A Wild Game Chef's Guide: How to Cook Venison

A Wild Game Chef's Guide: How to Cook Venison

Whitetail deer probably represent more protein hitting the table than any other game species in North America, and rightfully so. Lean, delicious and unique-tasting, venison is a standard in many households like mine.

Oftentimes, though, hunter/cooks either get stuck in a rut or don't completely understand how to simply and effectively prepare this species optimally. Here's how to cook venison...essentially five simple ideas to help you get the most out of your harvest.

Use Vibrant Flavors

Venison can range in taste from a sweet, nutty essence all the way to an intense iron flavor — and anywhere in between. Think of it in musical terms: it's a booming bass note. Tune the flavor of your dish with high, treble notes that contrast with this underlying savory sapor to create a whole spectrum of flavors that will be more appealing, hitting every note.

As a result, bright, fresh and vibrant additions like vinegar, citrus, fruit, wine and fresh herbs help balance out venison preparations like the tone knob on a radio.

(Photos by Jody Horton)

Cook it Low and Slow

There is absolutely no better tool for slow cooking game than a crock pot or dutch oven. A crock pot not only allows slow, gentle, even cooking of tough cuts of venison, but it also allows you to leave the house, making it very convenient and safe.

Toss nicely browned venison shanks into the crock pot with some vegetables like carrots, onions and garlic, add some wine and some stock and let it perfume the house with its combined glory, greeting you when you walk in the door like a good dog. Finish with chopped fresh herbs.

(Photos by Jody Horton)

Make Venison Stock

I like to use the whole deer. This means making stock out of the bones, and venison stock is simply wonderful. You can roast the bones first for more depth and sweetness, or simply put them in a large pot with vegetables (carrots, onions, celery), and maybe a few juniper berries or black peppercorns.

Let it go, bubbling gently (not boiling) for hours. Strain the stock at this point and reduce by further simmering it, then package the concentrated stock for easier storage. Rehydrate with water as needed for making soups and stews.

You can also use the concentrated stock for deglazing the pan after you've seared a backstrap (over high heat, right?) for a perfect, simple sauce that can be adjusted with a few drops of orange juice, red wine or maybe some blackberry jam (see above).

Of course, if you live in an area with the possibility of Chronic Wasting Disease, this is not an option. Consult your local DNR for updates on CWD and information about cooking with venison bones.

(Photos by Jody Horton)

Grill and Sear with High Heat

Utilize the natural sugars present in the venison and create a delicious steakhouse-like crust by employing very high heat to cook backstraps, steaks and tenderloins.

Get a cast iron pan hot — and I mean hot — by putting it over high heat for five minutes before searing a well-seasoned loin cut. This will brown and char the outside very well, caramelizing the sugars and creating a depth of flavor and great, almost crunchy texture while leaving the inside as it should be — nice and rare.

Roll the backstrap, browning all sides before letting it rest for about 10 minutes before slicing. Likewise, when grilling, build a big fire, let it die down to white-hot coals, mound them under one part of the grill and listen for the hissing sizzle that tells you you've got it sufficiently hot.

Make sure to brush grilling or searing cuts very well with oil (I like olive oil), or marinate in oil, before applying fierce heat — it will help form the crust.

When stewing or braising venison, use high heat to brown the stew chunks or bone-in cuts very, very well before slow cooking them. Think of this step as the foundation of flavor for the finished dish.

(Photos by Jody Horton)

Know Your Cuts

We've all observed deer for many, many hours. Deer behavior actually gives us a few clues as to how we should prepare different cuts, and it can also be a great way to pass time in the field.

Anyway, my point is, watch the way deer move and function in their natural environment. What muscle groups do they utilize the most? Necks and legs, for instance, are in almost perpetual motion. Since these groups get the best workout, they are generally toned and firm, which means they require the longest cooking time to tenderize. The copious connective tissue and silverskin on these cuts will eventually melt into delicious and rich gelatin, which imparts great flavor and texture into the finished dish.

Be patient and cook worked-out muscles like shanks, neck roasts and bone-in shoulders for a long, long time over very low heat — sometimes up to 6-8 hours. Other cuts that respond well to low, slow cooking are pieces of the ham and the ribs.

Muscles that don't get used as much — like the loin, backstrap or the tenderloins that reside directly underneath — need only a quick, intense application of heat to be great. Give the longer cooked cuts time and they'll pay dividends.

(Photos by Jody Horton)

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