There’s a certain sadness that sets in when hunters see winter approaching and realize their favorite season is drawing to a close.
The flip side to this, however, is that many of us have put up a good store of game. And the months ahead are the perfect time to reap the rewards of our labor—and show a final gesture of respect to the animals we’ve harvested.
While gamebirds add variety, venison is king of the chest freezer. My aim in the next few columns is to give hunters a few new kitchen tricks to try. And to put to rest those wrongheaded notions about venison being tough or gamey. But, before we get into the business of backstraps, steaks, roasts, and burger—which I’ll handle in future installments—let’s bullet point some basics of venison cooking.
- Trim it: Venison is lean compared to domestic meats, but it does have fat. For reasons that are not well understood, venison fat has an unpleasant tallowy taste. Chew the fat of pork chops or T-bones and you’re already craving your next meal. Try chewing on venison fat, though, and you’ll be put off deer meat for some time. Trim away as much visible fat and silver skin as possible, especially for steaks and backstraps. For roasts and shanks, you need only trim the top layer; what remains is broken down in cooking.
- Sear it. Prime cuts of venison like steaks and backstrap are uber meats. They need just a fast, hot sear in a skillet or over the grill. To further tenderize, marinate in a four-to-one combination of acidic liquid (red wine, Worcestershire, soy) to oil. But watch the heat! Juicy and bright can turn tough and livery if the meat cooks too long. Shoot for medium or medium-rare. And bear in mind that meat continues to cook after coming out of the pan.
- Braise it. Roasts and stew meat, which are cooked using moist heat for an extended time, are the counterpoint to steaks and backstraps. They are tougher and need more TLC. Cook these cuts at oven temperatures of 250 or less; keep the burner on low if cooking on the stovetop. Sealing stew pieces or roasts in flour—and then browning them prior the main cooking—also helps keep meat moist and tender. Shanks, which are often discarded or painstakingly filleted out for hamburger, also take well to a slow-low braise.
- Keep it clean. Venison that has been cleaned well and trimmed is full of wonderful robust flavor. Most Wisconsin deer eat a combination of grain, grass, and mast crops, and you want this to stand out. Don’t go through all the trouble of hunting and processing a deer only to cover up the flavor! Skip strong seasonings like onion soup mix or cream of mushroom and go with natural flavors like wine, mushrooms, root vegetables, herbs, sea salt, and fresh-ground pepper. Interestingly, I find olive oil overpowers and clashes with the taste of venison. Milder oils like peanut, grapeseed, or canola (even butter or bacon fat) are better bets.
- On the side. Good meals are a balance of tastes and textures. Skin-on mashed potatoes, egg noodles, and crusty French bread are all good neutral starches that capture tangy venison juices and gravy. A sharp fruit (such as cranberry or apple sauce) or crisp green salad helps round out the meal. Homemade cranberry sauce is easily made with a bag of fresh or frozen cranberries cooked down with a cup each water and sugar. Homemade applesauce is nothing more than cored apples—peeled or skin-on according to your preference—simmered until tender.
- Go Big Red. You don’t have to spend $50—or even $20—for a wine that stands up to venison. I target a few dependable grape varieties and countries, and rarely spend $10 per bottle. Most dry red wine pairs well with venison. Malbecs from Chile or Argentina are an excellent value. Lindeman’s, out of Australia, is another bargain; try their Cabernet, Merlot, or Shiraz. Any Tempranillo from Spain or red wine from France’s Côtes du Rhone region will fit the bill. For brews, I prefer a crisp lager or Pilsner beer, while others may lean more toward hoppy IPAs. And for those who like to go dark, a porter or stout with venison will not disappoint.