September 08, 2021
When possible, I try to dry age venison. Hanging meat allows the muscles to relax from rigor mortis, which lasts about 24 hours. It also gives the meat’s natural enzymes time to break down connective tissues, resulting in more tender, flavorful venison.
But to age a whole deer, you need space. My husband and I live in the city, so hanging deer is not always an option. To tackle this obstacle, we’ve resorted to aging meat in our refrigerator.
Which Cuts Should You Age in the Refrigerator?
When aging meat in tight spaces, you have to be selective of the cuts you want to age. Only age cuts that you’ll use for steaks, kebabs, or stir fry. Don’t worry about the cuts that you plan to grind, braise and stew—aging does little to nothing for these treatments.
For example, the backstraps and the hindquarters are where I get my steaks, so those are the only primals that I age. The rest, I freeze right away.
If you have the space, dry age the entire hindquarter bone-in. If you don't, break down the hindquarter into sub-primal cuts and only dry age the eye of round, top and bottom rounds. Freeze the shanks, sirloin and rump for stewing and/or grinding. Leave the loins whole. Keep cuts as large as your refrigerator will hold – the less surface area, the better.
Don't trim the fat or silver skin, which does provide the meat a little protection.
Best Temps to Dry Age Venison
Dry age meat between 32 and 40 degrees. Meat will freeze and stop aging at temperatures below 32 degrees. Above 40 degrees, you’re in the danger zone for bacteria growth.
Adjust your refrigerator temperature accordingly, using a refrigerator thermometer as your guide. Keep the refrigerator thermometer on the shelf where you plan to age the meat, and monitor it closely.
Preparing the Meat for Aging
Make sure the surface of the meat is clean. If you must wash off the meat, pat it completely dry with paper towels afterward. Place the meat on top of a cooling rack, then place that cooling rack on top of a cookie sheet to catch any dripping. This setup allows airflow all around the meat.
Place the tray(s) of meat in a clean, disinfected refrigerator. If storing with other food, place the meat on the lowest shelf to avoid cross-contamination.
Sometimes, I wrap meat in cheesecloth, which does help absorb excess moisture. However, I’ve found that it's not crucial.
Air Flow and Humidity Tips
Air flow is important in dry aging. If you’re using a main refrigerator, your family's normal, everyday activity of opening and closing the refrigerator will suffice. If you’re using an extra refrigerator, one that sees less traffic, open the door a few times a day. Or buy a small fan and run it inside the refrigerator.
Humidity also plays a factor. Too much humidity and mold will become a problem. Too little and your meat will dry too quickly. In most places in the United States, maintaining ideal humidity levels for dry-aging meat, which is 75 to 85 percent, is easy. However, if you live in an exceptionally dry climate, stock your fridge with fruit and vegetables to help increase the humidity in your refrigerator.
Aside from taking up space, the downside in using your main refrigerator to dry age is the lingering smell of raw meat. It’s not noticeable when aging a small muscle, but the smell could become overpowering when aging many. If you plan to do this regularly, use a dedicated refrigerator. Find an old refrigerator on Craigslist or buy a small beverage fridge.
If you have the space to hang primal cuts in a cold garage, there should be enough airflow in the room already.
Duration to Age Venison
The length of time you choose to age venison is up to you. Some people dry-age venison for two weeks, while I usually stick to one week.
The last deer I dry-aged using this method was a doe. With 8 days of dry-aging, I thought my round steaks became too tender— if there's such a thing. It was borderline mushy. So, I concluded that dry aging this particular deer for 5 days probably would've been better.
With backstrap, I would not dry-age longer than 3 or 4 days. It’s a tender cut of meat already.
Dry aging time will also depend on the age and sex of each deer, and also your personal taste. Older animals may benefit from longer aging time, especially if you want to get steaks out of the hindquarters, which can be tough in older animals. Experiment and see what works and tastes best to you.
Is Mold Okay?
Mold is okay, as long as it's not black. Mold gives dry-aged meats a funky taste. Some people love it, while others don't. But with only one to two weeks of aging time, as suggested here, you'd unlikely see much mold forming on your venison.
If you see black mold, throw everything out, disinfect your refrigerator and start again. If you do everything correctly, black mold should not be an issue.
Long Term Dry Aging Tips
My primary goals in dry-aging venison is to allow the meat to tenderize and to bring out the meat’s full flavor, as opposed to the stiff, bland taste of freshly-off-the-carcass venison. If you get the chance to taste venison from a recently downed animal versus one that has been aged, side by side, you’d get my meaning. With just a few days of aging, there’s a marked difference in taste and texture.
As far as dry-aging a white-tailed deer for longer periods of time, say 30 plus days, I personally won’t try it, though others have claimed success. Those funky, cheesy and nutty flavors that can be teased from highly-marbled Wagyu beef are difficult to achieve with a lean meat such as venison.
Meat expert Jess Pryles wrote on her blog:
“You need to use meat with a minimum degree of marbling, Choice grade or higher, and steer clear from overly-lean cuts (like the Round). Lean or lower grade meat does not develop any significant intensification of flavor, because the marbling is slight. Fat equals flavor, and so the absence of fat means you’re lacking the taste foundation which you need to build on.”
If you are lucky to harvest a plump wild animal with good-tasting fat, such as moose, elk or buffalo, dry-aging for longer periods would be worth trying. Whereas, white-tailed deer fat isn't worth eating in my opinion.
Loss of Meat When Dry Aging
With dry aging, you will lose some meat. The outside of the meat will oxidize and dry out. This is called the “rind." Compared to larger animals, white-tailed deer primals are relatively small. The longer you age it, the more rind will develop, thus the more meat you will lose. Choose your dry-aging time wisely.
Use a sharp knife to shave off the rind and fat before cooking or vacuum sealing dry-aged venison. The meat that’s left underneath should look ruby red. Cook the venison as usual. You’ll be amazed by the transformation.