How to Gut and Cook Tree Rat

In this excerpt from his newest book, The 4-Hour Chef, Timothy Ferriss shares Outside contributing editor Steven Rinella's instructions for cooking up a squirrel (or three) over the fire

    Photo: TessarTheTegu via Shutterstock

Skewering a single squirrel.

Skewering multiple squirrels.

The 4-Hour Chef.

"Staying in the house breeds a sort of insanity always." —Henry David Thoreau

SHORTHAND
Cook gutted, skewered squirrel 12-18" over a bed of coals, rotating every two minutes. Remove when joints in back legs separate easily, about 20 minutes

TOTAL TIME
Approximately 35 minutes, plus time to start the fire and find your skewers

GEAR
Kindling; Coleman fire-starting paste (optional); knife; one-two sticks for skewering; two-four forked sticks

OPTIONAL MUSIC PAIRING
"Animal Rap Instrumental" by Jedi Mind Tricks

Perhaps you think that squirrels are cute, mute little creatures.

Not so. They produce a chirp-squeal akin to a Jack Russell digging through a chalkboard. I know this because the little devils woke me throughout college from a branch outside my window at 6 a.m. or earlier. In Princeton, New Jersey, rumor has it, squirrels were once part of a breeding experiment at the university. The result? Thousands of racket-making rodents with odd coloration straight out of Pimp My Squirrel—dots, zebra patterns, racing stripes, and so on.

Just before Steve Rinella and I rendezvoused in South Carolina, where I could order a hunting license online instead of spending weeks on paperwork (in California), he sent me the itinerary via email:

"OK, we'll shoot rifles on Friday. Saturday morning we'll go for deer. We'll hunt pigeons during the day with shotguns. Then we'll do deer again if we want that evening. Sunday we can hunt deer or squirrels in the morning or else concentrate on our meat packaging and preparations."

Reading this, I felt like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. Did he say ... squirrels?

COOKING SQUIRRELS
Steve once lived on a beach in Mexico (literally on the beach) for a month with his brother. The routine consisted of catch-and-release fishing for bonefish, and catch-and-kill fishing for barracuda and snapper, which they cooked on spits. They drank water from coconuts, and dried coconut husks served as fuel for the cooking fire.

Under more luxurious circumstances (i.e., having a decent backpack), he would have packed a multifuel stove like the Whisperlite or Optimus, sometimes referred to as "slut" stoves sine they take anything: diesel, unleaded, propane, kitten farts, etc.

We'll explain spit cooking (a la vara in Spanish) with squirrel. The explanations under each step are Steve's.

00: GET THE FIRE STARTED
"I carry Coghlan's fire-starting paste. It's a great product for starting fires quickly in wet conditions. Good, dry kindling can be found beneath the canopy of pines and evergreens. Use the small, dry limbs, and start with match-size pieces. If it's very wet, use your knife to whittle toothpick-size pieces from the core of larger dry sticks. If the ground is soaked, you can also create a platform out of green branches, which you then build your fire upon." (The MacGwyer replacement for fire paste is cotton balls rubbed in Vaseline and carried in a film canister.)

01: IN THE MEANTIME, GET YOUR STICKS FOR THE SKEWER
"Make sure your skewers are green, taken from a live tree. The ideal size is 2ft (60cm) long, and 3/8" (9mm) to 1/2" (13mm) in diameter. Willow is a traditional skewer material, but almost any wood will work. Generally, hardwoods are better, as they are more durable and less prone to burning to nothing. We used maple."

02: OPTIONAL: CUT OFF THE FEET AND TAIL
"I did this for aesthetic reasons, as a long, singed tail is a nasty sight and there isn't any meat there. Ditto with feet. However, this does not affect the process. It's a matter of personal preference."

03: ONCE THE FIRE IS READY, BURN OFF THE HAIR
"The fire is ready when you have a bed of coals the size of a dinner plate and a couple of inches deep. They should glow brightly. Now, toss the squirrel on the bed of coals, but where you can still reach the animal with a stick without getting burnt to hell. Keep it rolling and moving around, so that you burn off the hair without burning through the hide. Imagine toasting a marshmallow without catching it on fire. You wanna keep it moving."

04: SLICE OPEN THE BELLY AND GUT
"It's important to save the gutting procedure until after burning the hair, as a gutting incision will allow the introduction of ash and debris. Start the incision at the squirrel's brisket, or sternum, and work toward the belly. Be careful to keep your knife just beneath the muscle and abdominal lining. Do not cut or nick any of the internal organs, especially the stomach. Run the incision all the way down to the pelvis bone, but do not split the pelvis in two. Next, grab the squirrel's heart and pull the whole package of innards downward. The lower intestine should pull out and disconnect from near the squirrel's anus. At this point, the squirrel is gutted."

05: SKEWER THE SQUIRREL AND PLACE IT OVER EMBERS
"When doing a single squirrel (or rabbit), it's best to run a skewer through the pelvis bone, up the abdominal cavity, and then into the throat and out the mouth. It is very secure this way, and can be supported on just two forked sticks. When doing multiple animals, you can use two skewers. Run one through the rear legs and another through the front shoulders, so that the animals are positioned in a parallel fashion: two skewers require four forked sticks."

"Position the squirrel over a bed of coals, not over the open flame. Cooking height depends on intensity of heat. Try to keep it where you can only hold your hand for a count of two or three. Could be anywhere from 12-18" (30-46cm), typically. Rotate frequently, every couple of minutes. The entire process could take upwards of 20 minutes. Remove when the meat is cooked so well that the ball joints of the rear legs begin to separate with a light twist, like how the leg of a well-cooked chicken can be removed with minimal effort."

06: THE PAYOFF: EAT YOUR LITTLE MORSEL, WHICH WILL TASTE LIKE, YOU GUESSED IT, CHICKEN
"Most of your meat is on the back hams, followed by the loins [along the spine]. Front legs are certainly worth the effort. In a pinch, cook and eat the heart, liver, and lungs."

TAKE IT SLOW
The key to fire cooking is to not speed-cook. Charring steak directly over a raging fire might seem manly, but it's also the route to burned on the outside and rare on the inside. This might be tasty (to some) as a blood-rare steak, but blood-rare tree rat won't win any Diners' Choice Awards.

Excerpted from The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life (New Harvest). Copyright © 2012 by Timothy Ferriss. Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved.

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