An eastern gray squirrel moseys across the stage at Deering Oaks Park in Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Eating wild game meat is a great way to make your diet leaner, fresher and more sustainable. For sustainable meat aficionados who are not ready to hunt for deer or moose, one way to get into wild game meat in Maine is by hunting and preparing squirrels to eat.

If you feel squeamish about eating wild meat in general, Steve Vose, blogger at the Maine Outdoorsman, said to 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 that we eat in the course of the year,’ and I say ‘How can you eat that piece of meat in that sterilized styrofoam in the supermarket?’”

To hunt squirrels of any kind, you will need a hunting license. Gray squirrels have a hunting season, which starts in the fall — usually around late September — and goes through the end of the year. Red squirrels can be hunted year round. You can eat both gray and red squirrels, though Vose said the latter are less worthwhile in terms of the amount of meat you get.

“Grays and reds are the only ones that are technically harvestable in the state of Maine,” Vose said. “Grays are pretty good, reds are just tiny. I don’t tend to shoot reds for eating.”

For Vose and others, it’s not just a matter of putting food on the table — hunting and eating squirrels can be a more sustainable manner of pest control.

“There [is] an overabundance of squirrels on my property,” Vose said. “If they’re not kept under control they cause a lot of damage. They’re really destructive, especially in large numbers.”

Instead of just killing and disposing of the squirrels wreaking 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 it’s just the fair thing to do.”

Steve Vose’s son, Manimal, hunting squirrels to eat. Credit: Courtesy Steve Vose

Hunting squirrels to eat

Once squirrel hunting season has arrived, the first step is to choose a method of killing the squirrel that will not compromise the small animal for eating. Vose said he usually recommends using a .410 shotgun to kill the 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 whole lot of shot pellets, but it isn’t the best way to go.”

Preparing squirrel meat

Before you start preparing your squirrel, Vose said to get a sharp skinning knife and a pair of clippers or a pair of heavy duty scissors to clip off the feet and head. Vose also recommended using rubber gloves to protect your hands during the process.

“It’s an easy thing to do to protect oneself [from a] parasite or virus or something like that,” Vose said. “The nice thing about gloves [is when you] get all done, it’s nice to be able to peel those gloves off.”

Vose said that one of the most difficult parts of preparing squirrels to eat is properly skinning it.

“Skinning them is a big battle,” Vose said. “There’s very little fat and thin skin. Once the hair gets on the meat, it’s like it was glued there by Elmer’s glue. You can’t rinse it off, you have to pick it off. When you skin them, do it in such a way that gets as little hair as possible on that meat.”

Vose recommended this YouTube video from user Realtree as a guide for skinning squirrels quickly, cleanly and efficiently.

After you have skinned the squirrel, use your knife or scissors to cut around the head — whichever will more easily slice through the spinal column — and cut off the front and back feet. Then, slit up the belly with your knife and pull out the intestines, which you want to do carefully.

“You’re left with a little sack left [with the] heart and liver,” Vose said. “Slit it open very carefully and take it out in one motion. It’s a lot easier than doing a deer or something like that because of the size. Even if you mess something up, [you can prevent contamination] if you’re relatively quick about rinsing it off.”

Once you’ve removed the intestines, you can save the edible bits like the heart and liver, though Vose said it might not be worth the effort because of their size.

“I usually don’t keep them,” Vose said. “You’re in the process of yanking out all these guts. You can try to separate [them] out or throw in the trash.”

Though you can cook squirrels whole after they are skinned and gutted, you may also want to break down your squirrel into eight individual pieces: the two front shoulders, back legs, halves and the back and two little pieces of rib. Slice along the spine, rib cage and use your knife to pop out the legs at the ball joint, slicing around the flesh to separate.

Using squirrel meat

The consistency of squirrel meat is a little stringier than the meat you might be used to, but with proper cooking, it can be delicious.

“You don’t just throw it on the grill,” Vose said. “It’s stringy and there’s no fat on it. It’s not like a fatty marbled steak on it that would have a lot of juicy flavor on it. You’re much better off if you put it in a crockpot and slow cook it.”

Vose said he will put several whole squirrels in his slow cooker to simmer down for the day.

“Let It cool, separate out the bones and cartilage [and you’re] left with some really nice meat,” he said.

Once you have meat prepared, you can use it in almost any other recipe that you would use any other slow-cooked meat. Vose recommended dishes like chilis and stews. He said that he also has a friend that makes a mean squirrel pot pie.

“You wouldn’t even know what it was to be honest,” Vose said. “You’d think it’s beef. It’s so tender. [It’s good for] all stuff that’s really good throughout the winter.”

There are other recipes that Vose himself hasn’t tried, but he thinks are worth experimenting with.

“I wouldn’t hesitate to try to deep-fat fry [squirrel] — that would be pretty interesting,” Vose said. “I bet it’d be really good in a taco.”

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