Venison is one of the healthiest sustainable foods in the world, and dining on venison is one of the greatest pleasures in life one can have. Not only are deer a free ranging consumer of healthy herbs, grasses, acorns, berries, and nuts and exempt from harmful antibiotics and hormones, its meat is lower in fat and cholesterol and is higher in vitamin B6, B12, and Omega 3 fatty acids. So why don’t more people care to know how to cook venison?
Gamey, Tough Meat? Rethink Venison!
Many people, even knowing the health benefits of venison, forego eating it because they claim that venison has a wild gamey flavor and that it’s tough and chewy. I would have to agree with them – if they prepare the meat as if it were beef they have purchased from the supermarket. By knowing just a few tips about venison, you will never purchase corn-fed beef again! You will not only enjoy the life-giving nutrition of venison, you will crave the flavor of this superior meat and serve it alongside your heirloom vegetables to round out your sustainable meal.
Here are my ten tips to know when preparing venison!
1. Preparation Begins in the Field
From the moment a deer is harvested, you should have a plan for getting the deer dressed (removing the intestines and other inedible internal tissue) as soon as possible to remove any possibility of tainting the meat. Make sure to arrive quickly at your processor’s door as soon as possible, if you’re using a processor. He will most likely have a walk-in cooler at the perfect temperature (34 – 37 degrees with 88 percent humidity) to age your deer meat. If you are not using a processor and are going to be more than a few hours before processing the meat, quarter the deer and get the deer on ice as soon as you are able.
While processing, always remember to remove as much of the sinew, gristle, silver skin, and anything else that is not muscle. This will ensure that your meat will be as tender as possible.
2. Aging the Deer Meat
Many people forget arguably the most important step in creating succulent, tender deer meat. Aging the deer is one of the most crucial steps in developing the final tender texture of venison. If using a processor, this step will be done for you. If you are processing your own deer, you can complete this step before or after thawing your meat. There are also two methods of aging meat: dry aging and wet aging.
Dry vs. Wet Aging Meat
I prefer dry aging my meat before it is frozen. In dry aging, the meat needs to be surrounded by a constant air temperature of 34-37 degrees. This denatures (breaks down) the meat. To make your own aging apparatus, purchase a plastic bin and poke holes in the sides and top of the bin. Once you have done this, place butchered venison on a cooling rack inside the bin. Every few days, empty the blood from the bin and continue aging the meat for seven to ten days. Many people allow the meat to age for up to fourteen days, but I feel that ten days is sufficient to break down the connective tissue and muscle fiber for tasty meals.
Wet aging is often completed after thawing the meat. This is the common way that grocery stores age meat. No air must touch the meat once vacuum sealed. Once meat is thawed, allow the meat to age by leaving it vacuum packed for up to fourteen days.
If you have not adequately aged your venison and need to use it fairly quickly, place unpackaged venison on a cooling rack on the counter and point a fan directly at the venison for about thirty minutes. You will be amazed at how much better your meat will brown and how much more tender your venison will be.
3. Never Mask the Flavor of Venison; Enhance It
Venison is not gamey; it merely has a flavor. Deer forage for their food. They eat grass, herbs, acorns, berries, and nuts while corn-fed cows eat corn. Corn-fed cows are really tasteless compared to foraging animals. Sometimes the simpler the seasonings, the better, especially with the tender cuts of venison such as the tenderloin and backstrap of the deer. The backstrap can be cut into steaks, seasoned liberally with salt and pepper, and cooked over high heat with a little olive oil. Trust me, that is the best eating you could ever want!
4. Do Not Overcook Venison
There are many cuts and methods of cooking venison where the meat must be eaten rare. If venison is overcooked, it is like eating rubber, but if it’s seared and allowed to rest for about ten minutes before slicing, it is like eating butter! Venison cooks faster than beef, and when cooking it rare, it needs to only reach a temperature of 130 degrees. If venison reaches 150 degrees, it begins to toughen.
5. Avoid Trying to Cook Venison Like Corn-Fed Beef
Since deer forage and are usually older when they are harvested, they have an abundance of muscle fiber and connective tissue. Deer do not have the marbling in their meat that corn-fed beef has, so cooking venison like beef will not work. Rather, look at venison as a unique protein that is healthy and exotic, yet easy to prepare with just a little knowledge. The flavor of these foragers far outweighs the necessary steps in creating tender, succulent meat. Because there is little marbling and much muscle fiber and connective tissue, there is so much flavor when the collagen transforms into lovely succulent gelatin. There is nothing like it in the world!
6. When Braising, Make Sure Your Temperature is Low Enough
Braising is a cooking technique in which the main ingredient is seared and then seared in liquid on low heat in a pot. This method is usually reserved for the tougher cuts of meat. The tough fibers and connective tissue break down into collagen, which then dissolves into gelatin. Over time, these fibers expel moisture, leaving the meat dry. Once the meat is dry, upon continued cooking, the fibers will relax and begin to absorb the fat and gelatin, creating tender, flavorful meat.
Slow Cooker or Dutch Oven?
