May 10, 2016
By Hank Shaw
I rarely eat beef anymore — and never at home. I haven't bought beef for the house since 2004, opting instead to rely on venison my girlfriend and I bring home as one of our main sources of red meat (ducks and geese being the other). The effects have been profound.
Our cholesterol levels are very low — despite the fact we like to cook in butter and duck fat — and we feel lighter and more active with our wild diet. Every time we eat a big hunk of BBQ brisket or a grilled ribeye, we feel great when we're eating it but afterwards get kind of grumpy and feel overfull. Beef just seems so fatty and coarse to us after a steady diet of game.
That's because it is, especially compared to venison. Let's face it — venison is just better for you when it comes to nutritional value, and it's also one of the most ethical, natural ways to pursue the meat-eating lifestyle.
Lean and Mean
Let's start by considering the nutritional side of things. Venison is leaner than beef and is slightly higher in protein, ounce for ounce. Also, deer, elk, moose and antelope rarely develop the intramuscular fat — called "marbling" in beef — so what fat is on a deer is typically around the edges of the muscles, not within them. This makes it easier to trim, if you so desire. That's not to say venison can't have a nice layer of fat on it, especially if you live in agricultural areas.
According to USDA data, a 3.5-ounce portion of venison backstrap — admittedly a small portion for me — has about 150 calories and only 2.4 grams of fat. It might be even less if you are scrupulous about trimming your venison. Compare that to a similar cut of beef like a trimmed top loin filet. This same portion of top loin will have roughly 205 calories and — depending on the grade (choice, prime, etc.) — about 10 grams of fat.
Vitamins, Minerals and Healthy Fats
Venison also tends to be far higher in niacin and iron than beef, and is a good source of Vitamins B12, B6 and riboflavin.
What's more, the quality of the fat is better in venison. That's because venison has higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids than beef. The exception is with grass-fed beef, which is similar to venison. The difference is the food source: grass. Grass is a great source of these heart-healthy antioxidants, so unless your deer was morbidly obese and hung out in the grain field most of its life, you'll be eating healthier with venison.
I know, you've been taught to trim every bit of fat off your venison. I'm sorry to inform you, for the most part you've been taught wrong. In my experience, venison fat typically tastes a lot like lamb or beef fat, which is rather delicious when crisped up on the grill or in the oven. The exception is deer from truly wild areas where there is a lot of sagebrush or desert food sources. Fat from these deer can certainly be off-tasting.
But there's a simple way to determine whether or not you need to trim or keep your venison fat. Start by cutting off a few ounces and then chop it up. Put a little water in a small frying pan and set the fat in it. Heat the water until it boils. This will render the fat. Smell it. If the fat smells OK — either lamb-like or beefy — you are good to go. If it smells awful, trim it. Your nose will not fail you.
Organically Free Range
Not only is venison low fat and nutritionally more dense, it's also about as organic as you get. The caveat, however, is deer herds that camp out in major agricultural fields where conventional or GMO crops make up most of the landscape would technically not be considered organic by the USDA.
To meet the organic requirement of the USDA, meats must be fed organic grain, grass, etc. So even though your Iowa whitetail may taste great and be a lot more "organic" than beef, it would likely not be certified as such by the USDA. At any rate, it remains one of the best meat options out there for the do-it-yourself crowd or the organically inclined.
Where venison really excels, though, is on the issue of humane farm practice and sustainability. You simply can't get more free range, humanely harvested or sustainable than wild game. Period. Even farmed venison must be raised in a free-range way, because deer won't survive if confined like cows.
Every deer, antelope, elk or moose we bring home to feed our families has led as free a life as nature allows: no confinement, no antibiotics, able to do what it wanted and breed on its own. So as long as we hunters do our part to ensure a clean kill, the death of the deer is nearly as quick as any slaughterhouse. When compared to life in the wild, a hunter's deathblow is a hell of a lot better than death by starvation or the slow but lethal stalk of a predator.
Let's Talk Sustainability
Finally, there may be not be a more sustainable meat than venison. When you think about it, the entire North American hunting system is based on sustainability. Hunters are only allowed to shoot as many deer as wildlife biologists say we can. Numbers are carefully tracked, and once that quota is up, hunting stops. If numbers are high, more licenses are issued and seasons are expanded. In this way deer populations are kept in check.
With that much effort going into the management of a population — which I would argue has been a fairly underutilized resource — a case can be made that venison is one of the most sustainable meats available.
Venison is a protein-rich, lean meat that exists in large numbers across the U.S. and can be legitimately brought from field to table by those who are willing. It's also the ultimate in free range, humanely harvested and (mostly) organic food.
Something to think about that the next time you slap a mouthwatering backstrap on the grill.
A committed eater of venison, Hank Shaw hunts, fishes, forages and cooks in Northern California. He is the author of the book Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast and the James Beard-award winning website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook.