For rural dwellers, rabbits and squirrels are arguably the oldest form of "convenience food." Killing, butchering and preserving a whole deer or moose presents a major project, but a few squirrels or rabbits -- always in plentiful supply -- could be jointed, cooked and on the table in a matter of a few hours. Like most other game animals, squirrels and rabbits are lean and can be tough, so it's often necessary to tenderize their flavorful meat.
Salt has a number of interesting effects on meat proteins, aside from its use as a table seasoning. The muscle tissues initially lose moisture to the salt, but once those juices dissolve the salt, it's reabsorbed back into the meat. That salt changes the muscle proteins physically, making them slightly denser but also slightly more tender. Salting your squirrel or rabbit for at least an hour or two -- a technique known as "dry-brining" -- also helps its flesh retain moisture, a significant secondary benefit when cooking lean game. Non-brined game animals can sometimes become dry after extended cooking.
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Marinades and Tenderizers
Many recipes call for rabbits or squirrels to be marinated in an acidic mixture, to tenderize and break down the muscle. In truth, the tenderizing effect of most marinades is minimal, affecting only the surface of meat without penetrating. An exception is buttermilk, an old-school country favorite, which does tenderize more effectively than most other marinades and can also minimize the gaminess of the meat. Powdered commercial tenderizers are limited in their effect, like most marinades acting only on the surface of the meat.
One surefire way to tenderize rabbits and squirrels is simply to braise or stew them. Dredge your serving portions of the meat in seasoned flour and brown them lightly in a skillet or heavy Dutch oven. Then simmer them with herbs, spices or aromatic vegetables until they're fork-tender. Use water, broth or wine in varying combinations for your cooking liquid, as your taste or recipe dictate. The liquid can then be thickened to make your gravy. The finished rabbit or squirrel pieces can be eaten as-is, or cooled and pulled from the bone for use in pies or other dishes.
Portioning Your Animal
To break down a rabbit into serving pieces, start at the forelegs. Wiggle a front leg to see where the shoulder blade is, then slide your knife beneath it to cut the leg away. With both forelegs removed, grasp a thigh in each hand and bend them backward until the hip joints pop. Cut the thighs from the backbone, sliding your knife between the now-separated thigh bone and hip socket. Cut away the ribs and the section of backbone at the tail end, leaving the long loin section. You can either cut the loins from the bone, if you wish, or simply cut it crosswise into bone-in sections. Large squirrels can be treated the same way, or small ones simply quartered. The meat will be liberally sheathed in a thin layer of connective tissue, called silverskin, which must be removed before cooking.