Backyard Bunnies Are the New Urban Chickens

Why rabbit is the most sustainable meat for the city farmer. (Plus: How to cook it, and how to raise your own.) By now we...

Why rabbit is the most sustainable meat for the city farmer. (Plus: How to cook it, and how to raise your own.)

By now we all know that eating a lot of meat-especially factory-farmed meat-isn't very good for the planet. Fortunately for meat eaters, some meats are more sustainable than others. And as it turns out, rabbit is one of the healthiest, leanest, and most environmentally friendly meats you can eat.

There are many reasons for this. Mark Pasternak of the famed Devil's Gulch Ranch explains, "The biggest reason that rabbits are a sustainable meat choice is that they eat forage, which is not useful for humans. This means that rabbits don't compete with us for food calories." Rabbits are also, as Meatpaper editor and co-founder Sasha Wizansky points out, an ideal choice for urban farmers. Rabbits are small and can easily be raised and butchered by the DIY homesteader. They are easy to fit in a small backyard, and are happy to help you compost your leftover food. "You can feed a rabbit on your kitchen scraps," says Wizansky, and then use their waste as fertilizer. (Pasternak advises against feeding them too much fruit, however.)

Rabbits have a much smaller carbon footprint than other animals because they convert calories into pounds more efficiently. According to Slow Food USA, "Rabbit can produce six pounds of meat on the same amount of feed and water it takes a cow to produce just one pound."

So, are rabbits poised to become the next American diet staple? "I don't see rabbits taking over beef markets in the U.S.," says Wizansky, "but it wouldn't be a bad thing if they did." Unlike Europeans, she notes, Americans have displayed a resistance to the idea of rabbits as food, but that seems to be changing.

Michael Pollan is on the bandwagon. When I ran into him at a recent rabbit butchery class, he had this to say: "Rabbit makes more sense than chickens in a lot of ways, and if people ate more rabbit, I think they would see that instantly. Rabbits are easier to slaughter, quieter, and not as stinky as chickens. I think it's a really good solution. We have rabbits and chickens in our neighbor's backyard, and we aren't aware of the rabbits. It's a cultural thing, we aren't as accustomed to eating rabbits, but rabbit is becoming a fashionable meat."

Biologically, their fast reproductive cycles encourage rapid generational assimilation. Rabbits, unlike chickens, quickly replenish their own stock, a stock that-with each iteration-is better suited for its particular environment. Being able to reproduce quickly and quietly are clear advantages that rabbits have over chickens-especially in densely populated areas. Unlike roosters, which are famously enthusiastic for crowing about their fecundity, rabbit bucks are known for being doers, not talkers. This noiseless intimacy means you can have both male and females together without annoying your neighbors.

Wizansky sees raising rabbit as a natural extension of the "eat local" movement. "If you are talking about being a locavore then even if you live in a city, you need to grow your own food." If you choose to eat meat, this is a way to do that in a responsible manner. If every time you wanted to enjoy some flesh you first had to slaughter and butcher an animal, it is likely that you would simultaneously eat less meat and appreciate it more when you did.

But are rabbits just too adorable to devour? Not for Wizansky, "I don't have a prohibition against eating cute animals. I feel like if I'm eating animals I should eat all of them; If not, I should rethink my omnivorism."

So backyard bunnies sound nice, but how hard is it to actually slaughter and butcher one? "Rabbits are the easiest animals to slaughter," says Pasternak. "Mother Nature designed them to die: They are at the bottom of the food chain; you don't have to pluck feathers; it's easy to twist their necks; and skinning them is really fast and easy."

Wizansky agrees. "Rabbit slaughters are quieter. Devil's Gulch had a slaughter with the butcher and chef Ryan Farr. They broke their necks, using one arm as a vice to hold the rear legs, and the other arm to pop the neck. They call this cervical dislocation. I've also seen Novella Carpenter do it by putting the rabbit's neck under a broom handle."

