In today’s modern world where meat comes packaged in Styrofoam and wrapped in plastic, the idea of cooking with wild meat can throw even an adventuresome cook for a loop. Don’t worry–I’m here to help!
(please note, if pictures of raw meat or dead deer disturb you then you might want to skip this post)
Technically the term “Venison” refers to all wild meat, but in this case I am using it in the way it is most often used colloquially–to refer to deer meat. You may wonder what qualifies me to address this topic. Well, like many a cook in Upstate NY, I have a deer hunter in my family and typically wind up with one to two deer worth of meat in my freezer every fall. Venison is almost exclusively the red meat that I use in my home.
How is Venison Different from Beef?
When you read about cooking venison most sources, including me, will tell you that venison can be used in any recipe that calls for beef. However that does not mean you can treat it exactly the same as you do beef. So what ARE the differences?
1. Venison is a wild food.
That means that human hands have had no control over the diet or circumstances of the animal. On the pro side that means it is rather unlikely that the deer has consumed GMO or pesticide laden plants (unless you are hunting right next to conventional corn or wheat fields). To my mind “wild” usually means “organic”. On the con side being wild means that the animal actually USES their muscles–and strong well used muscles can be tougher than that of an animal who does minimal exercise.
2. Venison is extremely lean.
The meat has almost no fat marbling in it. While this makes it a very healthy protein, it also means that you must take care when cooking it or you will dry it out. You can do this either by using a slow and moist cooking method, or by adding fat to your cooking process.
3. Venison fat is not tasty.
Ok, so I know that in today’s day and age no one just eats a big gob of beef fat and thinks “Yum”! The fact remains however that when we eat beef due to the marbling we usually consume a decent amount of the fat–and it makes the meat taste good. If you have a rim of fat on your beef and you eat it with the meat, no big deal. Venison fat on the other hand has what is described as “a waxy feel” and can “stick to the roof of your mouth”–which most folks find unpleasant. So when you cook with venison you usually remove all large portions of visible fat (which is pretty easy because of the lack of marbling), any silverskin and connective tissue. A tiny bit like what you see in the photo below on the left is fine–don’t go nuts trying to remove every speck.
For the purpose of this blog post I defrosted a package of deer steaks
from my freezer, and purchased an inexpensive “top round” beef steak.
4. Venison is a deep burgundy color raw and cooks to a dark rich brown.
Don’t worry–it’s supposed to be! It actually makes beef look a little insipid in comparison. Because of the coloration (and the fact that you really need to be careful not to overcook it) even when your venison is “done” it will usually have some pink left in the center. It’s ok–really. The exterior will be a much darker, more chocolatey brown when compared to beef. (see picture below)
Venison on the upper left side of the plate, beef on the lower right.
5. The age of your deer matters.
Actually, the age of your beef matters too, you just don’t know it because ALL beef in this country is typically from an 18-24 month old steer. You are unlikely to run into beef that is older than that. Deer in the woods are frequently older than that, and the older the animal, the tougher the meat can be. The probable toughness effects how you cook your venison. So even though the hunter in your family might want that big buck with a large rack of antlers, the smaller and younger doe will be tastier.
6. How venison is treated immediately after death is important.
Again–the same is actually true with beef, it’s just that you never see it. Our commercial process ensures that everything is done to ensure the best quality of meat-they are slaughtered and then immediately cleaned and cooled. You need to know that your hunter did the same. The deer needs to be bled and gutted immediately (as in right there in the woods as soon as humanly possible after you shoot it). Removing the blood & entrails not only prevents gaminess, but it also helps cool the meat faster which improves quality and flavor. If you are in a cooler environment (temps 40 degrees or below) most hunters like to hang their meat prior to having it processed. Folks don’t just have their deer hanging in trees to look cool–it’s actually to dry age the meat just like they do with very expensive cuts of beef in fancy restaurants. Field and Stream had a nice article explaining Deer Hang Time.
Yankee Bill’s Doe and Buck from this year–2013
7. Deer is lower calorie and lower fat than beef.
This is a nutritional data comparison of venison and beef from Self Nutrition Data–each for 1oo grams, 0 fat, broiled.
How to Cook Venison
The biggest key to cooking venison is this: DO NOT OVERCOOK.
Really. Overcooked venison tastes like liver and shoe leather had a child. Blech. No matter how you usually eat your beef, with venison you ant it rare or medium ONLY. It cooks much quicker than you think–so keep and eye on it the first few times until you get a feel for it. Remember–it will still be pink inside–that is what you want!
There are two main methods used to cook venison:
1. Cook venison quickly with added fat.
When you have a nice tender cut of meat this is, in my opinion, the best method. Simply add a fat to you pan and cook your meat. I do this with steaks (serving with sauteed onion and a quick pan gravy) and with meat I am stir frying/sauteeing to be added to another recipe. Again–do not overcook!! You can always put it back in the pan to cook a bit longer, but you can never “uncook” it. If I am doing a lot of steak I will put the oven on warm and undercook the venison a bit–knowing it will continue to cook a little in the oven.
2. Cook venison moist, low and slow.
Methods such as braising, slow cooking and making stews fall into this category and are good for your slightly tougher cuts, roasts etc. The low and slow cooking tenderizes the meat and breaks down any connective tissues, while the moisture keeps the naturally lean meat from drying out. This is why venison stew and venison chili are classics!
Other Cooking Tips
Here are a few more tips that will make cooking with venison a success in your house!
1.Marinate your venison.
The purpose of a marinade in cooking is to tenderize meat and to add flavor. Marinating is especially for older bucks to help remove any gamey taste. Marinades including an acidic component such as vinegar, buttermilk or red wine are especially good. Here in the Southern Tier of New York we particularly like our venison marinated for days in Spiedie Marinade (which includes both vinegar and lemon juice among other things!).
2. Ground burger and sausage need fat.
If you have your deer butchered and packaged, they will add fat in to your ground meat and sausages–typically pork or beef. Our butcher lets you pick which you prefer (we go with pork). If you are butchering and grinding yourself you will want to add fat in. Trust me, a very very lean burger tastes dry and icky. You can purchase pork fat and beef fat from a butcher.
3. Strong sauces balance flavor
If you have folks who are nervous about the flavor of venison, or you have venison that you know is from an older more gamey animal, try cooking it in a strongly flavored sauce made with acidic components. For example the acidity of the tomatoes in spaghetti sauce balances out any hint of gaminess in ground venison. Likewise a dish that braises in red wine would help mask the flavor of an older animal.
Looking for specific recipes? Personally I use venison interchangeably with beef in recipes, just ensuring that I take care not to overcook or dry out the meat. But here are a few recipes from both Frugal Upstate and some other blogs to get you going!
Venison stock (from Honest Food.net)
Venison Bacon Sausage (Green Eggs & Goats)
Venison Carbonara (Green Eggs & Goats)
And finally, Schnieder Peeps shares her experience canning Venison.