Squirrels

This article will go over the hunting, butchering and cooking of squirrels. I have already written in the parent blog on the ethics of consuming meat and of hunting. If you object to the idea of eating meat or don’t care to see pictures of dead animals, I’d suggest you check out one of my articles about gardening instead.

Why squirrels?

For those who have never tried squirrel, I will start by mentioning that they are nutritious and delicious. They have a partly-deserved reputation for being tough but, properly prepared, they come out surprisingly close to dark chicken meat in both flavour and texture. I know it is cliché to say that things taste like chicken, but this is not a claim I would make with many other animals. If you blindfolded me I’m certain I could still differentiate between the two — but I can quite easily imagine passing off de-boned squirrel as chicken to unsuspecting guests.

Eastern Grey Squirrel

The quary.

Where squirrels really shine, though, is in an analysis of the economics. Remember that this blog isn’t about fun things you can do on the weekend. It isn’t about expressing a tradition or an ideology. It is about opting out. For this endeavour, squirrel hunting is ideal.

First of all, it is cheap in monetary terms. Hunting squirrels here requires only your hunting license and, if you want to use a gun, your firearms license. Both of these cost money, of course, but it is minimal and if you are going to hunt at all then you are going to have them anyhow. It costs me ≈$40/year to stay legal and the costs of the initial safety courses have now been amortized over many years. In terms of equipment, all you need for squirrel hunting is a weapon of some sort. You could make your own slingshot for almost nothing or go the gun route or anything in between. My preferred tool is my bolt action .22 rifle. A Savage Mark II pattern, built by Lakefield arms, it cost me about $100 used at a gun shop several years ago. Buying ammo at the store would cost me about 10¢/shot but thanks to some good deals, including ammo accumulated during my firearms trading activities, I currently work on an estimate of about 2-3¢ per shot. The last pieces of equipment you will need are some blaze orange clothing if you are hunting shared areas or during certain seasons, and a knife or scissors for processing the squirrels.

In addition to being a frugal option, squirrels are an abundant option in many places. From a biological perspective, squirrels are relatively long-lived, but quick to mature and fecund. This combination means that relatively large numbers can be harvested from an area without harming the population. The hunting regulations reflect this, with long open seasons and generous daily bag limits. Combined with the disinterest, and even taboo, shown by hunters in general, this opens up more hunting opportunities than exist for a lot of more conventionally targeted species. As an added bonus, squirrels are common around human habitats. Every year I receive some squirrel meat as a byproduct of pest control trapping. I also live across the road from a large area of ideal squirrel habitat. No hunting is allowed there, but it isn’t uncommon for a squirrel to find its way across the road and into my front yard and I manage to harvest several squirrels each year just by keeping an eye out.

It should also be remembered that when hunting squirrels you aren’t necessarily limited to just squirrels. Depending on the open seasons, where I am hunting, what permits I have, and whether I am out with a shotgun or rifle, there are times when I can simultaneously hunt some combination of squirrels, rabbits, upland birds, mourning doves, geese, ducks, raccoons, possums, coyotes, even turkeys. Unfortunately, targeting multiple species does sometimes require a compromise because of what types of ammunition it is legal for you to be carrying during the hunt.

Hunting

Hunting squirrels is largely a matter of finding them — not in space, but in time. While an area may be full of squirrels, if they opt to spend all day in a nest or crevice then it doesn’t do you much good. On the bright side, it is very much an all-or-nothing proposition and if you can get out while there is the right combination of air temperature, sunlight and wind speed to see a squirrel, odds are you will see many more. The first nice day after several unpleasant days — particularly if there was a strong wind or precipitation — seems to be especially productive.

In order to locate squirrels, some people use calls. There are several commercial calls on the market and it is easy to make your own “cutting” call to simulate a squirrel chewing on a nut using either a nylon bolt or a couple of coins rubbed together. Tutorials of this nature abound on the internet. That being said, I have yet to explore these options myself.

One aid to hunting squirrels I have employed is my dog. Once you get used to reading their body language, even an untrained dog will be able to tell you which areas are full of squirrels and which trees they are hiding in. If you are set up to shoot them out of trees safely, a dog can also help to keep them pinned. A squirrel will often climb a tree, then circle around to the far side and head back down out of sight. A dog is often quick and alert enough to detect the ploy and circle to keep the squirrel up in the tree until you can close the distance. They are also useful once you have closed the distance if you don’t immediately have a shot. Between the two of you, it becomes possible to keep the entirety of the tree in sight. The other thing that dogs will do is train you to understand squirrel movement. You quickly start to recognize terrain features that squirrels will use to navigate the forest floor. If you pay attention to a dog’s movements and attitude during repeated visits to the same area, you will start to recognize “squirrel highways” — often fallen logs — that are repeatedly used by squirrels. Even if your dog isn’t with you, you can then return to those same areas and set up in a manner that you have a clean shot where you most suspect the squirrels will be.