Many use their slow-cookers for this method, but they continue to produce subpar meals of stringy tough meat. The optimal temperature when cooking low and slow should be between 131 and 149 degrees, and most slow cookers do not go that low. Your best option is to cook in a Dutch oven on top of the stove on a very low simmer, or if you have an oven that maintains temperatures between 131 and 149 degrees, cook your meal for several hours in a Dutch oven inside it.
If cooking low and slow, I find that if I allow the mixture to cool, then place it in the refrigerator overnight, the meat continues to relax and my meal will be even better the next day.
7. Match the Cut of Meat to the Cooking Method
You will want to match the cut of venison to the best cooking method that will bring out the most flavor and the most tender results. Some cuts will naturally be tender (loins and tenderloins), but other cuts will be extremely tough and stringy. Below are a few methods of cooking the various cuts of venison.
- Tenderloin and loins – serve rare
- Shoulders, shanks and neck – braise (low and slow for stews and soups)
- Hindquarter – this cut is incredibly versatile and can be cut into steaks, tenderized, and cooked just like the loin; cut into cubes for low and slow method; used in sauces; cut into strips across the grain and used in salads, fajitas, burritos, or on sandwiches.
- Other meat from the carcass such as flanks and rib meat – grind and use in hamburgers, sausage, spaghetti sauces, bolognese sauce, among other recipes calling for ground meat. I use a 3/4 horsepower grinder, but if you only are going to be grinding a few deer, 1/2 horsepower is fine. They are a bit expensive, but you will make that up very quickly by processing your own deer.
8. Tenderizing Meat Allows for More Diversity in Cooking Tough Cuts
Using a dry rub, marinade, or brine will tenderize your meat, allowing you to cook the tough cuts in much the same way you would cook a tender cut. All of these methods infuse flavor and break down the meat, causing a tender juicy result in the finished product.
A dry rub consists of endless combinations of dry herbs and spices. To use this method, combine spices and vigorously massage into the meat. Place meat into a glass container, cover, and refrigerate overnight or for 24 hours.
Enzymatic tenderizers that are already prepared can be found in most grocery stores. They use papaya, figs, or pineapple which break down the amino acids in the meat. I prefer using homemade dry rubs because enzymatic tenderizers take away from the flavor of the venison. If left on too long, they also will cause meat to become mushy.
I usually add salt, coffee, or ginger to my dry rubs. Kosher salt improves the texture of the venison. First, it breaks down the protein and draws out the hydrogen, leaving oxygen in the muscles. This forms lactic acid, which breaks down the fibers in the muscles and connective tissue. Coffee and ginger are both acidic and will break down the enzymes in the meat. In this way, they tenderize meat just like marinades.
Brines and Marinades
Brines and marinades are fantastic for tenderizing meat as well. I usually reserve brining for my fowl recipes such as wild turkey or pheasant, but many people brine venison. Brines consist of a mixture of water, salt, and sometimes sugar. This method may reduce the “gaminess” or strong flavor in the venison. To use this method, combine ingredients, submerge venison in the mixture, and refrigerate overnight or for 24 hours.
Marinades are one of my favorite ways to tenderize venison. For an excellent marinade, you will need an acid (wine, vinegar, lemon juice, or lime), an oil (I prefer olive oil), and herbs and spices of your choice. Not only do marinades add flavor, the acid will also effectively denature your meat, which will result in tender, tasty venison. To use this method, combine ingredients in a non-reactive bowl, cover, and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. You can also place the ingredients in a zip top bag for easy clean-up.
9. Use the Best Kitchen Tools
Kitchen tools will either make your job of preparing venison a nightmare or a wonderful and enjoyable experience. You will need a very sharp knife that holds its edge and will not rust as well as a honing steel. An eight inch chef’s knife will allow you to cut venison and chop vegetables as well as perform just about any task needing a knife. If you have room in your budget, a serrated knife will perform well for cutting breads.
Two Kitchen Essentials
A cast iron skillet and a Dutch oven are the most essential tools for cooking venison at its best, and they can be found at very reasonable prices. The cast iron will evenly heat the venison, causing a beautiful caramelization when browning your meat. A Dutch oven also will hold heat well. Both the skillet and the Dutch oven can be used over direct heat. Moreover, both can stand up to very high oven temperatures. These two kitchen essentials are incredibly versatile; you can make anything from stuffed loin, stews, and soups to breads and pies.
A few helpful things that will finish off your minimal kitchen needs for preparing venison are a meat mallet, mortar and pestle, and twine. When pounding out venison, no matter the cut, a meat mallet will tear the fibers and connective tissue. This immediately produces tender meat. At this point, you can fry, stuff, or truss the meat. You can make it a complete meal by chopping herbs and vegetables and placing them on the pounded venison. Truss and brown the loin in a cast iron skillet and then finish it off in the oven.
There are many more helpful kitchen utensils, but these are the ones that I use on a regular basis!
10. Don’t Be Afraid to Be Creative
Cooking should be fun. I believe people eat out more often than not because they don’t believe homecooked food can be as good. With just a little understanding of the ingredients you are using, the sky is the limit. Using your instincts and taking a few risks will prove to your advantage in the kitchen. The creations that you bring to the table will amaze you. Your taste buds and your family will thank you. Happy hunting, happy cooking, and happy eating!
For simple, incredible recipes using wild game and fresh vegetables, check out my books and DVD.