Elk meat has a rich, slightly sweet flavor that is milder than other venison like caribou, deer, or moose. To make this retro-inspired appetizer of elk meatballs, simply season the ground meat with sautéed onions, garlic, and a little allspice; add some ground pork for extra juiciness; form it into meatballs; and broil in the oven on a baking sheet. Then place the meatballs in a pot of homemade bourbon-barbecue sauce and keep them warm on the stovetop or in a slow cooker for an easy party appetizer. Or try stuffing them into a sandwich roll, topping them with cheese, and toasting the whole thing for a few minutes under the broiler for a meatball sub. Then, use your leftover bourbon to throw together an Old Fashioned cocktail.

What to buy: You can find ground elk meat at gourmet grocers or online.

There are various intensities of molasses available, from light to blackstrap. Dark (sometimes marketed as robust) tastes best in this recipe. Molasses can be found in the baking aisle at grocery stores.

Game plan: You can make this recipe up to 1 day in advance. Cool the meatballs in the sauce to room temperature and refrigerate in a covered container. Reheat on the stovetop on medium low or in a slow cooker set to low, stirring occasionally.

This recipe was featured as part of our Game Meat Recipes for the Big Game.

  • Yield: About 48 meatballs
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Total: 1 hr 20 mins 

Ingredients (18)

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 1/2 cups finely chopped yellow onion (from about 1 1/2 medium onions)
  • 3 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped (about 1 1/2 tablespoons)
  • 2 slices white sandwich bread
  • 2/3 cup whole milk
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground elk meat (could substitute lean ground beef)
  • 8 ounces ground pork
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice
  • 1 (14-1/2-ounce) can tomato purée (about 1 3/4 cups)
  • 3/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup bourbon
  • 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup ketchup
  • 1/4 cup dark molasses, also known as robust (not blackstrap)
  • 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 4 teaspoons chili powder


  1. Heat the oven to broil and arrange a rack in the upper third.
  2. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions have softened, about 6 to 8 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let cool slightly.
  3. Tear the bread into rough 1-inch pieces and place in a large bowl. Add the milk and stir until the mixture forms a wet mash. Let sit until the bread absorbs all of the milk, about 5 minutes. Add the slightly cooled onions and garlic, as well as the elk, pork, salt, pepper, and 3/4 teaspoon of the allspice. Using your hands, mix until just combined.
  4. Fill a medium bowl with water. Set aside two rimmed baking sheets. Form the meat mixture into about 48 (1-1/4-inch) meatballs, wetting your hands as necessary to keep the mixture from sticking, and place them about 1/2 inch apart on the baking sheets.
  5. Place the tomato purée, vinegar, bourbon, brown sugar, ketchup, molasses, Worcestershire, chili powder, and remaining 3/4 teaspoon allspice in a large pot or Dutch oven and whisk to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer.
  6. Meanwhile, place 1 sheet of meatballs in the oven and broil until browned all over, about 10 minutes. Transfer the meatballs to the pot of simmering sauce and gently stir to coat. Repeat with the second sheet of meatballs.
  7. Simmer, carefully stirring the meatballs occasionally, until the sauce has thickened slightly and the meatballs are fully cooked, about 30 to 40 minutes.