Depending on your region and hunting technique, hunting season for deer and some other large game is just around the corner (a few weeks to a couple months). While I haven’t had the opportunity to do as much hunting as I’d like, I have enjoyed several excellent venison meals in my life, so it always comes as a disappointment when I hear about people having bad experience with venison. I think most of these experiences are rooted in some of the fundamental differences and expectations between game and domestic animals. The following is a basic overview of venison and how best to appreciate it.
When using domestic meats like beef and pork, one has some assurances that the animal was probably fed no strongly flavored foods, was force fattened, grown to minimal maturity, and even limited in exercise. Venison offers none of these promises. On the other hand the practices of industrial feed lots such as overcrowding, pollution/waste material and inbreeding are not typically a factor with wild harvest venison.
If cared for like domestic meat after the kill, however, venison is an excellent culinary experience. In fact, it has begun to show up as fine cuisine in otherwise, isolated urban restaurants.
Understanding the differences between domestic and a game meat, will be an important factor in your successes or failures as a chef.
The effect of a different lifestyle on the meat of big game must be considered when substituting it in your favorite recipes. Here are some helpful hints on how to prepare it properly.
If your family enjoys the natural flavor of venison, your only cooking problem is making the meat tender. If your animal has a stronger flavor or the folks at home do not prefer the natural venison taste, you may increase their enjoyment of these meats in three ways:
- Compliment the flavor with spices, herbs, or seasonings. Recipes with barbecue sauces, soy sauce, and marinades often help narrower palates with the rich flavor of game meats. Consider the difference between roast duck and poultry house chicken fingers. ;-)
- Dilute the flavor by mixing venison with other meats and vegetables in stews, soups, and hamburger dishes.
General Rules for Successful Venison Preparation
- Don’t overcook. Venison, especially deer, has short fibers that toughen quickly. Overcooking or using very high temperature leads to tough meat. Serve venison about medium-well; never rare but not very well done either.
- Most venison has little fat and in this way only corresponds to very lean cuts of beef. Take this into consideration when cooking. Tender cuts like loin or tenderloin can be broiled or cooked on the charcoal grill. Less tender cuts like round are best cooked with moist heat—i.e., stewing or pot-roasting.
- With little fat, venison is a dry meat. Efforts must be made to preserve moisture. Wrapping in foil, using a cooking bag, or covering with bacon strips will help.
- Remove any venison fat before cooking. This seems like a contradiction since the meat is normally low in fat, but any game flavor will be most pronounced in the fat. Substitute beef or pork fat if needed.
- Use acidic tenderizers. Vinegar, tomato sauce, and French dressing sauces are good possibilities. Crushed papaya fruit also will do a suitable job of tenderizing. Meat should be marinated in the chosen sauce at least 24 hours. Venison treated this way may be broiled or charcoaled.
- Venison is generally “sweeter” than domestic meats. Reduce sugar by one-fourth in sauce recipes originally developed for beef or pork.
Preparing Cuts of Venison
Successful cooking may need to start several steps sooner for best results. Those who truly relish good venison invariably cut their own by boning it out. This removes much of the tough connective tissues, leaving straight-grained muscle for steaks and roasts. Alternatively, in some areas professional butchers are available seasonally near hunting areas that will process your catch while you wait.
The following recipes are based on boned-out meat. If someone else cut the meat, it is a simple task to remove any bone before trying one of these old favorites.
Pan Fried Venison
One of the oldest and probably still the best ways to serve venison is quick frying of thin steaks. Cut thin steaks from the loin, sirloin, or round ¼ or 3/8-inch thick. Flour or bread lightly.
Quick fry in a sizzling hot skillet not over 1½ minutes per side. Season with salt and serve hot. Use cooking oil, butter, bacon grease, or beef suet for shortening. Frying time is critical. Meat should be brown outside and gray or just a hint of pink in the middle. If steak is dry or tough, it was overcooked. Leavings in the skillet make good pan gravy.
Another method that preserves moisture is cooking in foil. Lay out a thawed roast on a sheet of foil large enough for double wrapping. Sprinkle with one package of dehydrated vegetable soup mix. Roll the roast in the mix until as much of the dry soup as possible is coating the roast’s surface.
Wrap tightly in the foil and place in the oven preheated to 350 degrees. Depending on how well done you like your venison, cook the average 2 to 3-pound roast 1½ to 2½ hours. The dry soup mix provides salt and seasoning; the meat will come out moist and juicy.
Crock Pot Venison
Cut steak-sized portions ½ to 3/4-inch thick. Brown approximately 1½ pounds of these in a skillet and place in the bottom of the average 3 to 4-quart crock pot. Cover with a can of cream of mushroom soup thinned with up to ½ cup milk. Top with 2 tablespoons of butter.
Peel or scrub 6 small to medium potatoes and place them on top of the meat and soup. Finish filling the crock pot with uncooked chunks of squash or similar form of vegetable. Set on low and forget for 8 to 10 hours. If you do this after breakfast in the morning, supper will be ready and waiting with no further effort. The meat will be tender and the soup will have formed a delicious gravy for the potatoes.