October 11, 2022
By Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley
Before there was commercial livestock, there was venison. As difficult as it is for most modern Americans to imagine, venison was once a major, fundamental source of protein for the peoples of North America. Deer was an everyday food, and people simply didn’t think twice about eating it.
Today, however, bring up venison among urban company and you might get raised eyebrows and the all-too-common question: “Doesn’t it taste tough and gamy?”
How did venison get this tough and gamy reputation? It’s a combination of reasons. Unlike store-bought meat, which was handled by professional slaughterers and butchers who know what they’re doing, the average American isn’t equipped with this knowledge, which is a bit of an art.
There’s a lot more to hunting for good table fare than shooting the most impressive-looking animal that walks into your crosshairs, cutting it up, and throwing it in the freezer or on the grill.
If you’re aiming to hunt deer for meat, keep these tips in mind and let it be your guide for the best possible tasting venison.
Hunting for Meat
The best meat comes from younger deer. I’m not suggesting meat hunters should harvest young deer over the old; both have their pros and cons. Young deer are tender and mild, while big does provide similar benefits and yield more meat. These deer are great for any venison recipe – steaks, kebabs, meatballs, hamburgers stewing and roasting, etc. I believe any good beef recipe can be made with good venison, as long as you follow a few cooking guidelines, which will be discussed later.
Although satisfactory, the meat of rutting, older bucks are generally less tender and stronger-tasting. These males are active during the mating season, and with hormones raging, this changes the flavor and texture of their meat. If you do choose to shoot a rutting buck, however, don’t shy away from cooking it. It’s suitable for sausage or heavily seasoned dishes. Some people don’t mind the little bit of tanginess, while others are more sensitive.
If you have family members who often claim the venison you bring home tastes too gamey, try for a doe next time. I have friends who say they don’t like deer, but once they taste the dishes I make, they’re amazed by how mild my venison is compared to the meat they have at home. To this, I say, “Tell your husbands to stop chasing big antlers and harvest a doe.”
A deer’s diet – as with any game animal – plays an important role in how it tastes. For example, a white-tailed deer living in Nebraska corn country may taste drastically different than a mule deer eating pungent sagebrush out West.
Good Venison Starts with a Good Hunt
Good table fare begins long before the beginning of the hunting season. In addition to the work you put in to scouting for deer during summer and early fall, don’t forget to sharpen your shooting skills and make sure your equipment is properly sighted in. It is every hunter’s responsibility to put down his or her quarry as efficiently and humanely as possible. Not only is this good practice, it also translates to better quality meat for the freezer.
Do not chase after game. Do your homework beforehand and place your blind or treestand in locations where deer can be intercepted during their daily routine. When you do take that shot, make it a good one – one clean shot to the heart and/or lungs. They shouldn’t know what hit them. They shouldn’t know that you were ever there. Deer that have been chased around become stressed. When deer are stressed, their bodies produce adrenaline, which changes the pH in their muscles, therefore compromising the texture, color and taste of meat.
Field Dressing Tips
Once your animal is down, give it enough time to settle and expire peacefully. Do not approach a downed deer immediately, which may spur an extra boost of adrenaline and cause deer to run or worse, injure you.
But don’t wait so long that you allow the deer’s meat to spoil. Taking the air temperature in consideration, game should be cooled down as soon as reasonably possible, which begins with removing the animal’s warm insides to allow its body temperature to lower. If it’s warm out, place a bag of ice – or two – inside the cavity.
Although not preferable, gut shots do happen. This does make a mess of the field dressing process, but it’s not the end of the world. Rinse the cavity as best as you can with cold water, then pat dry to prevent bacterial growth. Prop the cavity open with a stick to provide airflow. Discard contaminated areas during the butchering process.
If you choose to keep the heart and liver, rinse them off and consume or freeze as soon as possible. The liver is best if cooked right away as it oxidizes quickly when exposed to air.
Meat Aging is Key
Though not necessary, I am a believer in aging venison. It does make a considerable difference in the meat’s texture and taste. Don’t get me wrong; meat from a deer that has been butchered right away is not terrible by any stretch, but if you want to better your culinary game, I highly recommend letting the meat age.
