Venison Alchemy

Braising meatSlow, moist cooking can turn even the toughest deer, pronghorn, or elk cuts into delicious, fork-tender entrees. By Tom Dickson

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
November–December 2007

While visiting family in the Twin Cities several years ago, my wife, Lisa, and I treated ourselves to dinner at a swanky new restaurant in downtown St. Paul. I ordered the Braised Moroccan Lamb Shanks. The chunks of fatty lamb slid off the bone into a succulent sauce of onions, tomatoes, pureed figs, and a mixture of nutmeg, cinnamon, and other fragrant spices. Only Lisa’s withering scowl kept me from lifting the platter and licking it clean.

On the plane ride home I thought of how braising and stewing miraculously transform the toughest cuts of meat into tender morsels. I had discovered these slow-and-moist cooking techniques years earlier from Ken Geoff, a Twin Cities chef nationally known for his game recipes. Deer, elk, and other big game animals, he explained, are composed of two fundamentally different cuts of meat: the tender and the tough. Each needs to be cooked with a completely different method.

Meat is muscle, and the muscles an animal uses less vigorously, like the loin and rump, have closely grained texture. Lacking tough, internal tissue, these naturally tender cuts are best cooked quickly at high temperatures over dry heat and generally served medium rare. Think grilled steaks or pan-seared loin chops.

Muscles an animal constantly puts in motion and use—the neck, shoulders, and legs—are marbled with connective tissue (known as collagen) and have a coarser grain. When grilled or pan-fried at high heat, that tough tissue seizes up and turns a shoulder roast, for example, into what tastes like a cooked catcher’s mitt. Yet when cooked slowly with moist heat at low temperatures—think Grandma’s pot roast—the collagen melts into a flavorful, gelatinous goo that lubricates the fork-tender meat. “Shot through with gelatin, the meat melts on your tongue,” writes Daniel Boulud, a French chef and author of Braise: A Journey Through International Cuisine. “Thickened with gelatin, the sauce clings and shines.”

Both braising and stewing are slow, moist, low-temperature cooking methods that tenderize tough cuts. Stewing calls for using small meat chunks completely covered in a simmering liquid. Braising is for larger cuts such as a shank or a shoulder roast and requires less liquid, which only partially covers the meat. Stews are generally served in their cooking liquid, while braised meats are removed and a sauce or gravy is made with the residue liquid.

For years I had been making venison stews and pot roasts to great acclaim from friends and family. However, I had never considered tackling the shanks. Usually I filleted them like fish, saving the tiny strips of meat for sausage and tossing the hard, opaque casings in the trash. After my lamb dinner I wondered if I could create something similar with deer or pronghorn shanks. I knew nothing of Mediterranean cooking, but I thought a recipe in the Joy of Cooking might work: braised lamb shanks with Middle-Eastern spices. Prepared with the lean venison, the dish was not nearly as rich as with lamb shanks, but nevertheless the meat was succulent, tender, and infused with spice, wine, and tomato. That and other recipes have transformed what I long considered lesser cuts of venison into ones that have become some of our family’s favorite meals.

If you don’t butcher elk, deer, or pronghorn yourself, ask your meat processor to label the shoulder roasts separately, trim the shank meat off the bone and label it, and save and label the entire neck roast from pronghorn and deer fawns and small does. That way you will know which cuts to cook hot and fast and which to cook slowly with moist heat at low temperatures.

Slow and Low: Braising Basics

The ideal pot is a heavy Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid or an enamel-coated cast iron casserole dish. These pots allow you to brown the meat in the container. Crock pots work well, but the meat must be browned in a separate pan beforehand.

Braise or stew on the stove top at low heat, keeping the liquid at a slow simmer, stirring every half hour or so. Even better is to cook the dish in the oven at 275° or 300°, which provides more uniform cooking temperatures.

This first step doesn’t “seal in the juices” as is commonly thought; it gives the meat a dark brown outer color and imparts a toasty car­amelized flavor to the dish. The meat can be dredged first in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. The flour absorbs more cooking oil, which adds flavor, and helps thicken the liquid as the dish cooks. The trick to browning is to make sure the meat sizzles but does not burn.

Add flavor
The next step in many recipes is to remove the meat and add chopped carrots, onions, and various herbs and spices. This creates a more flavorful braise or stew.

Finally, a liquid is added, typically beer, wine, bourbon, broth, or water. The essential element of stewing or braising is to simmer the meat in the liquid for several hours at a low temperature. If the liquid boils, the meat may tighten into a knot as tough as a baseball.Bear bullet

Tom Dickson is editor of Montana Outdoors.