December 22, 2015
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Like nearly every other deer hunter I know in my home state of Texas, I dream of big buck antlers gracing my wall.
You know, big antlers that were procured from a hunting session where the sudden flash of headbones winding across a mesquite flat, a prickly-pear-choked sendero or an acorn studded river bottom sends the hunter's adrenaline to redline levels, all as legal shooting light finally arrives on a frosty November or December dawn.
But if the truth is known, I also dream about an ample supply of venison backstraps, steaks and sausage links sizzling on my backyard grill over the months that follow a deer season.
And not just in the middle of the spring and summer, mind you.
In fact, just recently, my youngest son got the meat grinder out, ground up some venison in the freezer and fired up the grill out on the back deck.
Grilled venison burgers ... in the month of December as the arrival of the New Year approaches.
The real point here is if my hunting license is still filled with unused tags by late December, my attention will quickly turn.
And that's to the pursuit of a trophy of another kind before the sun sets on another year of deer hunting.
And that's the art of filling the freezer, or making meat as the saying goes, to secure some fine eating for several months to come.
Something tells me I’m not alone in that pursuit either.
"Probably 95 percent of the hunters (out there) are not trophy hunters," agreed Roy Welch, a longtime Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist, in a conversation we had about the table fare aspect of whitetail hunting.
"Most are out there to shoot a deer because they want to eat it, to either steak it out or make sausage out of it."
"If you take care of the meat, it's some of the best meat that you'll ever eat," he added.
Amen to that, especially the delectable German smoked sausages that come from meat markets and deer processors located in various parts of my home state.
Editor's Note: My personal favorite are the various venison sausages that come from Fischer's Meat Market in the Red River Valley town of Muenster, Texas, located a half-hour to the west of Gainesville.
While I love to eat deer sausage as much as anybody, I must admit that there may be no finer meal in the world than a mouth-watering venison steak hot off the grill, especially one that has been cooked over a mesquite wood fueled fire.
If that’s your culinary desire too, Welch indicates that there are a few keys to follow for great cuts of deer meat to find their way to your table.
First, be sure that your steaks aren't sliced too thin. That's because while thin cuts of venison may give a hunter more servings per freezer package, it also will lead to venison that will dry out too quickly for many cooking methods.
"For backstrap, I'll typically cut them ½ to ¾ inches thick," said Welch.
Not only is the thickness of a piece of venison one key to good eating, so too is the way that such a deer steak is actually sliced.
"For ham steaks, if you don't muscle them out, you will wind up with meat in your steak that has grain going two or three different ways and is hard to cook properly," said Welch.
"When you cut meat with the grain, it tends to be tougher than when you cut it cross grain," he added.
"Some processors take the ham, bone and all, and run it through a band saw and cut steaks. Personally, I don't like that. When you muscle a ham out, it's much easier to make tender steaks out of it."
Aside from the actual butchering process, another key to a hot and juicy deer steak is to properly cook such a lean piece of meat in the first place.
For Welch, that means keeping the cut moist through either marinating it thoroughly or wrapping it in foil, grilling it over a hot fire (mesquite wood gives just about any cut of meat a great flavor in my opinion) and cooking this wild meat very quickly.
"My daddy told me if you’re going to cook a steak, build a hot fire, put it on for eight minutes and get it off," said Welch, noting that such cooking times will have to be reduced a bit to get the desired hot pink center in a leaner cut of venison.
"You can overcook (venison) real easily," he added. "The longer it stays on there (the grill), the drier and tougher it will get. If you want your meat well done, then chicken fry it."
To keep venison from drying out, Welch also recommends another couple of alternative cooking methods to chefs taking their woodsy protein into the kitchen.
"For tenderloins, I'll wrap it in foil and put in some butter, seasoning and garlic. It stays moist and tender that way," he said. "You can do a ham in the same fashion so it will keep some type of moisture in there. It steams and the meat stays moist.
"You can also roast a ham by putting it in a roaster (or crock-pot) with vegetables," he added. "You can keep it extremely moist in that environment."
A final cooking method that Welch highly recommends is the aforementioned chicken-fried version of venison, a culinary staple in many a Lone Star state kitchen.
"I guess we’ve eaten deer meat about every way you can cook it," said Welch. "To me, there’s nothing better than a batch of fried backstrap with milk gravy and cathead biscuits.
"It may not be all that healthy, but it sure tastes good."
While that's a great way to enjoy venison deep in the heart of Texas, a similar method of frying up venison is utilized by the Iowa-based Whitetail Freaks, Don and Kandi Kisky.
With several bucks hitting the ground on the Kisky farms each year, the Outdoor Channel hunting couple gets to sample plenty of corn-fed venison that fills their freezer up each year.
"One of our favorite ways to cook venison is to fry it up," said Kandi. "We're pretty simple, we like to use pancake batter for our fried venison. Dredge it in the flour with a little salt and pepper and maybe a little bit of hot sauce."
Who needs waffles and chicken when there's pancakes and fried venison to be eaten?
While fried venison is good just about anywhere it is prepared, Kisky's fellow Midwestern deer hunting neighbor and Outdoor Channel hunting personality, Missouri based Mark Drury, loves to smoke his venison cuts.
"I love to smoke those inside tenders after marinating them in Dale's Sauce for three hours," said Drury. "I set the smoker to 225 degrees and then cook them to an internal temperature of 170 degrees. It's fantastic!"
When handled properly in the field, in the butcher shop and in the kitchen, that's the goal of all deer hunters, to hear the word "Fantastic!" as the first bite is taken.
Because there can be no higher compliment to a hunter turned chef than in taking the art of making meat – deer hunting style – and turning these wild, organic forms of protein into utterly delectable table fare.