Real Food Encyclopedia | Rabbit
The popularity of rabbit has waxed and waned in the United States. First colonists brought the European rabbit to America as a source of food and it helped to sustain frontier people as they moved west with no time to hunt and cure meat. During both world wars, home cooks raised their own rabbits to put on the table when rationed beef was scarce.
As eaters turn their attention toward the environmental impact of raising animals for food, rabbits come out way ahead, which is contributing to a surge in the meat’s popularity. This is particularly true on farm-to-table menus where chefs see the valuable role that rabbit raising can play in a farm’s ecosystem. However, some people are not ready to see rabbits as food, instead of as companion animals or cuties to cuddle. When Whole Foods attempted to sell rabbit a few years back, they were faced with fierce protest from animal rights activists, and they ceased selling rabbit meat. There are many eaters who cannot reconcile the animals’ reputation as a pet with their potential as a viable source of protein for a growing population. For the rest of you, here are some tips for buying and preparing rabbit.
Fun Facts about Rabbit:
- The terms “rabbit” and “bunny” can be used interchangeably to describe the same animal. “Hares,” however, are a related but different species.
- There are about eighty varieties of domestic rabbit but they can all be traced back to a single wild ancestor from the Iberian Peninsula. Phoenician sailors found the area so heavily populated with the animals that they named it “Hispania (aka, Spain),” which translates to “land of rabbits.”
- The Romans valued rabbits for their meat and fur and were the first to domesticate them by penning the animals and allowing them to breed freely.
- In the 5th century, French monks began keeping rabbits for food as part of their self-sustaining lifestyle. The monks were the first to selectively breed rabbits to encourage desired traits such as weight and fur quality.
What to Look for When Buying Rabbit
Rabbit meat is classified as a white meat. Many eaters say it tastes like chicken, but more so. Some think it’s very similar to frogs’ legs. The meat is fine-grained and delicately flavored. Rabbits are generally sold whole and usually weigh just under three pounds, dressed. One rabbit will feed four to six people.
Sustainability of Rabbit
Environmental Impact of Raising Rabbits
Raising rabbits is a highly efficient way to create an abundant supply of high quality protein while maintaining a light environmental foodprint. For the same amount of food and water it takes to produce a pound of beef, you can produce six pounds of rabbit meat.
Rabbits are easily stressed, which compromises their immune system. While this may sound like a bad trait to have for a farm animal, this delicate constitution acts as its own protection against the factory farming conditions that plague many animal operations. To be successful, commercial operations have to keep rabbits happy by necessity. That means clean and in well-ventilated cages that give them ample room, access to fresh water and nutritious feed and a calm environment. Some rabbit ranchers play soothing music for their animals and talk to them to keep the animals tranquil.
Unlike that of chickens or cows, rabbit feces is a “cold” manure, meaning that it can be applied directly to the garden without being processed through a composting system. This nutrient-rich soil amendment is a great resource to use on-farm and can also provide an additional source of income for the farmer who chooses to retail this product.
Wild rabbits breed from early spring to late summer. Rabbits raised commercially are bred year-round.
And breed they do. Rabbits have between one to fourteen babies per litter, the average being six. Their gestation period is a mere thirty days and a doe can be impregnated immediately after giving birth if introduced to a buck. Most breeders count on roughly six litters per doe per year.
Rabbit is sold in some supermarkets and the meat is most often frozen, but we’ve also seen “fresh” air-sealed rabbit (buyer beware, as such meat is often treated with preservatives). You can also try your local butcher. If they don’t have rabbit in the case, they can often order it for you. The farmers’ market is probably your best bet for sourcing, though. As the many benefits of raising rabbit are realized, many farmers are folding them into their rotation.
Raising Rabbits for Meat
Rabbits are one of the easiest meat animals to raise. Even city dwellers can maintain a small herd for their own consumption. Urban homesteaders know that rabbits require very little space and do not disturb the neighbors nearly as much as a noisy flock of chickens.
For the commercial farmer, a sizable rabbit herd can be established on a very small plot of land, as little as one eighth of an acre. Other than the cages, little specialized equipment is required, keeping start-up costs quite low. Rabbits provide a lot of meat for little investment. Each doe produces roughly 25 to 50 live rabbits a year, which will yield about 75 to 150 pounds of meat.
Freshly slaughtered rabbits are aged for one to three days in the refrigerator to tenderize. If they aren’t then going to be cooked, they can be wrapped well and frozen for a few months.
Cooking with Rabbit
Rabbit takes well to a variety of cooking methods. Because of its lean quality, rabbit is often stewed or braised for a long time or cooked quickly by either frying or grilling to prevent it from drying out. Rabbit sausage gives cooks an opportunity to mix the super lean meat with a substantial amount of fat, such as rendered lard, for added richness. Rabbit offal — the heart, kidneys and liver — are prized as a delicacy.
Rabbit meat is described by some as a “super” food. It is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, high in protein and low in calories. Compared to beef, pork, lamb, turkey, veal and chicken, rabbit has the highest percentage of protein, the lowest percentage of fat and has the fewest calories per pound, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Rabbit is so lean, though, that if it is going to play a large role in one’s diet, it needs to be accompanied by sufficient quantities of fat or the eater will fall ill with “rabbit starvation.” Without the proper ration of protein and fat, an eater will always feel hungry and, given sufficient supply, will consume more protein than the body can process to reach a state of satiety.