This story was originally published in November 2020.
Eating wild game meat is a great way to make your diet leaner, fresher, and more sustainable. For fans of sustainable meat who aren’t ready to hunt deer or elk, one way to get wild game meat in Maine is to hunt and prepare squirrels for food.
If you’re squeamish about eating bushmeat in general, Steve Vose, blogger for Maine Outdoorsman, said consider your options at a conventional grocery store.
“If you look at the meat we eat in the supermarket, it’s pretty far from organic,” Vose said. “People say, ‘How can you kill deer and squirrels or anything else we eat over the course of the year?’ and I say, ‘How can you eat that piece of meat in that sterilized Styrofoam at the grocery store?’
To hunt squirrels of any kind, you will need a hunting license. Gray squirrels have a hunting season that begins in the fall, usually in late September, and continues through the end of the year. Red squirrels can be hunted throughout the year. You can eat both gray and red squirrels, though Vose said the latter are less worth it in terms of the amount of meat you get.
“The grays and reds are the only ones that are technically harvestable in the state of Maine,” Vose said. “The grays are pretty good, the reds are tiny. I don’t tend to shoot reds to eat.”
For Vose and others, it’s not just about putting food on the table: hunting and eating squirrels can be a more sustainable form of pest control.
“There [is] an overabundance of squirrels on my property,” Vose said. “If they are not controlled, they cause a lot of damage. They are really destructive, especially in large numbers.”
Instead of just killing and disposing of the squirrels that wreak havoc on his land, Vose said he feels better about putting the animal to use.
“Anything I shoot or kill, I try to eat,” Vose said. “I think that’s just the right thing to do.”
hunting squirrels for food
Once squirrel hunting season has arrived, the first step is to choose a method of killing the squirrel that does not compromise the small animal for food. Vose said he generally recommends using a .410 shotgun to kill small rodents without compromising the meat.
“It’s all about shotgun selection,” Vose said. “[With a] 12 gauge, if you hit a squirrel if you aim well and hit it mostly in the head, you’re not eating a lot of buckshot, but it’s not the best way to do it.”
Preparing squirrel meat
Before you begin grooming your squirrel, Vose said to get a sharp skinning knife and a pair of razors or sturdy scissors to cut off its legs and head. Vose also recommended wearing rubber gloves to protect your hands during the process.
“It’s an easy thing to do to protect yourself [from a] parasite or virus or something like that,” Vose said. “The good thing about the gloves [is when you] finish everything, it’s nice to be able to take those gloves off.”
Vose said that one of the hardest parts of preparing squirrels for food is properly skinning them.
“Skinning them is a big battle,” Vose said. “There is very little fat and thin skin. Once the hair reaches the flesh, it’s like it’s stuck there with Elmer’s glue. You can’t rinse it off, you have to remove it. When you skin them, do it in such a way that as little hair as possible remains on that meat.”
Vose recommended this YouTube video by user Realtree as a guide to skinning squirrels quickly, cleanly, and efficiently.
After you’ve skinned the squirrel, use your knife or scissors to cut around the head, whichever is easiest to cut through the spine, and cut off the front and back legs. Then, cut through the belly with your knife and pull out the intestines, which you need to do carefully.
“You have a little bag left [with the] heart and liver,” Vose said. “Open it very carefully and pull it out in one motion. It’s a lot easier than making a deer or something because of the size. Even if you screw something up, [you can prevent contamination] if you’re relatively quick to rinse it off.”
Once you’ve removed the intestines, you can save the edible parts like the heart and liver, though Vose said that might not be worth it due to their size.
“I don’t normally keep them,” Vose said. “You’re in the process of getting all these guts out. you can try to separate [them] throw away or throw away”.
Although you can cook the squirrels whole after removing the skin and viscera, you can also divide the squirrel into eight individual pieces: the two front shoulders, back legs, halves and back, and two small rib pieces. Cut along the spine, rib cage, and use your knife to scoop out the legs at the kneecap, cutting around the meat to separate it.
Using squirrel meat
The consistency of squirrel meat is a bit more stringy than the meat you’re used to, but if cooked properly, it can be delicious.
“You don’t throw it on the grill,” Vose said. “It is fibrous and has no fat. It’s not like a fatty marbled steak that would have a lot of juicy flavor. It’s much better if you put it in a crockpot and cook it over low heat.”
Vose said she will put several whole squirrels in her slow cooker to simmer through the day.
“Let it cool down, separate the bones and cartilage [and you’re] I was left with really good meat,” he said.
Once you’ve prepared the meat, you can use it in almost any other recipe where you would use any other slow-cooked meat. Vose recommended dishes like chilies and stews. She said she also has a friend who makes chipmunk cake.
“To be honest, you wouldn’t even know what it was,” Vose said. “You would think it was beef. It’s so cute. [It’s good for] all the things that are really good all winter long.”
There are other recipes that Vose himself hasn’t tried, but thinks are worth experimenting with.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to try deep fat frying [squirrel] — that would be quite interesting,” Vose said. “I bet it would be really good in a taco.”