by Craig Fields
In this missive I shall attempt to provide overall tips and a few specific recipes for how to prepare the perfect venison you will have at your disposal having used the method outlined in Perfect Venison With Perfect Ease. Even if you haven't read that file, the procedures listed herein are useable with any old "deer meat" you happen to have in the freezer-- it just won't be quite as good unless you have followed a good meat-prep regimen.
Anyhow, this treatise is cut-specific. Meaning, it deals with what should be done and what should definitely NOT be done with the various parts of the deer which have been reduced to freezer packages. A quick overview of wet vs. dry cooking methods, and the limitations of each, is presented at the outset. Without this understanding no cook can ever, except by accident, prepare a toothsome venison meal. Then, each cut is discussed, with cooking hints, limitations, and an attempt to provide a yardstick of desirability within the confines of the expected outcome. Yeah, I know that last sounds bombastic at best and ridiculous at worst, but bear with me. Finally, a few "satisfactory experiments" are listed. These are meals I have cooked that caused folks to bend at the shoulders in an unconscious attempt to keep morsels on their palate while swallowing. I can't really call them recipes: they are more like blueprints for a good meal. Feel free to play fast and loose with the interplay of flavors; it is the overall tenets of Rules Against Disaster with which we are concerned.
"Wet" refers to any method of cooking in which liquid is added to the pot to forestall excessive drying of the meat. Crock pots, boiling, gravy-dunking, and pot roasting are exemplars. Venison cooked in such a manner can be served in any degree of doneness from rare to well-done. (Note: many guides insist that venison which is cooked with moist heat should always be served well-done. I categorically deny that. True, longer cooking allows more time for the meat to absorb the juices, and it is almost impossible to overcook a roast in this manner; yet, I have pulled many a medium-rare roast from the Dutch oven with wondrous results.)
"Dry" cooking is anytime when the meat is plunked down without added liquid. Grilling, pan-frying, broiling are exemplars. This method is very quick and often quite delicious, but is also the single most prominent example of an unskilled cook ruining a meal. The problem lies in the fat content of deer meat, which is very lean. In beef, the "marbling" of a good steak is actually interstitial tissue comprised of fat molecules. These molecules melt (render) during cooking, resulting in a sizzling, juicy steak. There is very little interstitial tissue in a deer, and what does occur, will not render under normal cooking temperatures. Instead, the meat draws in on itself as the blood is cooked through, resulting in a tough, dry, chewy piece of unappetizing chunk of shoe leather-- a gamy chunk at that. In order for dry cooking to be used effectively on venison, the cut must ALWAYS be served rare to barely approaching medium rare. For those of you who like your steaks medium to well-done, I remind you that venison is NOT beef. To put this in perspective, consider the chicken verses the cow. I happen to like my beefsteaks medium-rare, but I would never cook a chicken with lots of pink inside! Chickens are not cows, and neither are deer. So. Dry cooked venison must be on the rare side, and care must be taken to insure the meat does not "set up" before eating. A good way to do this is to serve all dry cooked venison on heated plates: a great deal of the muscular shrinkage which contributes to chawiness occurs as the cooked meat cools. Don't let it.
Finally, there are the combination methods which are variously placed in either the dry or the wet school. These methods utilize something other than liquid (usually the fat of other animals) in a dry method to insure that the meat is well-basted during cooking. By far the most common way is to place strips of bacon over the meat. The bacon melts (renders) and the liquified fat pours over the meat, keeping it from drying out. Well and good, except that my opinion is that if I am eating the most healthy of all readily-available animal protein, why remove that benefit by using bacon? Yeah, it can taste right good-- and I speak of that in the specific portions of this file-- but normally I use other methods of insuring moist, tasty venison.
NECK ROASTS: Your neck roasts should be whole cylinders. In other words, reduce them to useable sizes by slicing down through the vertebrae rather than attempting to strip the meat from the backbone. Removing neck meat from the spine can be a chore. Although, many people do exactly that, using the chunks for stew meat or shish-ke-bobs. If you want to take the time, be my guest. Personally, I get plenty of chunk meat later, and prefer to do up the neck roasts whole in the interest of time. Remember that necks, especially when taken from rutting bucks, include two (sometimes four) strips of the nastiest fat known to man. This stuff cannot be cooked down: it will end up as off-white fingers of disgustingness no matter what you do. Luckily, the stuff is so impervious that it will also not affect the taste of your roast as long as you do not allow someone to bite into it. You will be able to recognize them instantly: vertical boat-slivers of an ivory color. Just take them out before serving.
Methods of Cooking: use either moist heat or combo methods only. The thickness of the neck makes dry cooking impractical. Neck roasts are most suitable for the crock pot. They soak up juices well and fall apart nicely when cooked for long periods of time.
