By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

Each December, processers all over the state are busy butchering the thousands of elk killed by hunters around the state last fall. Some hunt for sport, but most everyone I know shoots their elk with the intention of consuming it.

Native to North America and Eastern Asia, the elk, or wapiti, as the Shawnee Indians called it, is one of the largest mammals on our continent. Only moose and bison are larger. And while there are a few species of elk that are now extinct, the U.S. is still left with four: the Roosevelt, Tule, Manitoban and Rocky Mountain. And—the name is a dead giveaway—the Rocky Mountain elk is the one we see here in Montana.

Historically the name elk has been confusing and even misleading at times. The first European settlers believed the elk they encountered here in the U.S. were related to the moose rather than the red deer. “Elk” is what they called a moose, and to make matters worse, red deer and our elk are considered the same species.

Elk is a lean animal, with only 22 percent of its energy derived from fat as compared to beef, which comes in at 35-47 percent. Additionally, elk meat is high in iron and riboflavin, and extremely high in vitamin B12. It’s also low in cholesterol. And it is, without a doubt, a flavorful and nutritious alternative to beef, though I hardly need to tell Montanans that.

I once purchased an entire side of beef. And when I gave my requirements to the processer as to how I wanted the carcass butchered, he was dumbfounded.

“What’s the deal with this guy?” he asked my friend from whom I had purchased the side of beef. “He’s a chef,” my friend replied. “Ah, that makes sense now” the butcher said.

My point? Most consumers who go through this process often ask for premium cuts of steak such as tenderloin, rib eye, and New York strip. The majority of what’s left they ask to have ground in to burger. Or, in the case of elk, ground and made into sausage.

Whether this stems from a simple lack of knowledge about the many other options or they simply don’t care for anything more, I’m here to tell you there is so much more to enjoy from one of America’s finest trophies and sources of red meat.

The dressing percentage of elk is virtually as high as cattle, coming in, on average, at 55 percent and 58-60 percent, respectively. So there are relatively similar cuts to be acquired.

For example, both the front and hind shanks can be processed to make osso buco. This is a horizontal cut with the bone in the center that is located above the knee and stretches about 10 inches up. It has tremendous flavor and is great for braising or very slow cooking.

Directly above the shank area is the entire hindquarter. This large area can look like one giant roast. But talk to your butcher and get him to separate all the individual muscles. There are about six or seven. They can be cut into smaller steaks or grilled as is after some marinating or perhaps your favorite dry rub.

The rib chops are, to me, one of the top cuts, and you’ll see these on the Buck’s T-4 menu this winter.

But there are many more cuts to take advantage of. Reach out to me anytime and I’ll fill your head with ideas.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.