Rabbit and even squirrel hold firm places in the traditional foodways of rural America, but the beaver -- another wild rodent -- does not. In part that's because the fur traders of the 17th and 18th centuries hunted them to the verge of extinction, and the well-established custom of eating beaver faded along with the animal. In the present day, beavers are once again widespread, so if you're a game-meat aficionado, you might have the opportunity to try it for yourself.
Basic Beaver Anatomy
Depending on its age, a whole beaver can weigh 20 to 40 pounds or more. They're similar to rabbits or squirrels in structure, with large, meaty hind legs, thinner forelegs, and a pair of tender loin muscles or "backstraps" running from shoulder to hip along their spine. The beaver's flesh is quite lean, with most of its fat in visible seams between and around the muscles rather than as marbling throughout. These pockets of fat should always be trimmed away before cooking, because they're strongly flavored. Before cooking, soak your beaver overnight in cold, lightly salted water to minimize its gamy flavor and draw out the blood.
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Slow-Roasted, Braised and Stewed
Beaver meat is fine-textured and can be tough if cooked too quickly, so most recipes call for it to be slow-cooked until tender. The whole animal or its meaty legs can be slow-roasted in a low oven, at 275 to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, in a covered roaster with a splash of water, wine or broth to provide moisture. Alternatively, use enough cooking liquid to cover the beaver at least halfway and simmer it instead on the stovetop or in your oven, until it's very tender. For beaver stew, instead of braised beaver, cut the animal into serving-sized pieces and brown them first on the stovetop. Use generous quantities of onions, celery and garlic to give the gravy a rich flavor.
The loin muscles, or backstraps, are tender even on a large, older beaver, and they can be prepared differently. They're similar in size to a goose breast or a very large duck breast, broader at the shoulder and tapered at the hip. The entire backstrap can be roasted or grilled in a single piece, as you would with a pork tenderloin. Crust it with spices if you wish; then sear it on all sides until well-browned and finish it in a moderate 350 F until it's cooked through. Alternatively, cut the backstrap into medallions or cubes for grilling or strips for stir-fry. Some cooks prefer it medium-rare to medium, although, like all well-caught game, it's only considered safe if cooked well-done to 165 F.
Its tail is perhaps the most iconic part of the beaver, but recipes for the tail describe it in confusingly different ways. That's because it comes in two parts, the paddle-like "flapper" and the muscular tail proper, which moves the flapper. The tail proper is a rich, fatty muscle much like pork shoulder, and, like fatty pork, it's very good when slow-cooked to tenderness and then crisped at high heat on the outside. The flapper is more problematic, because its scaly skin is very difficult to remove. The easiest way is to blacken it at high heat on your grill, which makes it puff and separate from the underlying layer of fat. The flapper is almost all fat and is best when added to slow-cooked beans or greens for richness or thin-sliced and layered over pieces of roasting beaver.