What is the "gamey" taste in meat?
December 30, 2010 6:07 PM   Subscribe

I don't notice anything particularly distinctive about the flavour of so-called game meats. Why do some people say they taste so different?

I recently had a friend's husband prepare some quail for us all for Christmas dinner. To me the quail tasted fairly indistinguishable from chicken or other poultry - only the colour and the texture of the meat were different to me. When my friend tried it, she could barely even bring herself to swallow one mouthful because it tasted too "gamey". My question is: what is this gamey taste? I don't get how we can both eat the same meal, I can't tell the difference with chicken, and she can hardly keep it down. She's normally not a picky eater either, so that's not the reason.

She had the same reaction a year before to the pheasant her husband prepared. I enjoyed it, but didn't notice anything particularly special about the taste. She tried it, but refused to eat it.

I think if I had eaten the quail blindfolded I wouldn't have even known it wasn't chicken. And I've never really noticed any difference when eating other game meats either, like venison or rabbit. To me they just taste like meat. I've since asked a few people, and another friend of mine responded the same way I did, saying "isn't quail just like chicken, only smaller?"

Can someone help explain to me what's going on here? Why don't I taste this "gamey" taste?
posted by Brentusfirmus to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The gamey taste is dark meat. Dark meat comes from muscles that get used - which in domestic birds is just the legs, but in wild birds is everything.

If you like dark meat, or at least don't mind it, or can't really tell the difference between dark meat and light, then it's hard to explain the problem.

I love dark meat, personally, but I guess I can see how other people might object to it.
posted by ErikaB at 6:17 PM on December 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Do you eat lamb? Have you ever noticed that sometimes lamb tastes strong and other times it's quite mild? Strongly flavored lamb has a somewhat gamey flavor, to me.

As far as why you don't taste it, I don't know. It could be that you're a non-taster. For example, I have a friend who swears that limes taste sweet. I think he's a non taster for sour foods (not that we've tested him or anything).

Or maybe it's like beets, where some people enjoy the taste of geosmin (which gives beets that earthy taste) and others do not. Or, another example might be cilantro, where some people love it and other people hate it. So maybe there is a particular chemical that gives the gamey flavor, which you enjoy and others do not.

Personally I find the gamey taste to be objectionable, so I tend to avoid game. However, I don't find rabbit gamey, although I think the rabbit I've eaten has all been farm-raised.
posted by cabingirl at 6:27 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

As far as gamey meat goes, I think quail is pretty close to regular chicken. To me, at least.

Try some venison, I feel there's a larger gap between venison and beef than quail and chicken in terms of the game taste.
posted by InsanePenguin at 6:29 PM on December 30, 2010

I compare the gamey taste to the taste of beef liver. I have eaten some venison that tasted gamey and some that didn't. For me, at least, I think it's a mental thing because if I don't know it's venison, I eat it just fine and am surprised to find out afterwards what it is. If I know, I can't take the taste. Maybe your friend has the same mentality.
posted by tamitang at 6:42 PM on December 30, 2010

I can't find a good reference online, but I've been told (by a biochemist who also hunted) that the gamey flavor is mostly lactic acid, a metabolite produced in muscles that are working hard. An animal that was killed after a long chase will have much more lactic acid in its muscles than one that was loafing around the stockyard. If you're talking about a slight sour taste, lactic acid is a good candidate. (With a pinch of other metabolites like pyruvic acid, malic acid, etc.)

Or maybe you mean the the characteristic "goaty" smell of lamb meat, which comes (I believe) from a bunch of pungent organic acids: capric, caproic, and caprylic acids. Together, these make up about 15% of the total fat in goat milk, so they probably comprise a fair bit of the body fat too. If you've never tasted goat meat, it's like a much stronger version of lamb.

No idea why your friend can taste gaminess and you can't, though.

P.S. Pheasant tastes just like chicken to me, too.
posted by Quietgal at 6:54 PM on December 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think it was psycho-somatic in your friends case. I would defy anyone in a blind taste test to tell the difference between quail meat and a less fatty slice of free-range chicken thigh. Her reaction to pheasant - also not particularly gamey - makes me think she might have a bit of thing about it.

To get a good understanding of "game" taste, eat some venison, emu, sometimes duck, or kangaroo. That's what gamey really tastes like - as alluded to above, similar somewhat to beef liver though nowhere near as strong.
posted by smoke at 6:58 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

To me, gamey = umami. Maybe I'm getting the definitions wrong, however. Green tea and strong mushrooms have a similar flavor. Almost musty.
posted by gjc at 7:25 PM on December 30, 2010

I've eaten a lot of game and other unconventional meat, and I'm with you - it just tastes like meat to me. I'm very curious about any "true", proven, scientific answer to this question beyond "oh ew I don't like to eat weird stuff".
posted by Sara C. at 7:31 PM on December 30, 2010

I hunt. I buy game. I cook game for others regularly. Your question comes up quite often, and it's one that I used to be unable to answer. So I asked the pro chefs I know.

The consensus shook down to this:

There are four things people might mean when they say something tastes gamey. They often don't mean all of them at once. They might just mean one.