Before you start, however, remember to remove the tenderloins, which are two strips of muscle that lay underneath the ribs inside the body cavity. This is the most tender part of the deer and requires no aging. What’s more, the aging process will dry out these small muscles, so it’s best to remove these prized cuts right away.
Shortly after an animal expires, it goes through a period of rigor mortis when the body becomes rigid and the muscles tighten. For more tender venison, hang the deer for at least 24 hours to allow the body to relax. Make sure the temperature is between 32 and 45 degrees F and hang in a shaded area. For even more tender and tasty venison, continue hanging your deer for three to five days. This allows enzymes naturally present in the meat to break down muscle tissues, resulting in very tender, delicate-tasting venison.
Hang aging can be done with the hide on or off. I prefer to hang deer with the hide on; it protects the meat from cold, dry air.
If temperatures are below 32 degrees or above 45 degrees, you have three choices: butcher immediately, age in a cooler with ice, or age in a temperature-controlled area. Enzymes cannot do their job when meat is frozen, while pushing above 45 degrees raises the chance for bacterial growth and spoilage, not to mention the presence of pesky flies that can lay eggs. Some people have aged their venison in as high as 50 degrees, but do so with good judgment. If there are flies present, the risk is not worth it.
To age deer in a cooler with ice, skin and quarter the carcass, and place in a trash bag or other plastic bag to keep the meat as dry as possible. Pour a layer of ice in the bottom of the cooler, place the bag of venison on top, and then pour more ice on top of it. Drain out the cooler and replace the ice as it melts. If your cooler is equipped with a drain plug, place the cooler on a slope in a shaded area to allow the water to drain on its own. Age deer in a cooler for as long as you would hang it (one to five days).
Everyone seems to butcher deer differently. My boyfriend, Rick, and I don’t eat too much ground meat at our house, so most of our venison is turned into steaks, roasts and stew meat. For other families, this may be different. Some cooks take their venison cuts more seriously by butchering for bone-in chops, ribs and ossobuco. As long as your cuts fit your needs, it doesn’t really matter how you choose to break down your deer. But I can still give you some hard and fast rules on cleaning your game, depending on how you want to cook it.
I’m going to assume that most of you reading know how to deal with the loins. However, many hunters make the mistake of thinking deer steaks only come from those prized cuts. Think again; when the loins are gone, we don’t get sad at our house. We know there are still excellent cuts in the freezer from the hindquarters. If you love venison steaks, this is where aging venison will really allow you to get more out of your deer. There are many times when our hindquarter steaks taste just as tender and flavorful as any loin.
If you take your deer to a processor, they’ll most likely break down the animal similarly to how beef is broken down. Steaks from the hindquarters are crosscut, which includes different muscles held together by sinew and silver skin; this is the same way beefsteaks are presented at the grocery store. This is fine, but for the most tender venison possible, I prefer to separate the quarters by individual muscle groups.
When I eat venison steaks cut the same as beef, I end up having to spit out areas where the silver skin could not be removed; silver skin isn’t as chewy on beef, but it is definitely chewy on deer. By separating different muscles groups, this allows you to remove any silver skin covering the muscles, resulting in solid pieces of meat without chewy fibers. When cutting large pieces of muscle into smaller steaks, cut against (perpendicular to) the grain.
For small muscle groups in the hind and front quarters not worth cleaning for steaks, simply grind those parts or cut into smaller pieces for slow cooking. It’s not absolutely necessary, but I prefer to remove as much silver skin as possible before I grind venison; this results in a better texture for ground meat. Even after being passed through a grinder, I still find the small pieces of silver skin not very pleasant to eat.
On the other hand, you don’t have to clean your venison so thoroughly if you choose to slow cook or stew it. The long, low-temperature cooking process does a fine job at breaking down these tough fibers, and I actually enjoy the texture of tender gristle in a good stew.
