How to cook and prepare venison

Walt Disney Studios did the world a horrible disservice when they made “Bambi.” They gave all those cute, cuddly little animals voices and feelings and friendships. Not once did they ever mention just how delectable a Thumper hossenfeffer with toasted rustic bread and Gruyère cheese would be on a cold Winter’s night.

Rest assured Bambi would feel better if he knew his mom was quartered and sectioned into a freezer full of hams and steaks for that hunter’s family (although may be best to leave out that whole “quartered and sectioned” part).

But Flower… best to just let Flower be. Those glands you uh, you don’t want to mess with.

Venison (deer meat) is a wonderfully tasty and naturally lean meat that is as gentle and delicate as the animal itself, and requires some careful attention when processing for either cooking or storage.

In the hands of a skilled butcher, it is as versatile as any other animal, with hams and loins, and parts you can throw in your meat grinder for making sausages and hamburger.

As lean as it is, its steaks are best primarily from the loin area; cuts from other areas may have some excess fat that needs to be trimmed. Where fat equals flavor in domesticated meats, venison’s musky gaminess resides in its fat, and to say that’s an acquired flavor would be akin to saying the rocks at Stonehenge are only pretty heavy.

While deer are all around us and mankind has been eating them for eons, the modern cook is still a bit apprehensive in making it. What it pairs well with, what techniques to use… how to cut it, even. Relax: if you are indeed that cook wondering what to do, you’ll be glad you stopped by here.

THE DEER MEAT ITSELF

There are a lot of questions to ask about that deer you’re going to cook, and you need to ask them before you ever put the heat to the meat. Things like the age of the deer, its diet, and the region from where it came are all determinants in cooking methods to employ and flavors to use.

Older deer tend to be a bit on the tougher side, and their meat is best suited for stews and braises; younger deer are tenderer, and thus better on the grill or under the broiler.

And don’t underestimate the diet of the deer. Much like lamb and goat, there’s a distinct difference in flavor between corn-fed, acorn-fed, and alfalfa-fed.

Some foodstuffs have higher acid contents, while others have higher protein and fat contents; all of which translates to the flavoring of the animal’s meat.

One last factor: how the meat was handled. While region and diet are important factors in making that educated guess on the meat’s flavor, nothing is more crucial to the overall profile of the venison than how it was handled after it was culled.

If not butchered correctly and cooled quickly, the meat can develop an incredibly bitter taste; cleaning and cooling must be done soon after the animal’s harvested. And on the kill: it is vital the animal was killed quickly and cleanly, otherwise the meat will flush with lactic acid, and at that point, no need wondering whether or not the meat will be too gamy or tough: it will be.

PREPARING AND COOKING YOUR VENISON

(It’s assumed you’re in your kitchen, staring at the beautifully deep red – almost purple – cut of venison on your counter, already cut and removed from the animal itself. If you’re not, and you’re in the wild looking at your fresh kill, you’ve got some major steps to hurdle before you get to this point.)

Depending on the dish you plan on making, you can prepare your venison just as you would a nice cut of pork. Don’t be afraid to season it aggressively and sear it over high heat, just like you would a loin or chop.

Even though the flavor is far from that of pork, it does respond well to many of the same seasonings as pork. Garlic, soy sauce, and strong herbs like rosemary and thyme are perfect, especially if you plan to roast or braise venison; if you plan on searing it in a pan or over a hot grill, salt, pepper, and a little paprika work wonders with this stuff.

Just remember: salty, smoky, and mildly sweet can take your venison a long way, giving it flavors with which your palate is familiar without overpowering the taste of the meat itself.

It is recommended that you add fat to whatever method you choose, so don’t underestimate the value of a good marinade with bold, earthy tones and a neutrally-flavored oil (canola and grapeseed come to mind).

Even if you plan on just cutting up the steak and throwing it directly on the grill, oiling your grill and then lightly basting your venison with an herbed mixture will keep it from sticking to the cooking surface and / or drying out.

RESTING YOUR MEAT

It is recommended that your venison be cooked to an internal temperature of between 160 and 165 degrees Fahrenheit, so – using a meat thermometer – pull the meat off the grill or out of the oven when it reads 155F. Thanks to carryover cooking, it will continue to cook another 5-10 degrees more internally, and that will put you in the prime eating range.

One HUGELY important thing worthy of mention – especially regarding venison – is allowing your meat to rest after you take it off the heat. Meat is muscle, and muscle’s made of long, dense fibers that expand and contract, releasing their moisture on contraction and reclaiming it when they relax.

If you cut into your meat too soon, it will not have had the chance to relax and will lose its juices, leaving you longing for satisfaction. In fact, so many cooks wind up disappointed with their meat, thinking they did something wrong during cooking when in actuality, they just cut into it too soon.

Give your venison ten to fifteen minutes to rest; that will allow it to finish its carryover cooking and reabsorb those wonderful juices that make it one of the most delectable meats on the market.

Article contributed by guest blogger Nick.

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