February 12, 2015
Whether a deer hunter is motivated by filling the freezer, bagging a trophy, or just doing their part to help manage the state's deer population while enjoying the tradition of hunting each fall, those who are successful all have one thing in common: going home with many pounds of fresh venison that can be prepared and enjoyed in a multitude of ways.
But with so many options for cooking venison, it can be difficult to know where to start.
The first rule of thumb, according to Michigan wild game chef Dan Nelson, is to avoid treating venison as a substitute for other more common proteins, instead choosing preparations designed to enhance venison's unique qualities.
Nelson is the chef at Eagle Eye Country Club near Lansing and cooks wild game dishes for Gourmet Gone Wild - a program supported by the Department of Natural Resources, Michigan United Conservation Clubs, Michigan State University's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, and the Boone and Crockett Club, that is designed to introduce young professionals to the benefits and techniques of cooking with wild game, while sharing information about the important role hunters and anglers play in the conservation of natural resources.
A message "Chef Dan" (as Nelson is known) imparts on Gourmet Gone Wild participants is the idea that venison and other wild game is not the same as beef or pork and should not be prepared or cooked as such.
"With all things wild - whether it's foraged greens or wild game - all the flavors are more concentrated," Nelson said. "A wild leek is far more potent than standard onion and garlic. And it's the same with meats. They have stronger, deeper flavors and you need to manage that.
"It's like wines," he continued. "It's pretty rare that someone picks up their first glass of deep red wine and absolutely loves it. You usually start with the sweeter and whiter wines and, as your palate develops, you expand your tastes. It's the same way with wild game."
One of the biggest differences between wild game and domestically produced meats is the way fat is dispersed throughout the animal. In domestic meats - especially good cuts of beef - the fat tends to be marbled through the meat. In venison, fat tends to surround the meat.
"The fat in a lot of wild game is not especially edible," Nelson said. "All of your cervids (hoofed game animals) have very, very strong-tasting fat."
To avoid flavor issues, the first assignment when preparing venison for the table is removing the fat, Nelson said.
"If you have poor-tasting fat laced throughout your meal, your mouth immediately gets coated in a film of venison fat," he said. "So you're not really tasting the meat, you're tasting the fat."Removing the fat means the meat is going to be drier," he continued. "You can't overcook it and expect to have a delicious flavorful steak. You have to care for it in a few ways to make up for it."
How? For starters, most cuts of venison should be served rare, Nelson said. And you don't have to worry about it being insufficiently cooked.
"All bacteria and pathogens are on the outside of the meat," he said. "As long as the outside is sufficiently cooked, there's nothing to worry about."
Ground game meat should be cooked more thoroughly, Nelson said, but ground game is more easily chewed so cooking it well won't make it tough.
"Make sure there's not too much venison fat in your ground meat," Nelson said. "Ground venison will have a deep gamey flavor if you have too much fat in it. You want to remove the fat, but you can incorporate other fats."
Indeed, many butchers add beef or pork fat to ground venison, though Nelson said there are other, better alternatives.
"Quality wild fats - puddle ducks, geese, even squirrels - can be rendered and used in your dishes to help moisten drier venison."
Instead of cutting loins up into chops, cooks should prepare them whole, and slice them thinly when they serve it, Nelson said.
"It's easier to chew and it's less dry," he said.
Similarly, steaks and roasts should be allowed to "rest," Nelson said, before they are served.
"Allow the muscle fibers a chance to relax," Nelson said. "That helps keep it moist. If you slice a roast that hasn't rested, the cutting board will be covered with blood and juices. If you let it rest before you cut it, all that liquid is still in your meat."
According to Nelson, people who say they don't like venison have likely only been exposed to poorly prepared venison. And preparation begins well in advance of bringing it into the kitchen.
"One of my biggest peeves is the practice of hanging deer outside," said Nelson, who prefers skinning deer immediately and storing the meat in a cool, dark place. "The hide continues to work very efficiently, even when the animal is dead, keeping the meat warm. That's why they make leather coats.
"And some of the worst-tasting fat is what resides just underneath the skin," he continued. "That flavor can transfer into the meat itself."
Following Nelson's guidelines, a successful hunter would immediately skin the deer, quarter it, and keep it in a cooler.
"Get it out of the air, out of the sun, and keep it cold," Nelson said.
"You can get an entire 175-pound deer in a 65- to 80-quart cooler," he said. "It's not going to take a lot of ice to keep it cool. And even better is dry ice - wrap it in a towel or put it on a tray so it doesn't have direct contact with the meat and keep it on top of the meat in the cooler. Cold travels downward. Dry ice is readily available and it doesn't take a lot to do the job."
The best part of serving wild game is that it is in complete keeping with the trends that modern-day "foodies" espouse - it's locally produced, harvested in a sustainable manner, and organically raised, Nelson said.
"When you're taking your protein from nature, the most respectful thing that you can do it consume as much of that animal as possible," he concluded. "Making it taste better is the key to eating and enjoying more of the harvest."
Get Nelson’s "Venison Rib Roulettes" recipe here – it’s one of his favorites!
More of Nelson's recipes can be found in his recent Boone and Crockett Club cookbook "Wild Gourmet: Naturally Healthy Game, Fish and Fowl Recipes for Everyday Chefs," available for purchase at https://mucc.org/product/boon-crocketts-wild-gourmet-cookbook.