Without question, venison is one of the healthiest meats in the world. Not only are deer organic, free-ranging consumers of natural grasses, plants, berries and acorns – nature’s candy that is free from harmful antibiotics, hormones and pesticides – deer meat is lower in fat and cholesterol and higher in vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. But like anything worth having, it must be prepared properly from beginning to end if you want to savor the rich and healthy benefits it has to offer.
Brian Tucker is the senior account executive for Hi Mountain Seasoning, and for nearly a decade he’s been slicing, dicing, seasoning and savoring wild game of every type. Annually, he prepares and processes between 30 and 40 big-game animals in his home state of Wyoming. Needless to say, he knows a few things about making venison taste the way the Creator intended.
According to Tucker, the first step to keeping your venison from tasting like it was run over by a semi is quality field care, and this really begins with the shot. We all make poor shots on occasion – it’s just a reality of hunting – but a well-placed arrow and quick, clean kill is the way to go. The longer it takes a wounded deer to die, the more adrenaline and lactic acid builds up in its system, which can affect the overall flavor of the meat.
Once a deer is down, Tucker insists bowhunters remove intestinal organs with haste. Once blood stops pumping the decomposition process begins, and the internal bacteria goes to work. This process is accelerated in higher temperatures, so it’s vital to get the internal organs out and get the meat cooling immediately. Stuffing a block of ice inside the deer’s cavity is a good start, especially if you have to drive the deer to another location for processing.
Skinning the carcass is also essential to the cooling process. Keep in mind a deer’s coat is designed to keep the cold out and the heat in so it can regulate its body temperature. As soon as Tucker has a chance, he skins the deer completely and hangs it whole in a walk-in cooler that is set between 38 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. After skinning, Tucker removes as much of the gristle, fat and silver skin as he possibly can. This cuts down on processing time and ensures that the meat will be as tender as possible.
If a walk-in cooler is not available or you plan to process the deer yourself, quarter the deer and place the meat in an over-sized cooler if outside temperatures are above 40 degrees. Throw a layer of ice in the bottom of the cooler, lay the deer quarters on top and then add more ice. Tilt the cooler with the drain plug open so the melted ice and purged blood drain cleanly.
Tucker insists on aging venison as well and considers it an important step in creating succulent, tender meat with good texture. Ideally, he prefers to dry age his venison by hanging it in a 38- to 40-degree cooler for about five days. This process denatures the meat and helps tenderize it. You can create a makeshift walk-in cooler by taking the shelves out of an old refrigerator and creating a rack in the top that allows the quarters to hang freely. You could also use an oversized cooler. However, Tucker recommends using this method for only a couple days because it does not allow the meat to vent properly.
When processing your meat, look for where the muscles connect and membranes run and begin making your cuts. Following these natural cut lines will allow you to separate your cuts so you can pick the best ones for the type of cooking you want to achieve. For example, a hindquarter has two primary roasts, the round roast and the tip roast. The round roast typically has less sinew, which makes it less tough and an ideal cut for venison steaks on the grill. By contrast, the tip roast tends to have more sinew, making it a little tougher and better for a slow cooker or the grinder.
Tucker emphasizes the need to trim as much sinew, membrane, fat and other connecting tissue from your meat as possible. These create a tougher piece of meat and will affect its overall flavor and texture. And for making burger meat, Tucker prefers a ratio of 80 percent venison and 20 percent beef fat. For a smokier flavor, he will do 80 percent venison, 10 percent beef fat and 10 percent bacon ends. Pork fat is also a good option when making burger or a breakfast sausage mix.
There are many cuts and cooking methods when it comes to venison, but Tucker feels the biggest mistake most people make is overcooking this rich source of protein. Venison is meant to be enjoyed rare, and if done right, it’s like eating butter. Because of the lack of fat, venison cooks faster than beef, so it only needs to reach a temperature of 130 degrees – get much higher and the meat begins to toughen. Lastly, using a dry rub, marinade or brine will not only tenderize your meat, but will enhance its natural flavor.