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The Best Venison Is What You Harvest

Every effort should be made to ensure your harvested deer gets the treatment it deserves.

The Best Venison Is What You Harvest

The author's husband, Rick Wheatley, shoots a young doe during the 2018 muzzleloader deer season in Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley)

Trophy hunters are going to be trophy hunters, and meat hunters are going to be meat hunters. If you kill it, then you should eat it. As a hunter, that's the rule I try to live by.


Whichever kind of hunter you are (maybe both) every effort should be made to ensure your harvested deer gets the treatment it deserves.

The best venison is the one you shoot, whether it’s a 1½-year-old or a rutting 4-year-old buck. In the kitchen, each animal will require different treatments.


Those who don't enjoy cooking may stop reading here, but those who still hold the connection between hunting and food sacred, will rise to the challenge. It's not a matter of which meat is better or worse. It's the ability to adapt to the ingredient in front of you that matters most.

Younger Deer

As a meat hunter, I personally prefer younger deer over older deer. One-and-a-half to 2½ years old is the sweet spot, a good compromise between size – net weight of meat – and tenderness. Even after the backstraps are gone, my husband and I go on eating deer steaks for months.

Cuts that aren’t ideal for steaks can be braised to become fall-off-the-bone tender in about 2½ hours. The younger the deer, the less time it takes to soften in a crockpot or Dutch oven.

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On younger deer, cutlets from the hindquarter are tender. (Photo courtesy of Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley)

Fawn

In times of deer abundance, shooting a fawn isn’t out of the question. Few hunters like to shoot “baby” animals, but at the end of the day, there’s no denying that they are delicious. You obviously won’t get as much meat on a fawn, but the ability to roast or braise an entire bone-in hindquarter is something you can’t do with older deer.

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A whole bone-in hindquarter from a fawn browns in a large Dutch oven. (Photo courtesy of Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley)

Fawn meat can look as light as the color of veal, and having had little chance to develop tough connective tissues, most of the animal is tender enough to turn into steak and cutlet. To braise, meat from a fawn can take as little as 1½ hours to soften.




Older Deer

Older deer fall into the 2½ and older range. The general rule is: the older the deer, the more time connective tissues have to develop, and thus, the tougher the meat will be.

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Thinly slice meat from older deer for stir fry or cheesesteak sandwiches. (Photo courtesy of Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley)

In comparison with younger animals, the backstraps will be noticeably chewier, but still enjoyable. The rest of the deer—that will depend on the individual animal. Those closer to the 2½-year-old mark can still make good thinly-cut steaks or stir fry. Dry aging or wet aging can do wonders to help improve the tenderness and flavor in these deer.

On the other hand, a trophy deer might taste fine, but the effort to chew through one can be undesirable. In this case, turn these geriatric deer into ground meat for burgers, meatballs, tacos, meat pies, etc. Or to braise, a mature deer can take as long as 3-4 hours to tenderize, but it will get there and it will be worth it.

One plus, though, the rich, dark meat found in older animals does promise loads of flavor. The meat can hold up to heavily spiced dishes, and full of sinew and connective tissue, this is exactly the kind of meat you want in good stew meat.

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Frozen peas and carrots added to browned ground venison for venison cottage pie. (Photo courtesy of Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley)

Hard-to-Eat Deer

White-tailed deer are generally good eating, but once in a while, you may shoot something that stinks. Whether due to the animal’s individual diet or poor field care on your part, the meat is so strongly flavored that you find it tough to keep down. After determining that the meat is not in fact spoiled, there are two things you can do: donate the meat to a processor or cut it with a milder protein.


Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry is present in many states. These programs work with local meat processors, which then turn donated venison into products such as brats, summer sausage, deer bologna, deer sticks, etc., that are distributed to the hungry and needy. The deer you donated usually gets mixed in with all the other deer that got donated at the time, therefore your venison’s flavor becomes a non-issue.

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Venison sausage made by a local meat processor in Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley)

Donating venison means that you can still feel good about hunting, knowing that your deer is going toward a good cause. Call your local FHFH chapter ahead to time to find out where, when and in what form meat can be donated.

If you still want to keep this meat, slow cooking can often ease strong flavors. If not, try grinding the meat and cutting it with ground pork.

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