12 Ways to Cook Caribou
The other day, production coordinator Tobi Elliott purchased a caribou shoulder from a Taloyoak resident. After defrosting it—the shoulder had been buried in an outdoor stone pile for a month—she turned it into a delicious looking stew. For our crew, whose meals have been less-than-gourmet, it was a delicious and warming treat. You can read Tobi’s mini three-act about it at her blog.
So, what else can you do with caribou if it should make its way into your kitchen? It’s a surprisingly versatile meat, as long as you’re willing to plan ahead to properly prepare it. Like most game, extended marinating and/or braising can be necessary to tenderize the meat, and both processes take time, though most of it isn’t active: it’s the waiting game. But before we get to the methods, let’s talk a bit about the animal and the qualities of its meat.
On Dasher on Donner, and all
While in North America we call them caribou, most of the world knows the antlered species by its other name: the reindeer. As its European name suggests, the caribou is a species of deer; it’s prevalent across the Arctic and Subarctic, meaning it appears across a great range of longitudes: from Canada, to Greenland, to Norway, to Russia. Caribou are the third largest species of deer in the world, after the moose and the elk, but have the second largest antler size. Their antlers, or ‘rack,’ can grow over three feet wide and four feet long, making them the deer species with the largest antlers in relation to body size. Caribou antlers are particularly special because, unlike all other species of deer, they grow on both males and females. Antlers play a large role in mating—males will lock antlers to compete over females—and, most impressively, they fall out annually only to grow back just as large and strong.
A large male caribou with full summer antlers (photo by Karen Laubenstein of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Caribou is a game meat, but it’s said to have a much lighter taste than other gamey meats. Since caribou farming is all but nonexistent, caribou is naturally organic, free-range and grass-fed. It has little fat, which is a health boon but also requires cooking caution: it is very easy to overcook it, and most butchers don’t recommend anything above medium-rare. Caribou meat is also praised for its high protein content: three times that of beef, and without the fat, making it an ideal compromise for health-conscious eaters unwilling to give up red meat (like me).
The Caribou has been extremely important to the Inuit people for millennia, and the annual caribou hunts are a celebrated event – and something Watchers of the North will be filming. Caribou are a very populous, and the Inuit hunt them sustainably, meaning hunting has little to no long-term impact on their population.
Now, here are twelve ways to cook caribou. This is by no means an exhaustive list; a talk with a butcher or hunter—especially if they’re Inuit—will yield countless additional methods and recipes. But we hope this gets you started.
This is the classic method for cooking caribou, because it allows the meat to be braised and tenderized slowly, with plenty of liquid. This makes it ideal for any cut of meat, including the tasty but tough shoulder and shank. Most recipes call for carrots, onions, celery and a starch: either rice or potatoes, usually. White wine, Worcestershire sauce, garlic and hot pepper flakes are common spices for the stew. The best way to prepare the stew? A slow-cooker, where you can let it simmer and soften for eight to twelve hours.
Caribou Meat Loaf
Another great way to prepare the meat, ground caribou substitutes for beef well in your classic meatloaf. Adding canned milk helps ensure the loaf doesn’t dry out, and the stronger flavour and and healthier qualities of caribou makes for a filling meal.
While it’s a less versatile way to eat caribou—there are only so many steaks in each animal—caribou steak is the gold standard for the meat. Rare is almost necessary, here, so the flavour of the meat comes through, as is a long marinade time, to ensure tenderness.
Just like your Sunday roast, or your pot roast, caribou roasts are a great way to feed a family – or a group of hungry filmmakers. Cooked with garlic, mustard, salt and pepper, a caribou roast is flavourful and lean. Many recipes call for an overnight or two-day marinade, and to flour and brown the roast before cooking it under low heat. Plus, caribou gravy: mmmmm.
As we saw with the meatloaf, ground caribou is a perfect substitute for ground beef; and what better way to use it than by making burgers. Bison and venison burgers have become the darlings of haute burger joints, but caribou remains a rarity. Check out what these cooks have done to see what everyone’s missing, and let’s make caribourgers the new thing!
This one requires a dehydrator, so it’s not for everyone. But for those who have the tools, caribou jerky is your next hunting or road-trippin’ snack favourite. Using the sirloin tip results in the most flavourful jerky, and thin slices always make for better jerky —and more servings.
Ground up and mixed with a bit of pork, along with nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and coriander, a caribou sausage is a great surprise: it looks like any other beef sausage, but one bite proves its difference—and, for many, superiority—to your average bratwurst.
Try them maple-glazed and marinated 24 hours, or hot and spicy slow-cooked. Caribou ribs are large, tender and as crowd-pleasing as their beef and pork cousins. Serve them alongside some vinegary salad, like a coleslaw, and mixed veggies and you’ve got a perfect alternative summer meal.
Fillets are great because they offer small, flavour-packed servings and can be paired with more hearty sides for a delicious meal. Try marinating the meat overnight, making medallions, and serving them alone or above a light pasta and veggie mix. Or, if you’re feeling heartier, potatoes, leeks and a gravy made from the juices.
This chili, along with the following two recipes, are a bit of a departure from traditional caribou cuisine, being mash-ups of a northern meat with more southern cuisine. But one of the countless things that are great about chili is that you can experiment with meat all you want, and the results are consistent but rarely boring. You can use cubed caribou, but having it ground is ideal for even distribution. And, as always, be careful with those hot peppers!
This one’s a lot like the stew, but with a decidedly more Eastern European spice palette. Being a goulash, paprika and tomato feature prominently, and it is usually served with yogurt or sour cream on top. It’s also great because it allows you to use tougher cuts, or to buy stewing caribou, as long as you are able to let it simmer or slow-cook for a couple hours.
Think of this like a more extreme version of Tex-Mex, and a rare chance to mix cuisines that rarely, if ever, meet. Empanadas are labor intensive, however, as working with pastry always is. But the results are worth it. Try using ground caribou or, if you have the time and wherewithal, slow cook some caribou shoulder and pull it from the bone for some pulled-caribou empanadas.