One important thing to keep in mind when working on the hindquarters is to be careful with the tarsal glands, which deer urinate on to release odors for communication. When skinning and removing the hind legs, be careful not to cut through these glands, as they contain bacteria that can make you ill. If you do accidentally cut through this gland, sanitize your knife and hands before continuing to work on the rest of the deer. Failure to do so will result in contaminated meat.
As far as the meat around a deer’s neck, forget about trying to get steaks. Use these parts for grinding or stew meat. If you shoot a deer in the winter, the neck may also be weaved with fat. This leads us to another point: remove or keep the fat?
I have found the fat on most of the deer we’ve harvested is relatively strong in smell; most gaminess will be found in the fat, and in this case, it is best to discard as much of it as possible from your cuts. This is not always the case, however. You may harvest a deer whose fat is quite mild. To test this, cook a piece of the fat in a skillet. If it smells and/or tastes off, discard it. If you have family members who are sensitive to gaminess, it’s best to ere on the side of caution and remove the fat altogether.
For bone-in cuts of meat, use a sharp knife to cut through the meat first, and then cut through the bone with a good hand saw. I’ve seen some people use an electric reciprocating saw to cut through bone, which does seems to make the work go faster, but be aware of any non-food-grade oils on your equipment that may contaminate the meat.
Once you have butchered your deer, it’s time to package it for storage. I am a huge fan of storing and freezing venison – or any wild game – in vacuumed sealed bags. Storing meat in butcher paper, zip-top plastic bags or aluminum foil may be fine short term, but if you store wild game to eat throughout the year and beyond, like I do, these methods are not suitable for long-term storage. And, if you spent all that money, effort and time into hunting and butchering an animal, you may as well do all that you can preserve that investment.
A properly vacuumed sealed package of venison may last up to three years in your freezer, though I don’t recommend keeping your game for that long to ensure freshness. We try to eat all our wild game within a year-and-a-half. If you have a good vacuum sealer and the bag stays nice and sealed, your venison will taste just as good as the day you packaged it.
How about freezing game in water? I don’t recommend it. I know there are many people still using this old-school method, but I’ve always found meat frozen this way tastes funny. If you don’t use good, clean water, your meat will take on any flavors, minerals present in the water. And not only does this method of freezing take up more space in the freezer, it also takes forever to defrost. You’d have to plan your meals further in advance.
Preparation and Cooking
Venison needs to be cooked hot and fast or low and slow. There isn’t really an in-between, and many people make this mistake. Cooked past medium, venison will dry out and taste like livery bricks. And though it takes a bit longer than beef to become fall-apart tender using the low-and-slow method, slow-cooked venison tastes wonderful with patience.
If you plan to pan-sear, grill, broil or fry, make sure to remove as much silver skin as possible. As mentioned before, silver skin cannot break down during fast cooking methods. Another tip is to allow the meat to come to room temperature by taking it out of the refrigerator 30 minutes to an hour prior to cooking; this will allow your steaks or skewers to cook more evenly.
Then before cooking, make sure to heat your pan, grill or oven thoroughly, and also pat the meat dry with paper towels for optimum browning, giving you a beautiful, golden crust. Wet meat and a cold cooking surface will just result in gray meat.
Ground venison is the most forgiving form of this protein but suggest to not cook venison hamburgers past medium heat. Most other recipes calling for ground meat, such as beef, can be cooked as is with venison.
For stew or roast, cook venison the same way you would a beef stew or roast, just be sure to keep a tight lid on as much as possible. Make sure there is sufficient liquid in your stew/braise at all times (completely or mostly submerged), and when cooking a larger piece of roast, flip the meat halfway through the cooking process to keep it thoroughly moist. Venison is lean, so there is no relying on fats. I also have found that slow-cooking venison takes at least one to two hours longer than slow-cooking beef, so plan accordingly. Slow cookers, Dutch or French ovens are great tools for this purpose.
Venison, the Versatile Protein
Equipped with the right knowledge, venison could become the main source of protein in your household, too. It’s a versatile protein; I’ve cooked it just about every way possible and have always been happy with the results. Sure, sometimes I miss beef – all that yummy fat and all – but when it comes to preparing healthy, delicious and inexpensive meals, venison has it beat.