The gamiest animal I've ever eaten was a female fawn that I'd unfortunately shot in the belly. She crawled a couple hundred yards before I found her. When I cut open her body cavity to clean her, a foul mix of gut juices and feces spattered all over me. Every time I tried to eat from that deer I smelled that ugly afternoon, and it tasted awful.
But when I prepared the same meat for other people, they thought it tasted great. They hadn't experienced the trauma of the gut shot, and they weren't held hostage to the now barely detectable gamey aroma that brought me back to the scene of the crime. Psychology, physiology, memory and emotion can all combine to influence flavor.
Gaminess, meanwhile, is like pornography: difficult to define, but you know it when you see it (or taste it, in this case). For every wild-game eater there's a different opinion about what it is, where it comes from, and even whether it's a good thing or a bad thing.
For some people, gaminess is simply the smell of the individual animal, a reflection of its species, stage of life, sex and diet. They savor the flavors as a carnivorous version of terroir, the taste of the earth as experienced through meat. Others find the flavor repugnant. Many a proposed venison dinner has received the spousal veto on those grounds.
What's a hunter-chef to do?
First, it's important to understand the distinction between flavors that are intrinsic to the animal, and flavors that result from a poor shot—as in the case of my gamey fawn. For simplicity's sake, let's call the former type of gaminess "natural," and the latter "induced."
Natural gamey flavors tend to be milder and less potentially off-putting than the induced variety. They can come down to the difference between a mule deer and a whitetail deer, or between a deer that eats highland scrub and one that feeds on an alfalfa field in the valley. Variations in natural flavors also result from the time of year an animal was taken, as well as its age or sex.
Induced flavors due to operator error can be as subtle as a pissed-off dog behind a fence.
If an animal doesn't drop instantly and runs a lot before it dies, it will have lactic acid in its muscles and adrenaline and metabolic waste in its blood. Both things can speed up bacterial growth in the meat, resulting in flavors that only a maggot could love.
To maximize taste (and, it goes without saying, act humanely), you want the animal to die quickly. Make sure not to puncture the guts when you're cleaning the animal. Don't let any hairs fall on the flesh. Cut off the scent glands at the inner sides of the knee joints on the hind legs.
If you're hunting in warm weather, keep ice in your truck to pack into the animal's body cavity, and sew it in. Otherwise the thick parts of the meat, insulated by the hide, will stay warm for hours and potentially breed bacteria.
Bottom line: the longer it takes for the animal to die and get down below 45 degrees, and the less care that goes into cleaning it, the stronger the flavor. If you've killed and cleaned an animal the right way—but think the meat still tastes gamey—a few cooking tricks can conceal it.
One technique, which I learned from a curry goat recipe, is to marinate the meat in lime juice for at least half an hour. Then rinse the juice off. For a more radical fix, leave the meat overnight in a potent marinade or add a sauce to the finished product.
But I'm not a huge fan of concealing flavor. If you've hunted correctly, the animal's natural gaminess should be savored like a piece of fine Camembert cheese.
If the meat is afflicted by a bad case of induced gaminess, on the other hand, you might want to forget about eating it. Sure, you can overpower the funky taste with marinade or a slurry of catsup. But given that the flavor you're covering up could be a stage of rot, do you really want to?
You might be able to clean and cool your animal enough to minimize the traces of adrenaline, fear and bile. You might even be able to fool your guests, the way I did with my fawn. But I couldn't fool myself.