Hunting with a dog.

Working with a dog adds an extra dimension to the experience of squirrel hunting and can up your success rate.

Beyond the pragmatic considerations, there is something immensely satisfying in working in conjunction with a dog. They have become domesticated enough to work in partnership with people but haven’t lost that instinct for the hunt that we have buried so deeply. There is a tendency in our affluent society to think of hunting as a leisure activity. Some might be able to elevate it to a job or lifestyle. Even with magic stainless steel bowls that get filled with food daily, however, a dog still understands that to hunt is to live.

The method I most use without my dog is to go to an area where I know squirrels are and sit quietly for a while. Once they emerge and start foraging, I wait for them to pause and then shoot them with my .22 rifle. My preferred shot is to the head, as this doesn’t damage any meat. If the squirrel is partly concealed or at a longer range, I will aim for the chest or center-of-mass. This is an easier target and errors in the shot are still likely to hit and kill the squirrel. While a gut shot is less than ideal, a .22 bullet will often travel through the cavity doing surprisingly little damage to the intestines and as long as the squirrel is promptly cleaned it isn’t overly problematic. When bow hunting for deer I will also bring along an arrow or two set up for squirrels. In this case, I aim for the thoracic cavity as I would for a larger animal. A hit results not only in a rapid death but also pins the squirrel to the ground, making recovery simple.

Processing

Once you’ve killed it, processing a squirrel starts with skinning it. They can be skinned in the traditional way one might skin any mammal — a cut up the belly and cuts down each leg, ringing the wrists etc. — but squirrels have tough skins that are well attached to their bodies which make them a bit of a pain as compared to something like a rabbit. Most people seem to prefer a much quicker method which starts with a cut to the base of the tail. I prefer a method which starts at the head end. I will detail both of these below.

Regardless of the method, I tend to process squirrels in the field. This is particularly important in the early season when temperatures may be higher than ideal and skinning and gutting the squirrel helps to bring the temperature down — at least to air temperature — at a reasonable rate. To start, I carry the squirrel over to the nearest fallen tree or stump that looks to be in good condition. I will sit on the tree or stand beside it, depending on its height, and use the tree as a work surface. This keeps everything much cleaner than working on the ground. When hunting, I also carry with me a small bottle of water which I use solely for processing squirrels. I keep it in a side pocket of my backpack and have no reservations in handling it with bloody hands, as I know I won’t be drinking from it.

It should be noted that squirrels can carry a number of diseases, including tularemia, so consideration should be given to wearing gloves while processing. I do not, but encourage others to look into the specific risks in their areas and weigh their options accordingly.

The more conventional of the two ways to skin a squirrel that I will cover is to start with a cut at the base of the tail. Although this method is fast, there are a few disadvantages. The biggest one for me is that squirrels really do have tough integument and I find that the force used to pull the squirrel upwards sometimes results in tearing of flesh before the skin is separated — particularly on the belly. The pulling also tends to compress the abdominal cavity and if there are any holes — due to either a shot or an overly eager dog bite — they will tend to extrude intestines. This isn’t necessarily a big problem, as the intestines can be pulled back through during gutting, but it does make them more prone to rupture. Regardless, the method proceeds like this:

From the tail 1/5

The starting point. Squirrel. Knife.

From the tail 2/5

A cut is made at the base of the tail, separating two vertebrae. The cut is then extended down each leg a couple of inches and skinning begins with the knife just a little bit in the direction of the head. This creates a bit of a flap.

From the tail 3/5

Stepping on the flap and tail with the heel of my boot. The legs are then pulled upwards until the skin has peeled all the way off.

From the tail 4/5

Once the skin is pulled off the head, only the bits on both rear legs remain. You can see that in this case the abdomen tore and the guts are partly exposed. This is one of the reasons I don’t like this method as much as the other. The damage to the shoulder seen in this picture is from the bullet after it had passed through the head, not from the skinning process.

From the tail 5/5

The head and feet can be cut off either before skinning or at this point. From this point on, the cleaning procedure is the same as in my preferred method, so I will cover it below.

My preferred method to skin them is potentially slightly more time consuming, though not by much. Rather than using a knife, this method uses a small pair of surgical scissors. These can be purchased for a few dollars from many surplus stores and, if kept sharp, will serve you well for many years. I have a couple pair, but the ones I like the best have a fairly broad blade on one side and a very sharp point on the other. I mostly keep the broad blade towards my work in order to prevent unwanted punctures, but will flip the scissors over and use the sharp point to get into small areas, such as slipping underneath the pelvic girdle in order to cut it. My preferred method starts at the head and proceeds like this:

From the head 1/11

The starting point. Squirrel. Scissors.

