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Savory, satisfying venison recipes: learn the quirks of cooking with venison and use it in these flavorful preparations.

Deer and humans have evolved together. We've hunted deer, and deer have escaped us, for so long that neither of us are what we were when our intimate, eons-old relationship first began. Our dance with deer is eternal.

Many paleontologists believe that the ancient pursuit of deer-like animals made us fully human, fundamentally changing our inner life, our identification with the world--even our cognitive powers--through the planning and execution of the hunt. Deer hunting is firmly embedded in our ancestral DNA, and deer, or the more general category of venison, is a staple food item recognized throughout the world. Tell most people you're deer hunting and they'll barely shrug. Tell them you're swan hunting, or even bear hunting, and you'll likely get a very different reaction. Humans hunt and eat venison; it's just what we do.

The word "venison" derives from the Latin word venari, "to hunt." Evolving through Old French, the term came to refer to any hunted game, a reference that is still widely used today. Although venison can mean different things in different cultures, the word most often refers collectively to all the deer-like animals: the cervids (especially deer, elk, and moose) and the non-cervid pronghorn and African antelopes. This is the definition I'll use here.

Given our long history as eaters of venison, it's more than a little surprising to discover that, with the possible exception of waterfowl, no game animal is more horribly treated in the kitchen by contemporary cooks than deer. Nasty, gloppy cream-of-mushroom soup. Bacon-wrapped everything. A disturbing array of processed cheeses. Venison loin cooked until gray. Shoulders undercooked. And far too much waste. I'm not sure why this is, but I suspect it has to do with the fact that venison--even the easily cooked backstrap and tenderloin--requires some skill and practice in the kitchen in order to pull off properly. We're not talking about fancy preparations here; more often than not, simple dishes are the most deeply satisfying.

Venison does have its quirks, and there are subtle but important differences between cooking venison and cooking beef or lamb, with which we are generally much more familiar. But cooking a great piece of venison, no matter what piece you happen to have on hand, isn't rocket science. All you need is a good foundation of solid information and a fistful of tips, tricks, and techniques that work with venison, and you'll be fine.

Ready to begin?

Top Factors Affecting Meat Quality

I've talked with many butchers, deer hunters, meat experts, and cooks over the years about what they consider to be the most important factors affecting the flavor of venison. Here's the consensus:

(1) Field care. By far the top cause of nasty-tasting venison is poor meat care. If you think strapping a buck to your truck and driving around with it is a good idea, I'm talking to you. Take your photos, and then get to work. And I don't mean back in your camp after a cup of coffee--I mean right out there in the field (unless it's beastly cold out). Cooling down the carcass quickly is the single most important factor in assuring good meat quality. This is most important in warmer climates.

(2) Shot placement. A good hunter kills silently, swiftly, and cleanly. Your animal should have no idea it's being hunted, and, when shot, should die quickly. A clean heart-lung shot on an unsuspecting deer will go a long way toward tasty venison. A liver shot (or worse), or a shot on a fleeing deer, will flood the animal with adrenaline, which can make that animal's meat nearly inedible.

(3) Hanging temperature. If you hang your deer, you'll need the temperature to be no higher than about 40 degrees Fahrenheit; just above freezing is better. One of the reasons people receive unsavory venison back from meat processors is that during deer season, the door of their meat locker is opened and shut all day, letting warm air sneak in, and allowing temperatures to creep up past 40 degrees. Processors don't like to talk about this, but it happens.

(4) The rut. Note that this is the first time the animal itself comes into play as a factor in meat quality. Rutting and post-rut bucks and bulls are in ragged shape. They've been running around and fighting for weeks, and they have a lot of hormones racing through them. They'll be leaner and tougher than before the rut.

(5) Age and sex. All things being equal, a young doe will be more tender than an old male. But keep in mind that a young male might be more tender than an old doe. You can get good venison from an old, rutting buck, provided that the first three factors are all done right.

(6) Diet. Grain-fed whitetails and mule deer will be fatter and nicer-tasting than deer subsisting on sagebrush or pine needles. That doesn't mean a muley that's shot in the sage won't be good; it's just that you might find yourself preferring the whitetail doe that you shot in the alfalfa field. That said, venison from all sorts of animals, with all sorts of diets, can be wonderful; these observations are just the fine distinctions that can elevate your culinary awareness and enjoyment.

(7) Butchery. Bad butchery, whether in the form of sloppy knife and saw cuts, meat ground with loads of sinew and no added fat, or failure to remove enough silverskin from roasts and stew meat, can seriously damage meat. This is why many of us choose to butcher our own deer and elk. Good butchers are like good mechanics--hold onto them, and treat them well.