BACKSTRAPS: These are the manna of the animal. Screwing up when preparing backstraps should be punishable by law, as they are easy to do right and just as easy for the uninformed to ruin. They are the strips that lie alongside either side of the backbone, from the neck to the rump. They are why I have changed from lungshots to neck or shoulder shots: too many ruined backstraps on high hits. You can fillet them off of the backbone easily. I understand that some people chop down between the vertebrae to end up with the deer equivalent of porkchops. That is a travesty, and reqires a lot more time. Just rip 'em out and get ready for greatness.
Methods of Cooking: Dry, combo, wet. Backstraps are the most versatile of cuts; conversely, they are the easiest to ruin.
Overall notes: Backstraps will dry out quickly unless you are very careful. Most of the horrid venison served in this country is either backstrap or hindquarter steaks that are pan-fried until "done". They are done, all right. One step short of fossilization is more like it. The trick is the same that must be minded when broiling fish: it seems that nothing much is happening, but the flesh is actually cooking very fast. After turning, the second side needs much less cooking time than the first. Plus, they continue to cook after you take them out. There is no substitute for experience on this one. Each time the meat is anything less than nirvana, decrease your cooking time. On a hot grill, the time can actually be measured in seconds, not minutes. Frying pans: using a pickle fork and knife to "spread" the meat and look at the middle, remove 10 seconds after red becomes pink. If you see lots of grey leading to the center, it is already too late. BIG-TIME RULE OF THUMB: VENISON TASTES GREAT WHEN UNDERCOOKED AND IS HORRIBLE WHEN EVEN SLIGHTLY OVERCOOKED!
ROASTS: I separate only the neck roast from all other roastable cuts when it comes to cooking methods. That is because the neck doesn't do well when roasted normally, and all other cuts do. If you've seen Perfect Venison With Perfect Ease, you know that I rarely if ever cut steaks from my deer. I separate the muscle groups into the naturally-occuring roasts. I can always steak one out later if desired, and this way the steaks do not fall apart by virtue of having been cut across more than one muscle group. My roasts include the rump roast at the top of the hind quarter, all other groups of the hind quarter taken from above the shank and labeled by me as chuck roasts, and two muscles from each front shoulder labeled as blade roast and underblade roast. What's left of the upper portions of the hindquarter becomes sirloin tips for braising or stew meat. Regardless, all of these roasts can be treated the same, with a few qualifications.
Cooking methods: wet or combo only. A Dutch Oven or other heavy, covered baking pot is recommended. You can get by with a roasting pan, but you will have to baste by hand, plus dirty another pan for the stovetop portion of the process. Invest in a wide (not tall) Dutch oven meant for the home (not one of those bulky things you see camp chefs making biscuits on the lid of) and you will never regret it. There are basically two approaches to roasting big game: using a barding of bacon or other animal fat in an open roaster (I lump frequent basting of pan juices ala Thanksgiving turkey roasts in this category) or moist roasting in a covered pan that utilizes trapped steam from the roasting juices to moisten the meat. I am unalterably in favor of the second method for two reasons: first, it is simple. Once the roast goes into the oven nothing need be done until serving time. Second, it is foolproof. A phone call just when you should be basting an open roast will mean a few hours wasted on a bad meal; or, at the very least, if you bard, you have added unhealthy things to your meal. Who cares about that, I don't, but you have also forced the venison to take on the flavor of a pig. I like pig meat, but when doing up venison, I want to taste deer, not swine.
Choices that must be made regardless: First, you have to decide whether you wish to sear the cut or not prior to roasting. With beef, you do this to lock in the juices. In scientific terms this means that much of the interstitial fat does not have an outlet when rendered into liquid, and must remain between muscle tissue as "juiciness". This does not happen with venison. What you are mainly locking in is blood and water. No problem, either good or bad. I sear my venison for a different reason: I like roasts to have some sort of minor crust on the outside, and I want my seasonings to be forced into this crust, and searing is the only method to make that happen. So. In your Dutch oven placed on a burner, or in a frying pan, melt 50% butter and 50% oil. Press in some garlic and maybe salt it a little. Heat to where edges of butter just begin to brown. Meanwhile, rub roast with prefered spices. I like Lowry's Seasoned salt mixed with a little black pepper. Toss in roast, browning on all sides.
Another choice that must be made is whether you wish to serve your roast with pan juices or a thick gravy. This decision can easily be made once the roast has finished cooking and you taste the juices to see if they are to your liking, but if you decide from the outset that you wish to have a good gravy there are things you can do to make it even better. For the best gravies it is imperative that you have on hand a can of stock, either vegetable, (best) chicken, beef, or even venison if you have boiled soup bones. You will also need a gravy mix. Flour and potato flakes work, but if you are going for it from the outset, use a store-bought brown gravy mix. Once you have seared the roast, remove it, and stir in gravy mix. Heat almost to boiling, stir vigorously. Pour in a can of stock, stir even harder. Reduce heat and continue the process soon to be outlined, and you end up with a superb gravy that goes well with the meat and over mashed potatos, but which is unsuitable for biscuits or toast. Note: this gravy is much better when made under the closed-cover method of roasting.