From the head 2/11

Cutting off the feet, both front and rear. Although the scissors should easily slice through the bone, they will remain sharper longer if you first push the feet against their natural motion enough that they dislocate slightly and then cut through — pushing aside rather than cutting the bone. This isn’t so critical on the front but really does work wonders on the rear feet.

From the head 3/11

Next, the head is cut off. The throat can be cut through easily but the vertebrae should be pried apart or twisted a bit first so as not to dull the scissors. Next a small slit is made in the skin from the neck down towards the armpit on one side. A finger is used to pry the skin away from the body and expose one front arm from the armpit to the elbow.

From the head 4/11

Once the arm is slightly exposed, it can be pushed out from the skin by pushing back on the wrist. Imagining taking an arm out of a sweater will help envision the action. Once one arm is free, the skin can be pulled away from the rest of the neck and over the other arm.

From the head 5/11

Once both arms are exposed, the fingers can be hooked around both arms and the skin can be pulled down off of the rest of the body. This requires a bit of force but, unlike the last method, the majority of the pressure is put on the thoracic and not abdominal cavity. This doesn’t cause problems, as the ribs protect the internals and this section is not so prone to tearing.

From the head 6/11

It may be necessary to help pry the rear legs out of the skin by pulling on the knee and/or slipping a finger between the rear edge of the leg and the skin. This leaves only the tail inside of the skin and at this point the whole thing can easily be cut off with the scissors.

From the head 7/11

The underside of the squirrel with the skin having been removed. You can tell that this was the first squirrel of the day, as my dog was overly eager and punctured the squirrel when retrieving it. Usually she calms down after the first but even this damage isn’t really a problem.

From the head 8/11

To gut the squirrel, the thin side of the scissors are inserted just underneath the belly side of the pelvic girdle. This is cut, followed by an incision up the belly and a cut through the ribcage at the sternum all the way to the neck. The bones here are thin and soft enough that the scissors easily cut through them.

From the head 9/11

Location of the easily accessible, edible organs. The gallbladder on the liver should be cut around and the heart can be removed from its sack. If you are feeding to a dog, the entirely of the liver, heart and lungs can be removed in one cut. Some people will actually feed the entirety of the guts, including the intestines.

From the head 10/11

Kidneys can be accessed by pushing aside the intestines. They are located along the spine, just down from the diaphragm. Alternately, the entirety of the guts can be scooped out and the kidneys harvested afterwards.

From the head 11/11

Once the useable organs have been removed, two fingers can be used to scoop everything left from the neck down to the pelvis and out. Be sure to hook the diaphragm on the way and be careful when sweeping out the pelvis to ensure that you have everything removed. The carcass can then be placed towards the edge of the log and water can be poured downwards to wash the cavity. Washing from head-to-tail is always a good idea and a rub with fingers can help to dislodge anything unwanted. After a quick rinse, I will place the carcass in a container in my backpack.

Once I return home, I give all the meat an additional rinse and then put it in a clean container in the refrigerator. I will leave them there for 2-3 days before going further. At that point I will separate them into parts and either cook them for dinner or freeze them for a future meal. The time in the fridge allows the meat to relax, dry, and age, resulting in a much more tender final product.

Cooking

You can cook squirrels whole, of course, but usually I cut them into their parts. There are traditional ways to do this that mostly result in getting four legs and loin, the rest being discarded or put to stock. I do things slightly differently. First, the traditional way:

Traditional Butchering Method 1/3

The starting point.

Traditional Butchering Method 2/3

Front legs are cut off as with other small animals, with the added complication of there being a collar bone. This can either be sliced through or pulled out once the rest of the leg has been separated. The rear leg is removed by cutting front and back until you hit the hip bone, at which point the bone can be dislocated and the joint separated with the knife.

Traditional Butchering Method 3/3

With all the legs removed, the belly flaps can be removed with the knife. The ribs and hips are then removed, at which point the loin can be trimmed towards the neck. This method results in five primary cuts along with various less desirable but still edible cuts.

The primary goal in my preparation, on the other hand, is to get as much flesh as possible attached to the four legs. To do this, I cut closely down each side of the spine and along the back of the ribcage to remove the back legs with a lot of the loin as well as the flap attached. On the front, I draw my blade closely along the ribcage and spine in order to cut off all of the connected muscles and leave them attached to the front legs. I then cut in along the back of the ribs until I get to the spine, which I twist off. This leaves me with four legs, each with excess flaps of tissue, along with a stripped down loin section and a ribcage and neck section.

Butchering a Squrrel 1/4

The starting point. Though not a great shot, you can see that the bullet didn’t actually destroy much meat.

Butchering a Squrrel 2/4

The legs are removed. By keeping the knife along the spine and then ribs, both the loin and belly flap remain attached to the hind legs.

Butchering a Squrrel 3/4

From above, you can see that the muscles connecting the front legs to the ribs have been cut off and remain with the leg.

