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Squirrels - Forgotten Fare?
by George Hedgepeth
Every year, thousands of Great Lakes residents buy a license and head out to hunt. The fruits of the chase might be deer, rabbit, ducks, or turkeys. Each of these is well recognized as good food. However, there are other game animals pursued in the mid-west that do not receive nearly so much recognition and respect in the kitchen. Some of these are also excellent, and one of the very best for the table is the squirrel.
Here in Michigan, there are three common groups of tree squirrels that are hunted. The Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) is the largest, and weighs between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds. The Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is smaller, and ranges from 1 to 1.5 pounds. Smaller still, and eaten less often, is the Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). This fearless little beast weighs from 8-12 ounces. Many people have black squirrels near them - these are just color variations of the highly variable Gray Squirrel, and have identical culinary qualities.
Once one has a few squirrels in hand, a few questions may pop up. What do they taste like? It is always difficult to stand in for someone else's taste buds, but in my opinion, they taste very much like turkey dark meat - in other words, they are mild and not at all objectionable. They are a bit more flavorful than commercial chicken, and that is a good thing. They hold up better to long cooking and highly flavored sauces than chicken.
One possible objection to squirrel is that older animals may be a bit tough. This is remedied by typical cooking methods such as parboiling before frying, stewing, or using the oven to create a fricassee. Often, I boil squirrels and then de-bone them for use in various recipes. Squirrel is also VERY lean indeed, and this also indicates moist cooking methods. I have seen folks take a skinned squirrel, skewer it over the coals, and enjoy a Daniel Boone treat that would defeat a dog’s jaws.
Young animals are so good prepared like fried chicken that I will save Fox squirrels that are on the small side until I have three or four. I cut them into 5 pieces; hind quarters, front quarters, and back. Any meat on the rib cage goes with the front quarters. I then will pan fry them and serve with biscuits and gravy and some greens. That is a meal that is hard to beat!
Food prejudices are a funny thing. One person's idea of Foodie Nirvana is absolutely disgusting to another. That is one of the reasons I usually debone squirrels, or at least cut them up to resemble chicken pieces. As good as squirrels taste, the DO look an awful lot like rats when they are skinned and left whole!
Squirrel is nearly as versatile as chicken, and it can be prepared often by simply replacing poultry in recipes. I prefer it to chicken in tacos, stir-fries, soup, curries, and many other dishes. They provide a great excuse to get into the woods, with a season that runs from mid-September to late winter. They can be very challenging when pressured, but are common enough to offer multiple opportunities for harvest on most hunts.
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Briar Patch Outdoors
219 Holmes Street
Durand MI 48429
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