But once butchered and cooked, does rabbit even taste good? According to a growing legion of acclaimed American chefs, the answer is "absolutely." Devil's Gulch rabbits are featured at some of the country's best restaurants, such as Chez Panisse and French Laundry. And chef Chris Kronner of San Francisco's Bar Tartine explains that he likes to cook with rabbit because it evinces exoticism but comes with a familiar flavor profile. Rabbit tastes like chicken, he says, but "the meat is mild and generally sweet without any traces of gaminess."Still, there is a complexity there. "

Just like a pig, each portion of a rabbit has different muscle structures and flavor characteristics when cooked. The hind leg has a more developed flavor because the muscle is used more than the loin, which is leaner and composed of all white meat."

Chef Samin Nosrat, the teacher of the rabbit butchery class, adds that the novelty of rabbit meat seems to inspire chefs and diners alike: "People have been less creative with chicken. With rabbit, they are being much more mindful with how they cook it."

The meat is also good for you. According to Pasternak, "rabbits are a healthier meat. The quality of their protein is very good, they are high in good fats, and because they are a pseudo-ruminant they have higher levels of CLAs [Conjugated Linoleic Acid] which are high in the Omega-3 fats that you find in grass fed-beef and lamb."

How big will this rabbit renaissance get? The last time the nation was this invested in growing its own food was during the Victory Gardens of WWII. Then, like now, the White House had a vegetable garden. "Rabbit [may have] fallen out of favor, but you can still find a lot of rabbit dishes in your grandparent's recipes," says Wizansky. She also notes that Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps, a book originally printed in the 1940s, has been recently reissued.

It's still too soon to tell, but rabbits look like they may soon be ubiquitous. And, maybe that's the best part about going down the rabbit hole: whenever you do, everything old becomes new again, and everything changes places.

Chef Chris Kronner's Easy Home Rabbit Recipe: Braised Rabbit with White Wine and Herbs.

If you haven't got your own rabbits, bring home a fryer from your local farmer's market or butcher and then cut the entire rabbit in half with a cleaver. Next, season both pieces with salt and pepper and allow to rest for several hours.Give the meat a light sear in the pan. You can use oil or butter, or, if you are feeling more ambitious, first render the fat encasing the kidneys and use that as your cooking oil.Next, remove the rabbit and add the onion, garlic, parsnip, and carrots. Sauté the veggies and then add the fennel, two sprigs of thyme, two bay leaves, and peppercorn and parsley. Wrap herbs in cheesecloth. Put the seared rabbit back in on top of the vegetables and then add enough chicken stock and 1 cup of white wine to covers the rabbit.Cover and put in oven at 350° for 90 minutes. Serve over wide egg noodles, toasted bread, or roasted potatoes. Braised kale or chard are optional side dishes.Ingredients:1 rabbit1 onion1 small head of fennel3-4 garlic cloves1-2 parsnips1-2 carrots1 cup white wine2 sprigs thyme2 bay leavespeppercorn and parsley to taste.

Rabbitry 101: Mark Pasternak on Raising Backyard Bunnies

"If you are already raising chickens-raising rabbits on a small-scale would be really easy," he says. Pasternak suggests that the average DIY farmer should start out with one male (buck) and three does (female). He advises against having more than one male at a time because adult male rabbits are aggressive and territorial. A rabbit's gestation period is extremely short, only 30 days from conception to birth. Consequently, if you mated one buck and three does, you could have up to six litters a year, but four litters is much more likely. Each doe should deliver anywhere from six to 10 bunnies. With three does, Pasternak reckons you could supply yourself with a substantial supply of meat over a year.Pasternak has three basic rules for the urban homesteader:

  1. Be careful not to have too many female rabbits breeding at the same time.
  2. Dispatch the offspring before they are old enough to reproduce (three months).
  3. Make sure you have a lot of rabbit recipes. (See Chris Kronner)

Photos courtesy of Adam Starr. Thumbnail photo (CC) by Flickr user [niv].

Julian Meehan

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