Advice on preparing gold-standard meals from prime cuts of deer and elk meat.
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When the hunting season ends, I like to open our freezer and gaze at those tidy white packets of wrapped venison, stacked on the shelves like bricks of gold. And considering what farm-raised venison sells for these days, it has become the meat equivalent of 24-carat bullion. Specialty game shops across the country charge up to $55 a pound for loin chops and other choice cuts of farm-raised venison (tougher cuts such as shoulder run substantially less, though still far more than beef or even lamb). Using an average of $20 a pound, I figure each doe I harvest provides my family with meat that would cost a nonhunter $1,000 or more. Those prices make king crab legs and lobsters look like items in the food bargain bin.
Why the high premium on venison? First, deer, elk, and antelope meat is good for you. Venison is low in calories, cholesterol, and fat, especially the saturated kind. It’s also high in iron and vitamin B-12. Many people consider venison the original free-range, organic meat.
Second, wild venison is good for the environment. I don’t know about domestically raised deer and elk, much of it grown in New Zealand, but the whitetails and pronghorn I harvest each fall tread with a gentle hoofprint on the landscape.
Third, nonhunters pay top dollar for venison because they consider it a rare treat, a meat purchased from specialty shops or in fine restaurants. (That comes as a surprise to people who grew up eating deer, elk, and antelope meat and consider it everyday fare.)
Finally, there’s the taste. I eat grass-fed beef and locally raised lamb, and occasionally dive into a rack of barbecued pork ribs. But if restricted to just one meat, it would be that of a bottomlands whitetail doe. A trimmed raw venison steak in the hand smells as fresh as a cool fall morning. When cooked, it becomes delicately textured and finely flavored. I’m not alone in my praise. Chefs throughout the world extol venison’s culinary virtues.
Like beef, there are basically two categories of venison cuts: tough and tender. Each requires a different, and completely opposite, cooking technique. The article “Venison Alchemy” (November–December 2007) covered shanks, shoulders, and other tough cuts. It explained how the combination of moist heat, low temperature, and long cooking is essential for breaking down tough tissue and creating succulent, fork-tender dishes. What follows are recommendations for cooking the prime cuts—steaks, roasts, and medallions from the upper rump and the loin (the two long cylinders of meat, also known as the backstrap, on either side of the spine).
In many respects, cooks can view venison as they do beef. Both are the dark red meat of large grazing animals. And the cuts from both grazers are similar: A sirloin of venison is a steak that comes from the lower back of the animal, as does beef sirloin.
But that’s where the deer and the cow part company—and where cooks need to understand the fundamental differences between the two. Beef fat is tasty and marbled throughout the meat. Venison fat, on the other hand, tastes like boiled or burned leather when cooked. It exists only on the outside of the meat, primarily over the lower back and rump, and always should be trimmed.
Lacking veins of fat within the meat, uncooked venison has less moisture than beef. Though less fat content makes a serving of venison steak one-half leaner than a similar-sized beef steak, it also causes venison to dry out when cooking, requiring the use of cooking oils.
Many chefs and restaurant diners maintain that venison has more flavor than beef. Heavy with fat, beef has a mild, rich taste. Lacking fat, venison is tangier and more intense. That sweet tang comes from abundant capillaries in the muscle, providing the blood that gives raw venison steaks their rich, burgundy color. Blood is sweet; if you accidentally prick your finger and suck it, you can taste that sweetness. Chefs try to retain the sweet taste of venison by not overcooking the meat.
The longer you cook venison, the more bitter it becomes. That’s what many people call the “gamey” taste. It’s the same bitterness that comes from overdone liver, compared to the sweet taste of liver cooked just briefly at a high temperature.
The key to preserving venison’s sweetness? Cook all tender cuts quickly at high heat.
My five favorite recipes for prime venison follow on the next page. With these and other choice-cut dishes, an essential first step is to remove all fat and “silver skin”—the white connective tissue running through the meat. When in doubt, cut off anything that’s white.
Also, keep in mind that the gold-standard recipe for any choice cut is to simply season it with salt and pepper and grill or sauté the meat in olive oil for several minutes on each side. No sauces. No marinades. Just the sweet taste of venison.
Tom Dickson is editor of Montana Outdoors.
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