Herbs Make a COMEBACK!

Herbs are not just for your cocktail!  With hunting season approaching, pairing Old World herbs and wild game together in a savory combination is a must!  Cooking brings the family together and provides a history lesson or two as well as adding health benefits and learning how to experiment with new flavors!

Bonus- Some herbs help aid with digestion as well as contain immune boosting properties!

How It All Started

Preparing food with heat or fire is an activity unique to humans.  It may have started around 2 million years ago, though archaeological evidence for it reaches no more than 1 million years ago.  Herbs have been used since prehistoric times.  Carbon dating traces the Lascaux cave drawings of herbs in France back to between 13,000 and 25,000 B.C.

In the Middle Ages, herbs were often used to preserve meat as well as cover the rotting taste of meals that couldn’t be refrigerated.  Aren’t you glad you didn’t accept an invitation to that kind of dinner party in those times!  Ancient Romans and Greeks crowned their leaders with dill and laurel and also used dill to purify the air.  In the 5th century B.C., Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician, listed approximately 400 herbs in common use.  As many of us already know, many of the early settlers grew herbs for seasoning their food, as well as, for their medicinal properties. American Indians often used herbs for tanning and dyeing leather.

What Herbs to Pair with Wild Game

The first of the powerhouse herbs is dill.  Dill is an Old-World herb from the parsley family.  Widely available and very simple to grow, dill is kept well in a glass of water on the counter or placed in a Ziploc and frozen.  The soft fern-like leaf or frond before the dill blooms are best to use for fish and tartar sauce.  The head is best used for canning dill pickles.  I like to add a fresh sprig to smoked salmon on the grill or top off a baked potato with sour cream.  Dill is a staple ingredient in tartar sauce and is very easy to make at home.  It also makes a mean red potato salad for that family picnic coming up!  My husband’s German grandmothers’ taught him to add it along with green beans from the garden to a large jar and pickle them in vinegar for fresh eating all summer long.


Basil, part of the mint family, packs a punch in nearly every way it is used and in any type of cooking.  It is also a great digestion aid. Esteemed for flavoring iced tea, lemonade, and cocktails, it is also very easy to cook with.  It is really good in this Basil Tai Chicken recipe linked at the end of the article.  Guaranteed to clear the sinuses!  This recipe would lend itself to any wild game bird, especially Cornish hens.  Fresh basil from the garden is best kept in an airtight container or plastic bag in the fridge to prevent wilting.  Using a stronger herb compliments the stronger flavor of the wild game, whereas chicken is a milder meat and pairs better with a less savory choice of herb.

A Gardener’s Note Here, herbs are at their peak and should be picked in the early morning or evening hours when the oils are at their highest levels. (E.L.D. Seymour, B.S.A. – New Garden Encyclopedia 1936)  No need to wash until right before you use them to prevent spoiling.  I personally keep them in a jar of water on my counter until I need to use them for dinner.

Sage pairs well with wild birds.  This potent herb is best known for its appearance in the dressing of your Thanksgiving turkey.  Prairie chickens, pheasants, and even duck would all be a great choice to try with sage.  Sage is traditionally used in meat rubs and for flavoring sausage.  It is most commonly found as a dry cooking seasoning, but if you are lucky enough to grow this herb, then you know how big of a difference in flavor there is between the dry and fresh.

Thyme is also related to the mint family and in Old World cooking was incorporated into meat pies.  Thyme has anti-viral properties so it is no surprise that they utilized it in ancient cooking to help keep sickness at bay.  In history, it was used for embalming the Egyptians and to protect from the Black Death.  Thyme pairs well with all meats in my opinion, lending its sweet and savory flavor to the dish and looks pretty as an embellishment, too.

Wild game is best cooked with some kind of fat because of its lean content.  I like to wrap bacon around deer steak to add flavor and keep the steak moist when grilling.  In fact, this practice has also been around since the beginning of man gathering and cooking wild game.  Fat was the number one ingredient used in medieval cooking as it helped enhance the taste of the meat and kept the meat moist while being prepared.  Butter was also widely used as it was readily available to those with milk cows.  Seems the more butter the better, which is a complete flip flop on the way we cook everything low-fat today.

Can’t Live on Meat Alone

Meat and fruit pies were used in historical cooking because cook stoves were either not available at that point in history, or they were cooking over open fires and the heat was very inconsistent.

Pies were used as a tool to combat the heating issue, as well as providing a well-rounded meal and utilized the parts of the game that were, shall we say less desirable to see on the plate alone.  Herbs, potatoes, onion, and butter or cream were also incorporated to enhance the flavors of the wild game. 

The women in my family kept bacon grease in a jar beside the stove to cook with for generations.  Bacon grease was readily available and was used heavily during the Great Depression and all throughout history.  In fact, throughout WWII, butter was rationed, and the variety of cooking fats we have today didn’t yet exist, so housewives often saved bacon fat for cooking.  It was also valued for the war effort—homemakers were asked to give their bacon grease to the local butcher, who turned it into the government because it was needed for the production of glycerin used to make bombs. (Farmer’s Almanac)

The need to include fresh plant food or raw animal flesh into the diet to prevent disease was known from ancient times.  Native people living in marginal areas incorporated this into their medicinal lore.  For example, spruce needles were used in temperate zones in infusions, or the leaves from species of drought-resistant trees in desert areas.  In 1536, the French explorers Jacques Cartier and Daniel Knezevic, exploring the St. Lawrence River, used the local natives’ knowledge to save their men who were dying of scurvy.  They boiled the needles of the tree to make a tea that was later shown to contain 50 mg of vitamin C per 100 grams.

