Give this meat the respect it deserves
“Venison” is just a fancy word for deer meat, right? Well, no. Technically, the term describes the meat of any mammal killed by hunting, as opposed to the meat of an animal raised and slaughtered on a farm.
Throughout history, the term applied to any animal from the families Cervidae (deer), Leporidae (hares), and Suidae (wild pigs), as well as certain species of the genus Capra (goats and antelopes). Today, however, the term “venison” is indeed used, almost exclusively, to describe the meat from different species of deer.
The species of deer you’re likely to eat will depend on where it was hunted. Whether from white tail or mule deer, venison meat is typically richer and leaner than beef, the texture supple and tender. Depending on the animal’s diet, the flavor of the meat will vary slightly. Typically, it has a full, deep taste reminiscent of woods and berries.
(If you keep kosher, you can eat venison, as deer ruminate and possess completely split hooves. You’ll want to make sure the deer was caught and slaughtered according to kashrut tradition, however.)
The traditional hunting season is October through December, beginning with the rut (when the bucks vie for the affections of the does) and ending when mating season is over. If you don’t hunt (or know someone who does), you can sometimes find venison at specialty butcher shops or high-end markets. Store-bought venison typically comes from Pennsylvania or New Zealand.
Commercial venison doesn’t come cheap, averaging around $20 per pound. And that’s for a good reason: When prepared properly, venison is one of the most beautiful, flavorful meats you’ll ever eat.
But far too often, venison is served with an air of desperation, drowned under cream-of-mushroom-soup sauce or submerged in a stew. So, if you find yourself with a haunch of venison on your hands, here are some tips for turning that roast into a gourmet dinner.
- Know what you’re eating. When it comes to deer, size, gender, and age matter. Would you eat a 10-year-old steer? Probably not. The age of most beef you eat is 1 to 2 years old — and it’s often a cow, not a bull. The older and bigger the animal, the tougher the meat, and the same is true for deer.
A 10-point trophy buck, naturally, is about 10 years old. The meat from this animal is really only good for sausage, but this is still the venison most people eat, in all forms. (No wonder they don’t like it!) Doe meat, on the other hand, tends to be much more tender, primarily because does are smaller than bucks, and are harvested at younger ages.
If you know the gender, size, and approximate age of the deer, you can plan what to do with the meat. Doe meat? It’ll be tender, and you can do anything with it. Big bucks? Grind the meat, or use marinades and other tenderizing methods for the steaks.
- Know how the meat was harvested. How the meat is harvested is out of the cook’s control, unless you also happen to be the hunter. But it’s important to know. Great-tasting meat starts in the field with how the hunter harvested the deer. (If you’re buying from the butcher, this is not something you need to worry about; it was harvested well.)
A beef comparison helps explain why proper field-dressing matters. In general, beef cows (not bulls) are walked up a chute into an abattoir, where they are quickly dispatched. The cow is then taken immediately to a climate-controlled room and gutted and skinned to cool quickly. The two sides of beef are split from each other and hung to age in a perfectly controlled, low-humidity, 40-degree cooler for a few days to weeks, depending on the grade of beef. Once the beef has aged appropriately, it is quartered and broken down into cuts for the consumer. It is often shipped partially frozen, to be further processed and packaged at the market.
Although hunting uses different methods, generally the key elements for producing great meat are the same: cooling the meat as quickly as possible, keeping the meat clean, aging it properly, and packaging and freezing it well.
Not all hunters do this for a variety of reasons. If you know it took a day to get the deer field-dressed and another day or two to be processed, then you know you’ve got tough, gamey meat. But if the hunter harvests deer for eating, chances are he’s done everything right, and the meat will taste good.
- Remove the silverskin.
That funky, gamey taste that deer often have resides in the fat, silverskin, and connective tissue (fascia) of the animal. In the younger, smaller deer, you may not notice the taste as much, but you will on the bucks.
Removing the silverskin.
Therefore, it’s important to take the time to trim as much of these from the meat as possible. Not sure what the silverskin is? Look for an uninterrupted, three-dimensional web of tissue that’s very thin and filmy. You can generally put the tip of the knife under it and pull it back off the meat.
- Use marinades. Marinating venison is great just for flavoring the meat, but it serves a practical purpose, too. If you know you have a gamey piece of meat (for example, from a mature buck), marinating it can get rid of some of that gamey taste. Rinsing and marinating in vinegar for a few hours is especially effective, as is marinating in buttermilk or red wine overnight.
In general, any piece of meat larger than two pounds is good to marinate overnight, but smaller steaks and kabobs get a maximum of two hours. Don’t marinate the venison longer than 24 hours, because the meat will get mushy. When marinating for more than two hours, keep the meat in the refrigerator. If you’re marinating for less than two hours, it’s safe to keep the meat at room temperature.
- Eat it medium-rare to rare. No matter how great the marinade and sauces or the creativity of the recipe, if you overcook venison, it will taste awful. No exceptions. Well-done venison tastes like shoe leather, and no one will ask for seconds.
Many hunters will eat their venison only well-done. This may be because they know they didn’t field-dress it in the most hygienic way. If you know the deer was processed properly, or you buy it from a butcher, then eat it rare! Venison is so tender, it will melt in your mouth.
- Cook it for less time then you think you need. Venison is exceptionally lean and cooks quickly. So you’ll want to cook it at lower temperatures to avoid overcooking: roasting at 225 degrees, grilling at 425 degrees. Roasting takes about 25 minutes per pound. Burgers are usually 5 minutes per side.
With venison, your meat thermometer is your best friend, as it’s the only way really to know how quickly the meat is cooking. Take your roast out of the oven when it’s 5 to 10 degrees under what you’re aiming for. Let it sit for 10 minutes until it reaches the temperature you want.
- Think outside the chili bowl. Most home cooks resort to chili and stew for venison, and both can be great. But venison works even better as kabobs, roasts, and medallions — especially if you’re eating does.
Although they have different flavors, venison substitutes well in any lamb recipe, making it great for Middle Eastern dishes. Think venison gyros, venison and fig stew, or keema. It’s also fantastic in Mexican dishes, such as fajitas and barbacoa de venado. (Venison, in fact, is a traditional Mexican meat.)
- Spice it up. While a nice medallion rubbed with olive oil, salt, and pepper is always great, venison pairs well with a variety of spice combinations. If you’ve got a buck, rub it with some chile powder and cumin. Fennel and sage work well with a doe. Cilantro, cumin, and lime juice are great on a hot day.
Berries also pair beautifully with venison; the brightness of the fruit enhances the earthy meat. A steak with cranberry sauce is lovely. Or try blueberry barbecue sauce on a burger. Let your imagination and taste buds be your guide.
Virginia-based Susan Rose is a freelance writer and the author of The Hunting Widow’s Guide to Great Venison Cooking.
Roast Venison Crostini with Arugula and Pepper Relish;
The Hunting Widow’s Guide to Great Venison Cooking