FLANKS: Two choices: grind them for burger or spend lots of time thin-slicing them for sandwich steak. Note that all ground venison should have fat added for juiciness. Best is about 20% beef suet, although commercial sausage, fatty pork, or about anything else will work. Exception: ground venison can be used fat-free if it is browned in oil to be used as spaghetti sauce. Sandwich steaks: thin-slice against the grain, stir-fry in oil, melt on lots of cheese, enjoy.
SIRLOIN TIPS, STEW MEAT, ANY FAT-FREE CHUNKED MEAT: Here we have a number of versatile cooking possibilities. This is the one place where I wholeheartedly support marinades. Now, just so you will understand: marinades amount to cheating. They allow you to use dry heat when you should be using wet heat. The meat does not dry out, at least not easily, because the marinade, once it works its way into the meat, takes on the role of interstitial tissue in beef. The easiest marinade of all is to simply pour a bottle of Zesty Italian dressing over a bowl of meat. At room temperature, marinades are effective for venison in about an hour. Better to place them in a refridgerator overnight. Now you can grill to your heart's content. Those of you who insist on ruining my perfect roasts by making steaks out of them, use a marinade! Marinated steaks can be slapped on a grill and cooked to any degree of doneness except well-done.
HEARTS: Hearts are great. They can be cooked numerous ways, but tend to take on an unpleasant texture if dry-cooked.
GROUND MEAT: If using in a wet sauce, such as spaghetti sauce, can be used as simply ground meat. If used as burger or sausage, fat must be added. Now, fat added ground can also be used in wet sauces, just like ground beef can: you simply have to drain off the rendered fat (grease) before continuing. When grinding venison, try to remove as much stringy white stuff as you can during processing. A little is unavoidable, but too much means nasty burgers. When cooking burgers, I tend towards the thinner-is-better school. My reasoning is this: when they come off the grill, thick burgers have to be eaten. By which I mean that many bites will contain little more than a bunch of meat. The centers of burgers are always the least tasty. So, by using thinner burgers, you get more of a char-broiled taste in each bite, plus you can juxtapose your favorite toppings in a more consistent manner.
RIBS: Two very important considerations are that the flanking fat must be removed prior to cooking and that ribs must be tenderized/flavored before cooking. The fat, like all deer fat, will not melt. It is sticky on the palate and has a very unpleasant taste. Trim every bit of it off, even if it costs you eye appeal in your rib racks. Tenderizing is best accomplished by pre-steaming. You can use your oven, but one really great way is this: Take one of those electric skillets. Put a half inch of water in the bottom. Suspend ribs over water by using long knives or dowels as racks. Place the skillet top over the ribs to knock down the steam. Crank up the juice. Replace water as it evaporates. 45 minutes of steaming will give you succulent ribs that can then be cooked in any manner. I like to simply bake them at 350 for an hour, basting twice with a mixture of butter, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, and soy sauce. Then I slap on the BBQ sauce ten minutes before serving time. Leftovers get "pulled" so the bones can be dis-carded. Those leftovers make phenomenal sandwiches-- but there's never very much of them.
Rather than list a bunch of recipes, I'll just put down a few simples rules that can be applied to any recipe you find in the cooking column of your favorite outdoor magazine.
In case you haven't noticed, folks, there is a common thread running through this file and Perfect Venison With Perfect Ease. That thread is the overall understanding that good venison meals are not the sole purview of the expert nor the serendipitous pot roast of the amateur. Rather, an understanding of how each part of the deer relates and reacts to the heat of cooking is all that is required for the average hunter to enjoy the fruits of his labor. I have specifically stayed away from the "pinch of tarragon, pinch of rosemary" school because individual tastes differ. Actually, I stayed away from rosemary because I consider it an evil spice more suited to a Satanic ritual, but that is beside the point, because what is important is delivering quality meat to the recipe. By keeping a simple framework of what deer meat actually IS in your head, you can putter about and try different things and give recipes a shot, secure in the knowledge that at least the result will be edible. And isn't that how Grandma cooked? She knew there were certain limits and parameters to the preparation of a chicken dinner, yet within those limits were room for expansive miles of differentiation.
Where do recipes come from, anyway? They come from cooks who approach the stove knowing that such a thing can be cooked in such a way but has never been tried exactly like this before. So experiment! Personally, I don't have the time. Luckily I was able to synthesize the boundaries of venison preparation in not too-many seasons, and so I tend now to stick to the basics. Hey, it tastes great, I'm gonna mess with it?