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How to Cook Venison

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I’ve heard so many people say they don’t like venison and my response is always the same. If you don’t like wild venison, you’ve never known someone who knows how to cook venison.

Venison meat is delicious when prepared properly. Our children will eat venison steaks over beef any day of the week. But, proper preparation is key. Whether you’ve cooked venison before or are a seasoned pro, the following tips should help you prepare the best-tasting venison anyone has eaten.

What is venison?

First things first, let’s talk about what venison actually is. Venison originates from the Latin verb venari, which means to hunt. Originally, it was used to describe all wild game meat. Today, we use the word venison to describe the meat of horned ungulates such as deer, elk, moose, and antelope.

Do you cook venison the same way you do beef?

Since all venison is red meat, a lot of people try to cook it the same way they cook beef. The problem is, they’re not all that similar.

Beef, often prized for its marbling, has quite a bit of fat. Venison, on the other hand, is very lean meat, making the preparation of it quite different than beef. It’s quite easy to overcook venison, at which time it will turn into a hockey puck and will have the flavor reminiscent of a charcoal briquette if you can even chew it.

When prepared correctly, however, venison is far better-tasting meat with amazing texture and an excellent nutrient profile with higher vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and Omega-3s than beef. It’s also lower in fat and cholesterol than beef, but I wrote a whole article on deer fat and how to render it, so I won’t go into more.

Butcher Venison Cuts

If you take your deer to the processor, typically you’ll get some backstrap medallions, as opposed to lengths of backstrap, tough “roasts” that need to be cooked slow into pot roasts, some round steaks and pounds upon pounds of ground venison, that may or may not be paired with ground pork or ground beef, depending on the processor and what you asked for.

For years we took our deer to the processor, it’s inexpensive (less than $100) and we didn’t have the space to process our own. That changed almost a decade ago when my husband shot a record buck and I know for a fact we did not get our own meat from the deer he shot. Yes, it happens, probably more often than most processors want to admit.

Besides, butchering your own deer means that you can butcher your deer the way you want to eat it, making use of those yummy neck roasts, shanks that are perfect for Osso Buco, and ribs for some excellent barbecue. So, we now butcher our own into cuts we will use.

Our Favorite Venison Cuts

Since we butcher our own deer, we get a lot more meat and are able to get various cuts of venison that most butchers simply don’t offer. If you’re butchering your own deer, be sure you remove most of the silver skin and connective tissue as these aren’t very palatable, they get hard when cooked.

First off, while you would take this from the field, we keep the offal. The tongue, heart, kidneys, and liver are all saved. Venison liver can be quite strong, so if it’s your first taste of liver make sure it’s from a young deer and to make it even milder, make sure that the younger deer is female. Older deer, especially bucks, have a very pungent liver that I would not recommend for beginners.

My favorite way to cook the heart is to make a pan-fried venison heart out of it, which is probably some of the easiest, best steak you’ll ever eat. Another option is to make heart tartare.

The best way to make the tongue is making venison tongue tacos whereas venison kidney can be coupled with a bit of stew meat and make kidney pie which is a great way to introduce kidney meat into your diet.

I think some of the best deer meat is venison ribs, which are absolutely delicious smoked slow and barbecued. Believe me, there is so much more meat on those ribs than you’d think. Completely worth butchering them. You’ll need a bone saw to split them, but they’re not hard to split up.

We also love shanks that are braised, stewed, or cooked into Osso Buco. Mouthwateringly good stuff. We usually debone the neck and make neck roast barbecue or something similar with it.

Another thing we sometimes do is keep whole backstraps instead of cutting them into medallions. Most of the time, though, I cut them into medallions. Thick medallions, around 1-1/2 to 2″ thick to make sure they taste scrumptious and stay rare in the center.

Of course there is still plenty of ground meat when we butcher our own deer. We do not mix our ground venison unless we are making summer sausage or snack sticks. We often make 100% venison burgers, but sometimes to bind them together a bit better we add just a little beef fat.