Vitamin C happens to be the only vitamin our bodies are not capable of providing on their own.  Seafaring men especially suffered this affliction as fresh fruit and vegetables were not kept on the boats that would be out at sea for months at a time without refrigeration.  The disease was later shown to be prevented by citrus fruit in an early controlled trial by a Royal Navy surgeon, James Lind, in 1747, and starting in 1796 lemon juice was issued to all Royal Navy crewmen.

So, dried fruits were utilized in the pies and would help alleviate the unsightly symptoms, as

well as the use of certain vegetables that contained vitamin C.  Cabbage, potatoes, and onions in addition to one or more of herbs like cilantro, chives, thyme, basil, and parsley which high in vitamin C- were incorporated if available, fresh or dried.

Onions and garlic were also essential to the kitchen garden and cooking with wild game.  They were grown by farmers dating all the way back to the Mesapotomia era in 3,000 B.C.!  Utilized and found readily in most cooking recipes even today, onion and garlic are the perfect addition to any meat recipe and were and still are a staple in most kitchens!  They stored well during the winter months when kitchen gardens were on hiatus due to the inclement weather and helped fight off colds and flus among a plethora of other things.  Onions and garlic were both dried in the sun to prevent molding and then braided and hung in cool, dry “root cellars”.

They would reconstitute onions and garlic into stews and soups and traveled easily as they didn’t spoil and were also used medicinally.  I have also had success with freezing whole onions from the garden and then using them as needed throughout the winter months.  This was not an option for our ancient friends without freezers.

Tip and Tricks to Try  

Locally speaking, my friend Sellenee Sich likes to cook with wild game.  She has been cooking this way for four years and especially enjoys making sausage.  They have four boys to feed at home and wild game for their family is a cost-effective way to keep their boys fed and happy without breaking the bank.

“Hunting is a great opportunity for us to build character in our boys and feed our family. Most of the time, the meat is very cost effective because we process it ourselves.”

Her top three tips for successful wild game cooking are to add some kind of fat to tenderize or marinate before cooking, and to use fresh herbs and seasonings.  She adds that because bird meat is either very dry or greasy, an easy way to combat the gamey taste is simply to marinate the meat in buttermilk beforehand.  She also cautions the use of the sage with wild game as it tends to bring out the sage flavor in the meat and can make it taste more gamey.  Not the case for wild birds, but the vegetation our deer and elk eat is made up of a lot of sage so this totally makes sense to me.

Brining is an old-fashioned technique that involved soaking meat or poultry in a flavorful saltwater solution to enhance its moisture and taste.  The proper ratio is two tablespoons of salt to four cups of water.  It is especially good with breast meat and other lean cuts like the loin. (Georgia Pellegrini-NRA American Hunter.org)

Grilling tends to dry out leaner cuts of meat.  So, a meat with more fat would lend itself better to this cooking technique.  However, pan frying is a good way to add fat while cooking and is a time sensitive way to get a meal on the table in a pinch.

Oven Roasting – Duck is a fattier meat and is not one you want to put on the grill as it will flare up, so roasting is the way to go with this wild game bird.  Add any herb and some garlic and onion and treat your favorite guests to a tender and juicy feast.

Don’t forget the good old crock pot!  Elk chili, deer chili, buffalo chili… I’m seeing a trend here.  But all kidding aside, duck and pheasant are also easy to cook this way.  I choose the crock pot as my go-to on a crisp fall day because it’s the easiest way to feed my family after a long day of work.  We also like to make jerky using a dehydrator to take on camping and backpacking trips during the summer because it is easily transported and fits into a backpack without needing to be kept refrigerated.

As I contemplated how to cook the pheasant we had in the freezer, I came across a pheasant recipe in the Outlander Kitchen Cookbook I received as a gift and nod to my Scottish heritage.  It was filled with Old World recipes using wild game and, as I had learned from my research, combined both butter and fruit with the wild game.  We first brined the pheasant in saltwater for a day to promote extra flavor, then rolled up our sleeves and got to work.  We pan seared the meat in butter and garlic, then drizzled an apricot and wine sauce over the top and served with fresh greens from the garden.  The kids were apprehensive about this mystery meat, but kept an open mind and ended up really liking it!   In fact, they liked it so much that they plan on going pheasant hunting with their Dad and I this fall!  I’m counting that as a win in my book!

Old World herbs and wild game are a great way to explore cooking in a historical and fun way. Getting the hubby and kids involved make for an interesting, if not a wild evening!  I’d like to think that while channeling my inner Julia Child, that cooking with these ancient herbs and eating wild game like a caveman is our primal right!  I like to teach my kids where food originates and how it was prepared because it connects our past with our present, plus it gives our food some context and relatability in a time where everything is instant, pre-packaged, or disposable.  My hope is that while learning about history in school, they can add some interesting fun food facts, and make those important connections between food and history.  We are the sum of what we eat… Literally!

By: Megan K. Huber of Huber Farms for 82717

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