Hank Shaw is a former cook and reporter who now writes about food, fishing, foraging, and hunting. This article is an excerpt from his latest book, Buck, Buck, Moose (see Page 64 to order).
Basic Roast Venison

This is my master roast recipe. It's the venison equivalent of
roast beef. The older your animal was, the more important it will
be to use single-muscle cuts. This recipe will not melt any of the
connective tissue that separates muscle groups, and the finished
roast should have tough veins of still-hard connective tissue
running through it.

Many single-muscle roasts benefit from trussing with kitchen twine.
Doing this will help keep the roast compact, which means it will
cook more evenly.

A note on the oil: I absolutely love the flavor that roasted squash
seed oil brings to venison. You can find it in some stores, but
your best bet will be to buy squash seed oil online. That said, any
good oil will work--olive oil, walnut oil, or even sesame oil. The
point is to use an oil that will add flavor to the roast.

Serve this with something green and whichever starch you fancy.
Mashed, baked, or roasted potatoes are traditional, but I like
German dumplings. Yield: 4 to 8 servings, depending on the size of
the roast.

Directions: Take the venison roast out of the fridge and salt it
well. Let it sit on a cutting board for 30 minutes before
proceeding. After 30 minutes have elapsed, preheat the oven to 350
degrees Fahrenheit.

Pat the venison dry, and then massage the oil all over it. Coat the
roast with the minced herbs and black pepper. Pour enough wine,
stock, or water into the bottom of the roasting pan to moisten the
bottom--don't completely cover the bottom or the meat will steam.
You just want to limit the amount of smoke you'll eventually be
producing. Set the celery stalks in the roasting pan and put the
venison on top to keep the meat up off the liquids.

Set the pan in the oven and roast until the deepest part of the
meat reaches the temperature you want; if you pull the venison at
100 degrees, you'll be on the way to rare. I pull mine at 110
degrees. Don't let the venison cook past 130 degrees under any
circumstances, or it'll get tough and gray. How long will this
take? A general rule is about 20 minutes per pound at 350 degrees.

Remove the pan and jack the oven up to 450 degrees. You might want
to drizzle a little more oil over the roast at this point. When the
oven hits temperature, set the pan back in and roast until the
venison is nicely browned, about 20 minutes. Be vigilant about
temperatures here: For rare, you'll want the temperature at the
meat's center to be 110 degrees, and for medium, you'll want it to
be 125 degrees or so. When the venison has hit the temperature you
want, move it to a cutting board and let it rest. If the meat is
more than 10 degrees lower than you want it, tent it with foil.
Don't carve it for at least 10 minutes; I wait a full 15 minutes.
Carve and serve.

Ingredients

* A 2- to 4-pound venison roast

* Salt

* 14 cup squash seed oil or
  other flavorful oil

* 2 tbsp minced sage,
  rosemary, or thyme, or a
  combination of these

* 2 tbsp freshly ground black
  pepper

* About 1 cup red wine, stock,
  or water

* 3 or 4 celery stalks

Venison with Morel Sauce

I don't know what percentage of deer hunters also hunt morel mushrooms,
but it has to be more than half, so venison with morels is a natural
pairing. The only hitch is that you'll need to tuck away some
backstrap or tenderloin from fall until spring. Of course, you
can also make this recipe with dried morels from the previous spring.

If you make this with dried morels, as I sometimes do, you'll need
about 1 ounce, a really big handful. Pour boiling water over them and
soak them while you let the venison come to room temperature. Remove,
squeeze out excess water, and chop. Save 1 cup of the water and strain
it through a paper towel. Then, when it comes time to put the
mushrooms in the pan, instead of the fresh morels, you'll add
the chopped, reconstituted morels plus the water. Yield: 4 servings.

Directions: Take the venison out of the fridge and salt it well. Let
it sit on the counter for 30 minutes while you chop the mushrooms
and onion.

Heat the canola oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat.

Pat the venison dry with a paper towel and sear it in the pan, about
2 minutes per side, or until the meat is done to your liking. Remove
the venison and set it on a cutting
board to rest.

Add the onion and morels to the pan. They'll sizzle for a moment,
and then the morels will begin to release their water (see above
for dried morel instructions). Let almost all the water boil away
before adding the butter. Toss the mushrooms and onion to coat with
the butter. Sear this hard for a couple of minutes without
disturbing--you'll want to get some browning. Sprinkle the flour
over the mushrooms and stir it in. Add the port (it might flame up
as the alcohol burns off), and then use a wooden spoon to scrape up
any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Let the port almost boil
away, and then add the glace or stock.

