For most deer hunters, the season is over. There are a few diehard archery and muzzleloader enthusiasts yet afield, but many of us who like to chase whitetails now have some meat in the freezer.
So, this is a good time to talk about how to enjoy it. I offer the following tips for preparing and cooking venison:
Don’t thaw too fast. The best way to thaw your meat is in the refrigerator. This protects the venison from dangerous bacteria that can grow if it reaches room temperature. Many people pull steaks from the freezer and place them on a plate in the kitchen to thaw at room temperature. Experts do not recommend this. I have done it on occasion without any harmful results, but it’s best to be safe by doing it in the refrigerator. Generally, it takes about two days, so a little forethought is needed. It may be inconvenient at first, but you’ll get used to it.
Trim, trim, trim. This is a crucial point. Whether you butcher your own deer or have it done at a butcher shop, usually there is some fat, silverskin or other assorted tissue still on the meat. I like to take a fillet knife and trim it all off. My simple rule of thumb is that anything that is not dark red gets cut away. Yes, it’s a putzy job that can seem like a hassle, but this one step alone greatly improves the taste. What some people may not realize is that the gamey flavor that folks complain about is not from the meat itself, but from all of the trim. Once the bad stuff is removed, you’re left with what is actually a very mild delicious piece of meat. Do NOT skip this step.
Tenderizing helps. People often complain that venison is tough and chewy. I discovered a solution to this a few years ago when my son, Joe, shot a large, mature buck. Meat from such deer is notorious for being tough, so I asked Jim Stasny from Stasny’s Food Market in St. Paul (where I get my deer processed) what I could do about it. He recommended — and ordered — a type of meat tenderizer that incorporates 48 small, metal blades that pierce the meat when you push down on the handle. You operate it in much the same way as you would a spring-loaded stamp. It takes very little pressure to push the blades all the way through the meat. Be sure to put the steaks on a cutting board, and run the tenderizer back and forth over each steak at least three times (one side only, no need to flip the steak over and do the other side). This severs the connective tissue that runs through the meat, which causes the steak to shrink and curl when cooked. You will not believe how tender the steaks will be after you cook them. I like to grill steaks, and I have had great results after tenderizing them. I own a tenderizer made by Jaccard and it works great. Research showed that this is the best one on the market and, based on the results I have had, I would have to agree. This tenderizer costs around $40, and it is well worth the price.
Another way to tenderize is using marinades. I have had success here, too. I recommend doing it overnight. And, be sure to look for marinades that have citric acid or vinegar. If you’re looking to tenderize, as opposed to just adding flavor, stay away from the 30-minute and one-hour marinades. One brand I like is Allegro marinades. The company makes several that are good. My favorite is the Teriyaki marinade. All I do is put the steaks in a plastic container and pour the whole bottle of marinade over them, then place the container in the refrigerator. I do this right after dinner, then, the next morning, I flip the steaks to make sure the marinade penetrates both sides. By about 5 p.m., they are ready for cooking. It works every time.
Do NOT overcook. Cooking the meat too long is about the worst thing you can do with venison. Overcooking guarantees that the meat will be tough. Especially when I’m grilling, I will set a timer to make sure I don’t cook it too long. On the grill, steaks take only two minutes a side. Venison cooks much faster than other meats. I like to cook it to medium, not rare. If the inside of the steak is pink and juice flows out when you cut it, you’ve done it right.
Slower is often better. When it comes to venison, the oven and crock pot are your allies. Use them to cook deer meat and you’ll rarely go wrong. In the oven, I like to make meatloaf and cheeseburger on a stick. In the crockpot, I like to make stew. There are many, many good stew and meatloaf recipes available online and in cook books. If there’s a recipe you like with beef, chances are it will work just as well with venison. I can’t recall a single instance when either a batch of stew or meatloaf has failed. Slow cooking works every time.
Consider the type of meat. In Minnesota, most hunters take whitetail deer. But, some folks also get bear and moose. And others, like me, travel to other states to hunt different animals. Elk is a delicious, mild animal that is tops on many people’s list. Meanwhile, the mule deer is an animal many people like to hunt, but it definitely has a different flavor than whitetail. I find it much stronger tasting. There’s definitely a gamey flavor, even after you trim all the fat and tissue away. Therefore, I almost always either marinate or smoke the meat before cooking. I have an electric smoker, and it has tamed many a mule deer steak and chunk of burger. Just 20 minutes in the smoker with hickory chips works wonders.
Another consideration is the cut of meat. The best cut is the backstrap, which are generally called “chops.” These are tender and tasty, and generally don’t need much help other than trimming. I do tenderize them with my Jaccard, but you probably could get by without it, especially if the chops come from a young deer. The other two cuts of meat are round and sirloin steaks. These come from the back legs, and aren’t quite as tender as the chops. However, with a little tenderizing and/or marinating, they are delicious. I will marinate and grill these, or bake them for a few hours and use them to make a venison meat pie. Both are winners.
Take a little extra time to apply these tips, and you should enjoy many fine meals of your venison or other wild game. In fact, delicious venison dishes are precisely why I consider every whitetail I harvest a trophy.