Stew, or you could try your take on Michael’s basic smoked ribs:
“My favorite way to do it is a nice dry rub—a little bit of sugar, tons of paprika, cayenne and some spices and let that dry rub marinade overnight. Then put it in the smoker, low and slow, and let them go.”
A big thanks to Michael Hunter for sharing his expertise on wild pigs. The Hunter Chef Cookbook is out on October 6, and can be found at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many other outlets.
Safety Note: Be sure to wear latex gloves when cleaning a pig in the field, to protect against brucellosis. Lastly, always cook wild pig to at least 160 degrees in just about any preparation.