You’ve finally managed to get the woodchuck that’s been plaguing your garden all season, now what? It seems a shame to waste good meat, especially when it’s been well fed on the food that was supposed to be on your family’s table.
Groundhogs are not only edible, they’re tender and delicious if properly cleaned and prepared. They live on a completely vegetarian diet, and cary no life threatening diseases for humans. Groundhogs are similar to rabbit in taste, and most recipes for groundhog have you prepare them in the same manner.
The main difference between rabbit and groundhog is the scent glands. Groundhogs have scent glands that can impart an off flavor to the meat if not removed promptly. The scent glands are small kernels a bit smaller than a pea just beneath their skin, located around the back, armpits and tail.
How to Clean a Groundhog (Woodchuck)
Start by making a small incision at the sternum with a sharp knife. Be careful to just go skin deep, rather than puncturing the meat or viscera below. If you have a field hunting knife with a gut hook for skinning, this is one place where they’re very useful. The hook on the backside of the hunting knife can be looped into that small slit and used to “unzip” the groundhog from his skin. Carefully pull back with you hunting knife hook to open the skin down the center line of the stomach.
If you don’t have a hunting knife, a small high carbon steel knife is also a good choice. Either way, make a very shallow cut with an extremely sharp knife so that you don’t puncture the viscera and spoil the meat. Remember, you’re only going skin deep, keeping the abdominal muscles intact so they contain the viscera.
Once you’ve opened the skin down the center line from the neck to the groin, expand that line out in an “X” by cutting down each leg. As you open up the skin down each leg, work your fingers between the skin and the meat to loosen the skin away from the meat. There’s no need to use a knife to separate the skin from the meat at this point, and doing so will only risk putting holes in the hide.
The skin should come away from the meat relatively easily, but if you run into a particularly stuck patch, use the tip of your knife to help it along with very shallow cuts. Be careful not to puncture the hide.
Work your fingers in around each leg, separating the skin from the leg meat. Once the skin has pulled away from the leg meat, the skin on the feet should be all that’s holding together. Skip your knife into the opening created between the skin and leg meat, and cut outward to remove the last bits of skin still attached near the foot. This should free the skin, and allow you to remove it.
If you’ve used your hands to work the skin away from the meat starting at the stomach and around to the back, once the hind feet are removed you should be able to pull the skin away at the back and work your way forward to separate the skin from the meat up around the shoulders.
After the meat is freed from the hide around the shoulders, cut off the skin at the neck and remove your finished hide. The hide can be saved in a storage bag in the freezer until you’re ready to tan it.
With the hide removed, it’s now time to gut and fully clean your groundhog. This is another place where a field hunting knife with a gut hook comes in handy. Make a small incision at the sternum and use your gut hook to unzip your groundhog without puncturing the viscera. If you’re not using a gut hook, be very careful at this point. Thus far you’ve kept your groundhog clean, and spilling the viscera is not only smelly, it makes a big mess of your meat that will take a while to wash up.
At this point, can you tell if it’s a male or female groundhog by looking at the picture above? Leave a note in the comments if you can.
Once the abdominal cavity is opened, cut around the anus to release the colon and gently pull it through the hip bones. Pull out the viscera, using a knife if necessary to cut the esophagus right as it comes through the diaphragm and above the stomach. Place the viscera in a bowl to bury or compost.
The organs inside the ribcage and above the diaphragm are still in there at this point. Use your hands to open up the diaphragm and pull out the lungs and heart. You shouldn’t need a knife at this point, but be sure to reach all the way up to the top of the chest cavity to get everything in one piece. If necessary, reach back in and scrape any remaining lung fragments from the inside of the ribs.
Some people use game lungs as a filler in sausages, but there’s not much to them other than a spongy texture. They’re edible if you’re really hungry, but otherwise don’t bother. The heart on the other hand is all muscle and very flavorful. Filet the heart open to remove the blood jelly from the chambers and batter and fry for a real treat.
Your final step is to remove the feet and head. The best tool I’ve found for removing small animal feet is a good quality meat cleaver, and I particularly love my restored antique cleaver. Cleavers are under appreciated kitchen tools, that come in handy taking apart game or piecing apart a chicken, and a good quality cleaver is only about $10-15. If you’re at the point of cutting up your own groundhog, you’re definitely doing enough cooking to justify owning one. Lacking a cleaver, however, a very sharp pair of scissors or garden shears will work for an animal as small as a groundhog.
Once the head and feet are removed, you’ve now got yourself a skinned, gutted but you still need to remove the scent glands before cooking. You can go a step further and part out the legs for cooking as individual cuts, or roast the woodchuck whole in a long slow braise with a lot of good fat and seasoning (bacon or pork belly makes a good accompaniment).
How to Remove the Scent Glands from a Groundhog
Each animal is going to have some number of musk glands around the armpits, along the back and near the genitals. They’re small nodules, about the size of a pea or a bit smaller. Once you have your groundhog gutted and skinned, be sure to remove the scent glands as soon as possible to keep the meat from developing a musky off flavor. Some of them are hard to see, and to be safe, soak the woodchuck in salted water overnight to draw out any remaining musky flavor.
How much meat is on a Groundhog?
Our groundhog weighed in at 7.5 lbs before dressing, but once the skin, head and viscera were removed the final yield was 2.5 lbs including bones. So the answer, not a whole lot. Bones, tendons and extra fat fully removed there is roughly 1 to 1.5 pounds of meat on an adult groundhog. A lot better than a squirrel, and a bit better than a wild rabbit, but still just barely enough for a single meal for a small family.
How to Cook a Groundhog
Soak the groundhog in salt water for at least 4 hours, or overnight. Somewhere around 1/2 cup per gallon of water is a good place to start. Pat the woodchuck dry and cook as you would rabbit. It’s a relatively dry but flavorful meat, that works well with a long braise in a flavorful broth. Try this basic braised groundhog recipe. I’m particularly excited about this pressure cooked woodchuck and dumplings recipe. This particular little guy, however, was buttermilk marinated and southern fried because just like rabbit, cooking groundhog with a lot of oil adds some richness and keeps the meat moist.
The Northern Cookbook from 1973 includes a number of game recipes including Sweet Pickled Beaver and Squirrel Fricassee, as well as this simple recipe for woodchuck in gravy:
Woodchuck in Gravy Recipe from The Northern Cookbook
2 onions, sliced
1/2 cup celery, sliced
Clean woodchuck; remove glands; cut into serving pieces. Soak overnight in a solution of equal parts of water and vinegar with addition of one sliced onion and a little salt. Drain, wash, and wipe. Parboil 20 minutes, drain, and cover with fresh boiling water. Add one sliced onion, celery, a few cloves, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook until tender; thicken gravy with flour.