Nothing says survivalist or outdoor enthusiast quite like a freshly harvested rabbit cooked over an open campfire. Rabbits are more than plentiful across the United States, but unlike many countries in Europe, you are not very likely to find rabbit meat at your local grocery store or butcher shop. That rarity is just another reason to cook and eat rabbit while you are out camping or backpacking.
In the following article we will introduce you to the best way to cook a rabbit over an open fire. We have also included a section explaining in detail what rabbit meat tastes like; but first we will discuss the first steps you will need to take prior to cooking your fresh harvest: the art of field dressing and preparing your prey for the cooking process.
Field Dressing and Preparing Rabbit for the Fire
Field dressing a rabbit is the process of skinning it and removing the internal organs—a step that is absolutely necessary before cooking. Fortunately, it is fairly easy and quick to field dress a rabbit and prepare it for cooking. Just follow the series of steps below and before you know it you’ll be enjoying fresh and flavorful rabbit.
Drain the Blood of the Rabbit
After you have harvested (killed) the rabbit you intend to cook, the next step is draining the blood. To do this, you will need to make a large cut near the head off with a sturdy knife. Simply lay the rabbit down on a flat surface, and insert the knife at the base of the skull—where the skull meets the neck. Firmly push down and you have a hole large enough for draining. Next, hang the rabbit over a bucket by its hind quarters, and wait until all the draining has completely ceased.
Skinning the Rabbit
The best time to dress a rabbit is when it is still warm—allowing your prey to become stiff and rigid will make it much more difficult to skin. Also, if you wait too long to dress the rabbit, you run the risk of contaminating the meat.
Before you begin to skin the rabbit, prepare a clean space on which to work. This will be easier at your base camp than when in the field. However, if you choose to dress your rabbit while you are still on your hunt, make sure to use a clean knife that is free of rust and contaminants. You should also thoroughly rinse the carcass before skinning it to remove any possible contaminants on the rabbit’s fur.
The feet of the rabbit have no meat in them, so it’s best to remove the feet—at the ankle knuckle—before you begin the dressing process. For those that are superstitious when it comes to luck, you can always keep the feet and have them preserved and colored as a good luck charm.
Once you have removed the feet of the rabbit, you will want to make a small cut in the fur along the back of the animal. To do this, grab the skin near the shoulders of the rabbit, and gently lift the skin up and away from the carcass and muscle. Make a small cut that runs perpendicular (across) to the backbone—a cut just large enough to allow your fingers to penetrate it.
Using the first two fingers on each hand, penetrate the fur “hook style,” with pressure going in opposite directions. Once inserted, use one hand to pull towards the rabbit’s head, and the other hand to pull towards the tail. Keep working the fur in this manner until it is connected at the neck only.
Once the fur has been removed all the way to the neck, you will want to twist the head off the rabbit. To accomplish this, you will want to grasp the rabbit’s hind legs with your non-dominant hand, allowing the head to hang below. With your dominant hand, grab the neck of the rabbit, while also gathering the remaining fur around the neck. Twist the head and legs in the opposite direction, and Viola—the head should come right off.
Excising the Rabbit’s Organs
Now that you have a headless, skinless and footless carcass, the next step is to remove the rabbit’s organs, a process that will take several steps.
First, turn the rabbit belly side up and make a small incision in the belly. Before doing this, you will want to pull the skin as far away from the organs as possible, continuing to lift the skin with your fingers inserted in the hole until the cut has reached the rib cage. In doing it this may, the process will be much cleaner. Once you have reached the rib cage, continue cutting until you have severed the ribs and the breast bone. This will allow you to open up the body cavity and expose the organs. When making your cuts, be very careful not to pierce the urine sac or colon, as this can contaminate the meat.
With the body cavity open, gently pierce and pull away the clear-colored membrane that surrounds the heart, liver and other organs, as this will give you cleaner and easier access to the organs. Next, pick the rabbit up by the neck area with your non-dominant hand so that the back legs and hind quarters are pointed towards the ground. At the top of the rabbit, place your dominant hand behind the organs and gently scoop them out into a waiting bucket (in the field you can scoop them onto the ground)—they should fall out quite easily at this point.
