Squirrel is rarely available to buy commercially, but it is possible to track it down in areas where hunters are active. However, federal law makes it illegal for a licensed hunter to sell wild game, so the only realistic way to get hold of this elusive meat is to secure some as a clearly understood gift. It should always be received skinned and dressed, since the process requires some skill. Often compared to rabbit, squirrel has a dense texture and subtle, gamey flavor. For all its rarity, squirrel is easy to cook, either pan-fried in minutes or slow-cooked in a rich stew.
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Skinned and gutted squirrel requires thorough washing under cold running water to remove congealed blood around the cavity and any remaining fur. Because squirrels are one of the few game mammals with a collar bone, you have to slice through the rib cage with a sharp knife towards the neck and break through the collar bone to separate the forelegs. The meatier hind legs are easier to separate. Slice through the flesh on the inside of the leg and then pop them out of the joint to separate them from the body cavity. Most of the remaining meat is on the backstrap. Use a heavy cleaver to chop through the rib section into quarters. Save any smaller cuts or bones for stock.
Slow cooking excels at releasing the squirrel’s flavor and breaking down the tougher meat and requires very little preparation other than chopping up the squirrel. Approach slow-cooked squirrel in the same way as a coq au vin: a hearty stew of accompanying vegetables, typically potatoes, carrots, cabbage and onions, and a stock steeped in red wine. Simmer the squirrel in a slow cooker for around 8 hours, by which time the meat will be sliding off soft, tender bones.
Cooking squirrel over a dry heat needs only rudimentary seasoning with salt and pepper to start with; the addition of soy sauce or BBQ sauce once the meat starts to brown keeps it moist; a squirrel has hardly any fat to render so needs the additional liquid. Season the squirrel and place on a medium-high grill for roughly an hour -- slightly longer for older animals. The USDA recommends using a cook's thermometer to check that the internal temperature is at least a safe 160 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point the meat can still be pink inside. Baste the squirrel with BBQ sauce for the last few minutes to give the meat some sweetness.
Squirrels can live for up to six to seven years; older squirrels develop tough, gamey meat that demands braising. Brown the meat first in a Dutch oven or skillet, tossed in flour, leaving plenty of room for each batch and removing when crisp. Use the browning residue to build an aromatic sauce with wine and chicken stock, scraping as much of the blackened meat from the base as possible. Reduce the sauce, then return the browned meat to the Dutch oven, taking care not to submerge it completely. Cover the pot, add vegetables, and simmer for around 45 minutes. By the end, the squirrel meat will be falling off the bone and the sauce reduced to a thick gravy. Instead of simmering, you can place the casserole pot in the oven for up to 2 hours at 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Squirrel cuts are small enough to cook through with light sautéing, but the lack of fat and meat requires a little creativity to develop the required level of crispiness and flavor. Toss the squirrel quarters in flour and saute for a few minutes in a skillet of hot oil, then cover and simmer in red wine and herbs until the squirrel is cooked through, roughly 10 minutes. Chef Andrew Zimmern’s recipe calls for first marinating the squirrel pieces in the fridge overnight in buttermilk before tossing in the flour tenderize the meat. Sauteing is fine for young, tender squirrel but less appropriate for older squirrel.