How to Cook Venison

Cook Tender Cuts Quickly to Rare

The first tip for cooking venison properly is to cook all the tender cuts of meat to rare with an internal temperature of 120°F to 135°F. These are cuts like the backstrap, tenderloin, and flat irons. Remember, overcooked venison is reminiscent of a charcoal flavored hockey puck, and no one wants that served on their dinner plate. If it’s undercooked you can fix it. Overcooked venison has a handful of uses to make it palatable, but it’s best to keep it on the rare side.

The reason for this is because there isn’t any fat or marbling on the meat which means it heats up and cools down a lot more quickly than beef. Always, always cook it rare.

Cook Tougher Cuts Low and Slow

Since deer live by the seat of their proverbial pants, they’re on the move a lot, this makes for a lot of tough muscle. While the hind legs, especially the shanks, are tough, the rest of the hind quarter is fairly tender, making perfect rump roasts, steaks, and other tender bits. The entire front including the shoulders, front legs, and neck are all very tough cuts of meat.

A lot of folks have all of these tougher cuts of meat ground up into ground venison, but they’re actually delicious cuts of meat when they’re cooked properly.

Sometimes, to get a shoulder roast or neck roast tender enough is going to take a long time and potentially dry it out. No matter, you can simply shred it, warm it in a pan with some tallow and serve it as pulled venison sandwiches or shredded venison tacos. No one will know the difference.

Almost Always Use Room Temperature Meat

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but most of the time you’re going to want to get your venison to room temperature before you cook it. All thick cuts of venison, whether it be backstrap or a thick roast, you’ll want to warm it instead of cooking it right out of the refrigerator unless you’re reverse searing.

The exception? For a thin cut of meat, it’s actually best to start with cold meat to keep them nice and rare in the center. Another exception would be for smoking. Start with cold meat so it takes longer to reach 140°F so you get nice smoking in your meat.

Is Venison Gamey?

A lot of people say that venison has a gamey taste. It really isn’t, it’s just not what you’re used to. Our palates have changed a lot with processed foods and grain-fed domestic animals from grocery stores since our ancestor’s time of eating mostly wild game meat.

Since deer forage on wild foods, the taste of venison is different from grain-fed beef, but that’s really not a bad thing. Most flavor is just a matter of adjusting your taste buds to the difference in flavor.

Some people swear by soaking it in milk to pull out the gamey flavor. Others say a bit of acid such as lemon juice or apple cider vinegar will do the trick. I say, don’t soak it. First, I don’t believe you’re going to be impressed with the outcome. Second, a little salt and some seasoning paired with some properly handled, aged, and cooked meat is going to go a really long way.

Make the Most of Seasoning Venison Meat

Venison pairs nicely with a lot of herbs and spices. That being said, you’ll get better flavor if you add a dry rub after you cook the meat. If you have a dry rub, only add the salt, then add the dry rub after it has been cooked and let it rest for 15 minutes or so.

You can also use a simple marinade to enhance the flavor profile of the meat. I often make marinated venison steaks and it’s a delicious recipe.

Another option would be to use brines to help tenderize some tougher meats like roasts before cooking them. Make the brine, which is a mixture of liquid, salt, and sugar, and put your meat in a large bowl with the brine to sit in for 12 to 24 hours, rinse, and prepare.

Cooking Methods for Venison

You can really cook venison in any way and it will turn out delicious. I really enjoy experimenting with different cooking methods. Of course there are the typical grilling, pan frying, oven baking, slow cooker methods. I’ve also made sous vide venison roast, reverse seared, smoked, and just about everything in between.

It’s really just a matter of preparing something you like, that sounds good to you, then next time changing it up. Whether you try a different cooking method, different seasonings, or something completely different.

Time spent in the kitchen is well spent and the experiences will always pay off in the end. If you take the time to learn flavor profiles and some simple recipes and cooking methods, before you know it you’ll be making amazing venison dishes that you never thought possible when you began.

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