The first is the rich red meat/blood flavor mentioned above. This sometimes comes from the type of animal (venison, camel, donkey, sometimes boar), is sometimes a function of how old or active an animal is, and sometimes arises because a shot animal might bleed very little as it dies. So the blood stays in the flesh more than in an abattoir slaughtered animal.

The second is that many types of male game animal have scent glands tucked about their bodies. In rabbits, they're down near the testicles. With many kangaroos, they're in the chest. Male goats have something similar near their testes. If you're not careful about how you clean and butcher an animal, the scent glands contaminate the flesh, and you end up with a distinctly musky aroma and flavor in it.

The third relates to hanging. As in "well hung meat." It's normal to hang domestic animals for some time after slaughter to let blood settle and muscle fibers relax (I think the action is enzymatic, but I'm not sure). It's usually done in walk in cool rooms. When the same thing is done with game, it's often on the back of the truck while getting it home, and then in the coolest part of the shed or barn until you get around to cleaning it, and then sometimes for a bit longer in the shed. Things are warmer. This speeds up the hanging process, but can introduce some bacterial action. So you've sometimes got a little bit of a "ripe" flavor. Some people like that, many don't.

Finally, what the animal has been eating affects the flavor of its flesh. The best examples I can think of are rabbits and goats that feed on the coastal heath here in Western Australia. The heath is composed of thousands of species of plants, and many of those have very strong aromas. The smells are a bit like juniper, sage, rosemary, thyme etc. And when feral rabbits and goats (much less so kangaroos for some reason) have been feeding on the heath, the flavor penetrates their flesh. You essentially end up with a pre-marinated carcass. It's just delicious. But again, some people hate it.

So, depending on where the meat came from, and the tastes of your dining companions, it could be a number of things.

Given that you're talking about quail and pheasant, I'd guess it's about the first. Both birds are usually farmed. So the only real difference from chicken will be slightly bloodier/darker flesh.

I might also suggest that you're encountering a little bit of delicacy on your friend's part. Lots of folk don't like to eat the little cute and pretty animals. And finding something inedible about the flavor nixes the likelihood of being served the same meat again.
posted by Ahab at 7:31 PM on December 30, 2010 [16 favorites]

A hung pheasant definitely tastes different from chicken, but I suppose chicken would taste more like a hung pheasant if you hung it. The differences between quail and chicken are subtler, I agree, but I do notice them.

Your friend might be a supertaster or just a prima donna, who knows? You might be a non-taster or just not that interested in food, who knows?

Venison certainly tastes different to me from beef (I think it tastes closer to lamb, actually) because cows and deer are completely different animals. Try that comparison and if you don't pick up a difference, you definitely might be a non-taster.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:39 PM on December 30, 2010

Gamey meat to me tastes a bit like liver. A lot depends on how the meat was prepared and cooked, tho. Some of the tastiest meat I have ever had was deer cooked on a barbecue grill.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:59 PM on December 30, 2010

I don't know exactly what causes the flavor, but I recently tried some grouse from Melisse in Los Angeles after the waiter cautioned that it was the most gamey (as compared to pheasant, patridge, etc) and the flavor was like no other poultry I've ever had. The first bite was practically like beef. After that, with the dark meat, it was a deep almost smoky kind of flavor. I can see why a lot of people dislike gamey meat, but I thought it was extraordinary.

Honestly? I don't think that most people who say meat tastes "gamey" have ever actually had a truly well prepared, high quality game bird from the gamey end of the spectrum and so they don't actually know what gamey meat tastes like. Like your friend maybe. I don't believe pheasant is generally particularly gamey, and if it had been very gamey you would have known immediately upon trying it.
posted by Justinian at 10:25 PM on December 30, 2010

Just a quick point but did you both eat the same bird? They're tiny so I'd usually serve one each. It could simply be that your friend's quail was a bit off or had been hung longer, maybe?
posted by dogsbody at 3:59 AM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do you smoke? It's possible that you've wrecked your taste buds with tobacco to the pauline point where you can't distinguish that particular flavor component.
posted by Citrus at 7:47 AM on December 31, 2010

This is just my own take, but whenever I eat game meat (not that often), it tastes like "French food" to me. And by that I mean the first time I had authentic French cuisine at Windsor restaurant with my high school French club. I'd had coq au vin, and the wine sauce had an odd taste to me - didn't taste like wine at all, in my opinion. It tasted....I dunno, dark, mushroomy, hard to describe. But it did NOT taste at all like chicken and the flavor of that sauce stuck in my taste bud memory. In subsequent years I've had pheasant and quail, and each time the flavor reminded me of that coq au vin sauce.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:13 AM on December 31, 2010

(Can't speak for the OP, but I don't smoke and am in the same boat - and I can often taste other very subtle flavors. So it probably isn't just an underdeveloped sense of taste thing.)
posted by Sara C. at 11:30 AM on December 31, 2010

We eat venison and wild boar all the time. I can't detect any gamey taste. My husband and I have theorized that those who do find a gamey taste have encountered poorly-butchered meat that has perhaps been in contact with gut contents or not been cooled properly. We do not take our meat to a processor any longer after seeing some dubious treatment at some places of their stacks of deer. Handling all the meat ourselves from start to finish ensures that it is properly handled, butchered, cleaned, and cooled/packed/frozen on time. It is never ever gamey.
posted by Addlepated at 6:39 PM on December 31, 2010

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