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Elk offers leaner alternative to beef

by Doris Penner

Elk is not commonly eaten in Canada. For one, it is not readily available, and moreover it is thought of as a “gamey” meat belonging to the domain of hunters who consume it after a kill. Indeed, elk is hunted in northern Canada for its meat—much of it taken south across the border every year along with trophy antlers. While elk meat is known to be lean—low in fat and cholesterol—with a high quality of protein, the roasts and chops provided by hunters over the years have not always been tender and tasty. In the early 1980s, changes in legislation resulted in the establishment of elk farms in the prairie provinces that produce high-quality tender meat under careful management. Is it time to take a second look at elk meat?

Elk are hardy animals that do well in Canada's harsh winters—simply growing a warm thick coat similar to that of a polar bear with hollow strands of hair for insulation. It is said that elk are far more comfortable in a fierce snowstorm than on a hot summer day. This is true of both wild and domesticated animals. They are ruminants, meaning they have four stomachs, and so like cows they graze on pastureland. The feed for elk raised on farms is supplemented in winter with oats and dry hay which ensures an adequate diet year-round.

Nutritional profile

Important is the fact that wild or domesticated elk have an active lifestyle which means the meat will be lean. Therefore, the meat is lower in total fat as well as saturated fat than red meat from cows or hogs. Note the following comparisons: a lean cut of beef (3.5 g) contains 10 g of fat (4.5 g are saturated) and 95 mg of cholesterol while a cut of elk meat (same size) has 1.5 g of fat (.53 g is saturated) and 55 mg of cholesterol. It also contains a higher proportion of polyunsaturated fatty acids. The nutritional profile of elk meat is similar to a skinless chicken breast which is sometimes taken as the standard for a low-fat cut of meat.

It should be noted that elk is only marginally higher in protein than pork or beef. While it is a good source of iron, vitamins B12 and 6 and contains minerals such as selenium, phosphorus and zinc, these are available in similar quantities in other red meats. Thus it would seem that the outstanding difference between elk meat and beef is the considerably lower fat content which is reason enough to consider including it in your diet. A lower intake of saturated fat means lowering the risk of cardiovascular issues including heart and attack and stroke.

However, the deciding factor might be taste and ease of cooking. Elk is a medium-textured red meat, with some similarities to beef in appearance and taste, but it is richer-tasting, perhaps with a slightly sweet edge. It is generally described as tender even without a great deal of intramuscular fat (marbling). Fat is deposited on the outside, around the muscle tissue which means it is easy to trim and remove.

Cooks faster

Elk meat offers all the cuts beef is famous for such as steaks, including round, rib-eye, sirloin and tenderloin, roasts and stewing meat. This means you can substitute elk for beef in all your favourite recipes. Remember, however, that on the whole elk cooks faster than beef because of its lower fat content. You do not want to overcook it, when, like other red meat, it dries out. For example, roasts are best cooked on low heat, about 20 minutes per pound. Roasts are great in the slow cooker, adding a few cups of broth, red wine or apple juice, to ensure tenderness and flavour. When doing burgers, sear on each side, then turn down the heat and cook through slowly, perhaps adding a minimum of vegetable oil.

It should be noted that both wild and domesticated elk offers low-fat tasty meat with a top nutritional profile. However, meat found in the wild has not been regulated in any way, so it cannot be guaranteed to be of the highest quality. Indeed, wild meat tends to have a “gamey” flavour which is unsatisfactory to many consumers. The type of food the animal feeds on, amount of movement and presence of disease all factor into the quality of meat. On elk farms, these factors can be controlled with great attention paid to keeping the animal as much as possible in its natural habitat—which means no growth hormones or antibiotics.

Over the last decades, there has been a growing interest in elk meat. Currently there are close to 70 elk farms in Manitoba—about half a dozen in the Southeast—that supply meat to upscale restaurants and small shops including some health food stores.