If you want to be extra careful not to contaminate the meat, you can always remove the urine sac before scooping out the organs. You can find this sac—which looks like a small yellow balloon—close to the rabbit’s anus.
If you want to save any organs for cooking—the heart, liver, etc.—simply place them out of the way. Otherwise you can simply discard all the internal organs. Rinse the rabbit well to remove any excess blood and “goo.” This is an important step that can make the final product taste much better.
Butchering/Preparing the Rabbit for Cooking
Before your rabbit is ready for the fire and ultimately consumption, there are a few steps you will need to take to properly butcher and prepare it.
Using a boning knife, go over the carcass of the rabbit, inside and out, and remove any remaining sinew and fat (rabbit fat is not particularly tasty). Rabbits are a fairly lean animal, so this process should not take that long. You will also notice a fine layer over the entire outside of the rabbit—this is known as silverskin. While some hunters/preparers prefer to leave this layer on when “frying” a rabbit—to give it a little crispiness and crunch—others dislike the taste of this silverskin and thus remove it. For the purpose of the recipe we will show you in the next section, your best bet is to carefully remove the silverskin at this juncture of the process by simply scraping it off with your fillet knife.
Once the rabbit has been cleaned of the fat, sinew and silverskin, the next step is to remove the legs of the rabbit (if you so choose). You are not removing the legs to throw them out—just the opposite. Rabbit legs, especially the hind legs, tend to be the best part of the rabbit from a taste perspective. Here you are simply removing them to make the butchering process a little easier to handle. For our recipe, though, we recommend that you leave the legs on at this point. Ultimately you will be removing them, but not until after the rabbit has cooked.
For other recipes, here is how to remove the legs:
To remove the front legs, make an incision under the front legs, and run your knife along the ribs of the rabbit. The front legs are not attached by bone, so they should come off very easily. When removing the back legs, splay the carcass on your cutting surface with the belly side up, and bend the rear legs out to each side to expose the connecting joint. Then, use the point of your blade to separate the legs from the connecting tissue.
At this point—at least for the purpose of the rabbit recipe we plan to show and explain to you—the butchering process is complete. Some hunters, however, will go a step further and separate the belly meat of the rabbit from the loin, but because rabbits are so small, this is really not necessary.
The Best Way(s) to Cook Rabbit over a Fire
As we mentioned, here we will show you the best way to cook a rabbit in the wilderness over an open campfire. This method involves cooking the rabbit on a spit. After reading how to accomplish this (and if you choose to try this method) try to remember to leave the legs attached during the butchering process. Whatever you do, do not simply throw these parts away—like we said, this is where you will find some of the tastiest meat.
Cooking Rabbit with a Spit over an Open Flame
Just like harvesting, dressing, butchering, and eating rabbit, the method of cooking it over a spit screams primitive and survivalist. This is the way rabbit has been prepared for thousands of years out in the wild, and can actually be accomplished with no cooking pans or utensils whatsoever, making it a truly primal method of cooking.
Preparing/Creating the Spit
Before you prepare your rabbit for the spit, you may want to make a brine and soak the rabbit in it (if you have access to water and salt). A brine will help take away some of the gaminess of the animal, but it is certainly not necessary.
Once you have cleaned and prepared your rabbit, use small sticks and place them through both the hind legs and front legs of the rabbit. If you have some string, you can also tie the legs off. If all you can find are dry sticks, be sure to soak them in water for about 30 minutes before using them, as this will prevent them from burning.
Next find a sapling about a 1 inch in diameter. It’s important to find one small enough to pierce through the carcass of the rabbit, yet large and sturdy enough to prevent it from breaking during the cooking process. Once you find the perfect live branch, use your knife to remove all the bark, this will usually be enough to prevent it from burning while the cooking is taking place.
Stick the sapling through the rabbit long-ways, leaving about six inches to a foot of exposed branch on each side of the rabbit. Remember, the branch will have to reach all the way across the fire, so be sure to measure the fire pit before selecting your branch. Here you can also secure the carcass to the legs if you so choose, but this is not really necessary with a small game animal such as this. A branch with a small knot or gripping point on one end would be ideal, as this can serve as a “turning handle” during the cooking process.