Boil this down for up to 3 minutes until the sauce comes together.

Pour any juices from the venison that have accumulated on the
cutting board into the sauce. Add black pepper and salt to taste,
and serve with the venison.

Ingredients

* 1 1/2 to 2 pounds of venison
  steak or boneless backstrap

* Salt

* 2 cups chopped fresh morels,
  about 12 ounces (1 ounce if
  using dried morels)

* 1 cup minced onion

* 2 tbsp canola oil, grapeseed oil,
  or lard

* 3 tbsp butter, lard, or duck fat

* 1 tbsp flour

* 1/2 cup port or red wine

* 1 cup glace de viande, or 2 cups
  venison or beef stock boiled
  down by half

* Black pepper to taste

Country-Fried Venison Steak

I learned about this version of country-fried steak from a
Mississippi chef, John Currence of City Grocery. Currence's book
Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey is one of my all-time favorite Southern
cookbooks, and a version of this recipe is in that book.

Note: Because you'll be pounding the meat, you won't need backstrap
here, although it still makes the best cutlet. I also use leg
steaks that have been stripped of all connective tissue. I like
this dish with grits, mashed potatoes, or hash browns. Yield: 4
servings.

Directions: If you're going to add the optional caramelized onions
to the gravy, you'll need to make them first. You can make them
several days in advance and keep them in the fridge.

To caramelize the onions, heat the butter in a frying pan over
medium-high heat and then add the onions. Toss to coat with the
melted butter and sprinkle salt over them, then thyme. As soon as
you see some brown edges, turn the heat down to medium-low and
cover the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are
totally brown, which can take 30 minutes or so. Add the honey and
cook another 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove and reserve the
onions, and then wipe out the pan.

Heat the oven to "warm" and set a baking sheet inside lined with
paper towels; you'll use this to keep the medallions warm while you
make the gravy.

Put the venison medallions between 2 pieces of plastic wrap and
pound them thin with a meat mallet, rubber mallet, or empty wine
bottle. How thin? Your choice. At least 1/4 inch, and as thin as
1/8 inch. Salt the meat and set it aside.

To set up a breading station, get 3 large, shallow bowls. In one
goes the seasoned flour. In the next go the eggs, cream, a pinch
each of salt and black pepper, and just a couple of dashes of
Tabasco. In the third go the breadcrumbs.

Heat enough peanut oil to come up 1/4 inch along the sides of a
cast-iron or other heavy frying pan. Heat it over high heat until a
tiny bit of flour sizzles instantly when flicked into it. Look for
350 degrees Fahrenheit. While the oil is heating up, dredge the
venison cutlets in the flour, then the egg mixture, then the
breadcrumbs. Fry the venison for about 2 minutes per side, until
the medallions are just golden-brown. Remove each to the baking
sheet in the warm oven while you finish the rest.

When the venison is done, pour off all but about 3 tablespoons of
the oil. To make the gravy, heat the remaining oil over medium-high
heat. Mix in the flour and cook, stirring almost constantly, until
it turns the color of coffee with cream, about 5 to 10 minutes.
Slowly pour in the broth with one hand while you whisk the gravy
with the other. It will sizzle and seize up, but keep pouring the
broth in slowly until it's incorporated. Stir in the caramelized
onions and simmer the gravy for a few minutes. Add the cream, mix
well, and add salt, black pepper, and a touch of Tabasco to taste.
Give everyone some cutlets and pour the gravy over them.

Ingredients for Caramelized
Onions (Optional)

* 3 tbsp butter or lard

* 1 large onion, sliced thin
  from root to tip

* A pinch of salt

* 1 tsp dried thyme

* 1 tbsp honey

Ingredients for Venison

* 4 venison medallions

* Salt

* 2 cups seasoned flour (add
  salt, black pepper, cayenne,
  and garlic powder to the
  flour, all to taste, or use a
  commercial "fish fry")

* 3 eggs, lightly beaten

* 1/2 cup heavy cream

* Tabasco sauce

* 3 cups panko breadcrumbs
  (regular breadcrumbs are
  fine too)

* Peanut oil or lard

Ingredients for Gravy

* 1/4 cup flour

* 1 cup dark broth (beef or
  venison)

* 1/4 cup cream
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Article Details
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Author:Shaw, Hank
Publication:Mother Earth News
Article Type:Recipe
Date:Oct 1, 2017
Words:2649
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