How to cook your game.
A friend of mine gives me a hard time for hunting deer and elk, because—unlike bears or wolves—they cannot hunt back. He says it isn’t manly if there isn’t an equal chance the prey can kill you. I always say it depends on how you cook them.
Cooking venison, elk, or any meat at high temperatures through grilling or pan-frying produces cancer-causing heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). HCAs and PAHs have been shown to damage DNA and increase the risk of stomach, colon, pancreatic, prostate, and breast cancer with repeated exposure. Sure, it’s not as dramatic and quick as a bear mauling, but in a passive-aggressive way, the chronic irritation can accumulate over time leading to a slow, painful death. (My father swears this has been my mother’s strategy in their 50 years of marriage.)
Fortunately, there are ways to reduce HCA and PAH formation so you don’t have to boil the spoils of your hunt. HCAs form when meat is charred. Bake your steak at a lower temperature or, if grilling, turn your steaks frequently being sure to not overcook them. Aim for rare or medium rare and avoid well done. My father would say he’d rather have cancer—which is likely only a matter of time given the amount of charred meat he eats.
Marinate your steaks for at least 30 minutes before cooking. Cherries, dried apples, olive oil, garlic, onions, lemon juice, rosemary, wine, and beer can each be used in marinades to reduce HCA formation by up to 60%. (From a gustatory perspective, I don’t recommend combining all of the above ingredients into one marinade.) Also, avoid using sugars in marinades. Marinades high in sugar, like BBQ sauce, can triple HCA formation—save the BBQ sauce until the cooking is done.
PAHs are formed from the fat and meat juices dripping on the coals or cooking surface causing smoke, which coats the meat. These can also be reduced by turning your steaks frequently, cooking for a shorter time at lower temperatures, avoiding direct flame contact, and using fat drippings for gravy. Also, clean your grill before cooking to remove the HCA- and PAH-rich charred leftovers from your previous feast.
Lou Walters is a naturopathic physician at the Source Wellness Center in Bozeman.