Prior to starting your campfire, you will need to create the apparatus on which your spit will turn. To do this, you will need to find (or create) two branches—branches that are straight on one end and “Y” shaped on the other end. The straight end of the sticks will go into the ground on either side of the fire pit; while the “Y” shaped end of the branches will face each other at each end of the fire pit—running parallel to each other.
Building the Campfire
When cooking with a spit, the best type of campfire to build is one that will burn hot and low, with minimal flames and lots of heat. The best type of campfire design for this purpose is known as the Cross Fire. To make a cross-shaped fire, stack your kindling in a criss-cross pattern over the tinder, followed by the firewood. This type of assembly is great for a long-lasting fire.
Season Your Rabbit
If you’re out camping in the woods or in some type of survivalist scenario, this next step is of course not necessary—and it may not even be possible. However, if you do have access to some basic spices—salt, pepper, garlic, etc.—you may want to try different seasoning combinations until you find one you really like. Be sure to season the entire rabbit, even the inside portion. Seasoning can also take away some of the gaminess that many people dislike.
Cook and Enjoy Your Rabbit
With the fire burning low and hot, place the sapling with the rabbit attached over the campfire, laying each of the exposed ends of the sapling into the Y-shaped notches on the bases you created. Using the knot or grip on one end (if you have one) of the sapling, turn the rabbit frequently so each part has an ample opportunity to cook directly over the heat.
Depending on the size of the rabbit you harvested, the cooking time can be anywhere from 20-45 minutes. Once all of the juices have run clear of the rabbit (you can test this by cutting into it), and the meat is firm to the touch all the way around, you can take it off the fire and prepare to eat it.
If you left the legs on the rabbit while cooking, this is the time to separate them from the belly meat and loin, using the exact same technique we highlighted below. Allow for about 10 minutes rest time before cutting into the rabbit—during this time the rabbit is still cooking and by allowing it to rest you will have a piece of meat that is very tender and tasty. Once the meat has rested, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your rabbit harvest.
What Does Rabbit Taste Like
Although plentiful in the woods and wilderness areas of the United States, rabbit is certainly not your normal fare. In fact, a good majority of people, not just from this country but around the world, have never tasted rabbit, and thus have no idea regarding its flavor. In places where it is widely available, many of its regular eaters truly enjoy the taste of rabbit; and in some places it is considered an absolute delicacy.
According to those who have tried rabbit, this author included, its meat has a very distinct, yet tasty flavor. The flavor is so distinct and unique, in fact, that it’s hard to describe it with merely a single word or phrase.
The taste of a rabbit depends on many factors, including the type of rabbit you will be eating. Rabbits that are raised domestically tend to have a tamer, yet fattier flavor than their wild, untamed counterparts; while wild rabbit is known to be leaner, drier and much more gamier-tasting.
You have probably heard the old saying: “It tastes just like chicken.” Well, in some respects, rabbit meat does have a similar flavor to America’s most oft-eaten bird. Of course, the taste of a wild rabbit is much gamier than a chicken, while domestic rabbit is much closer in flavor and texture to both chicken and turkey.
Compared to beef—almost any kind of beef—rabbit meat, whether off a wild or domestic rabbit, is much leaner. And because it has very little fat, the taste of a rabbit’s meat is also a bit blander (if unseasoned) and less robust than beef.
In my experience, most people in the United States—people who have grown up eating chicken, beef, pork and turkey for the most part—tend to like the flavor of rabbit; while a small majority complains that it is too dry and gamy for their tastes. At the end of the day, though, the taste of rabbit will ultimately depend on the way it is cooked and seasoned.
As in our recipe above, rabbit that has been initially brined and properly seasoned tends to lose a bit of its gamy flavor, and by cooking it over an open flame you are also adding the pleasant taste of smoke and wood to the meat. The end result is a unique tasting animal that always tastes better when it has been freshly harvested and prepared and cooked properly.
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