Butchering a Squrrel 4/4

The symmetrical cuts completed and the ribs separated from what is left of the loin section.

Now, proper chefs might cringe at this preparation because the flaps are going to cook much more quickly than the legs themselves. In fact, if the general goal is to separate an animal into pieces of roughly equal size in order to cook them evenly, this method fails spectacularly. What I find, however, is that the additional meat quickly shrinks back and is neither tough nor awkward to eat. Braised recipes waylay any issues around the cooking time entirely and are perfect for these cuts. That being said, if I am freezing several squirrels at once, I will usually opt to pack the same cuts together so that I am pulling out a bag of only hind legs or only front legs. I rarely freeze the “scrap” pieces, preferring to cook them up immediately in a suitably forgiving dish.

Speaking of recipes, I have a few favourites:

I enjoy Hank Shaw’s “General Tso’s Pheasant” recipe, which can be found on his site: Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook. I don’t think I’ve ever followed it exactly, as I tend to make substitutions based on ingredients I have on hand and, in recent iterations, have added substantially more vegetables to make it a complete meal. Regardless, one can certainly substitute squirrel in for the pheasant and make a delicious meal of it.

The other proper dish I have made repeatedly is Squirrel and Dumplings. As with anything else, there is a degree of improvisation that goes on. First, I start by making the dumpling dough, which consists of a couple cups of flour, a heaping tablespoon of baking powder, a heaping teaspoon of white sugar, a teaspoon of salt, a couple tablespoons of butter or margarine and a couple tablespoons of buttermilk powder. I mix this together with a fork until the butter or margarine is all broken up and the mix has a somewhat uniform texture. In some ways the texture is similar to that of a food processor pie dough, except that I only have to wash a fork later. I then add a cup of milk and mix the dough, followed by a quick kneading. I form the dough into a ball and put it into an empty yogurt container, put on the lid, and set it aside.

Squirrel and Dumplings

The finished dish, light on the broth.

Moving to the braise, I start by putting a thick layer of oil in the bottom of a large skillet. I lightly cover the parts of three squirrels in corn starch and then fry them for a minute or two on each side. I then remove the meat to a bowl and drain most of the oil. To the remaining oil, I add onions and any vegetables that benefit from a little time in the pan. Once they have cooked, I add in some crushed garlic for a moment to bloom and then add vegetables. I have used various combinations of asparagus, peas, beans and carrots. If they have been frozen I add them in in a chunk. If they have been canned I drain the water first. I also add tomato at this point — either a canned pasta sauce or crushed tomato. I might also add a can of cream of celery condensed soup at this point if I have one on hand. Depending on what I’ve added, I’ll make a quick guess on flavouring and add some salt, pepper, maybe some oregano or cayenne pepper. I let everything come up in heat, add the meat back in, and then let it simmer for .. some time. A healthy splash of Worcestershire sauce is not amiss once the meat is back in the dish. After it has cooked long enough for the meat to be done, I’ll check the flavour and make adjustments. Since the cooking takes the meat past the point of well done, it is good to give it enough time to get tender again. In other words, the standard rules of braising apply. Alternately, one could also cook the squirrel to medium rare or so in the initial stage and then set it aside to rest — adding it back in only at the end to meld the flavours.

The true beauty of this recipe, however, comes in the last fifteen minutes. It is at this point that I push the solid ingredients to the side of the pan or even remove some to a bowl to make room. Into the liquid of the braise, I add 1″ balls of dough and let them simmer. Usually I keep the heat on low, though one time I had to leave the house for a bit so I turned the stove off entirely and let the residual heat in the liquid cook the dumplings, which worked just fine. At this stage, I will usually only use half of the dough. Once the dumplings are ready, we eat. Once the pan is cooled, I will put a lid on it and put it in the fridge. The following day I can remove the pan and heat it back up on the stove, adding the remaining dough and simmering for 15 minutes to have fresh dumplings on the second serving. I once went overboard on the ingredients and ended up with a third serving, which I added to some pasta to compensate for the lack of dumplings.

Squirrel Hearts

The best part. Four squirrel hearts on a skewer, fried with eggs and on toast.

Of course some times you just want something fast and easy. In that case, what I do is add corn starch, salt and some seasonings to the container with the squirrel parts in it and shake it around. I’ve done this with flour as well, but corn starch tends to produce a better coating. The pieces can then be quickly pan fried for about 3-4 minutes a side. Nothing fancy, but it takes very little effort and produces a good quick meal. Where this is particularly useful is if I prepared a different squirrel dish using only the legs or opted to freeze the legs. Rather than cover the harder-to-eat parts in a sauce and make them harder to eat, the leftover sections can just be quickly pan fried. They take a while to pick at to get all the meat off — but when it is just my wife and I then neither an expedient nor dignified eating procedure is required.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *