Deer and humans have evolved together. We’ve hunted deer, and deer have escaped us, for so long that neither of us are what we were when our intimate, eons-old relationship first began. Our dance with deer is eternal.
Many paleontologists believe that the ancient pursuit of deer-like animals made us fully human, fundamentally changing our inner life, our identification with the world — even our cognitive powers — through the planning and execution of the hunt. Deer hunting is firmly embedded in our ancestral DNA, and deer, or the more general category of venison, is a staple food item recognized throughout the world. Tell most people you’re deer hunting and they’ll barely shrug. Tell them you’re swan hunting, or even bear hunting, and you’ll likely get a very different reaction. Humans hunt and eat venison; it’s just what we do.
The word “venison” derives from the Latin word venari, “to hunt.” Evolving through Old French, the term came to refer to any hunted game, a reference that is still widely used today. Although venison can mean different things in different cultures, the word most often refers collectively to all the deer-like animals: the cervids (especially deer, elk, and moose) and the non-cervid pronghorn and African antelopes. This is the definition I’ll use here.
Given our long history as eaters of venison, it’s more than a little surprising to discover that, with the possible exception of waterfowl, no game animal is more horribly treated in the kitchen by contemporary cooks than deer. Nasty, gloppy cream-of-mushroom soup. Bacon-wrapped everything. A disturbing array of processed cheeses. Venison loin cooked until gray. Shoulders undercooked. And far too much waste. I’m not sure why this is, but I suspect it has to do with the fact that venison — even the easily cooked backstrap and tenderloin — requires some skill and practice in the kitchen in order to pull off properly. We’re not talking about fancy preparations here; more often than not, simple dishes are the most deeply satisfying.
Venison does have its quirks, and there are subtle but important differences between cooking venison and cooking beef or lamb, with which we are generally much more familiar. But cooking a great piece of venison, no matter what piece you happen to have on hand, isn’t rocket science. All you need is a good foundation of solid information and a fistful of tips, tricks, and techniques that work with venison, and you’ll be fine.
Ready to begin?
Top Factors Affecting Meat Quality
I’ve talked with many butchers, deer hunters, meat experts, and cooks over the years about what they consider to be the most important factors affecting the flavor of venison. Here’s the consensus:
1. Field care. By far the top cause of nasty-tasting venison is poor meat care. If you think strapping a buck to your truck and driving around with it is a good idea, I’m talking to you. Take your photos, and then get to work. And I don’t mean back in your camp after a cup of coffee — I mean right out there in the field (unless it’s beastly cold out). Cooling down the carcass quickly is the single most important factor in assuring good meat quality. This is most important in warmer climates.
2. Shot placement. A good hunter kills silently, swiftly, and cleanly. Your animal should have no idea it’s being hunted, and, when shot, should die quickly. A clean heart-lung shot on an unsuspecting deer will go a long way toward tasty venison. A liver shot (or worse), or a shot on a fleeing deer, will flood the animal with adrenaline, which can make that animal’s meat nearly inedible.
3. Hanging temperature. If you hang your deer, you’ll need the temperature to be no higher than about 40 degrees Fahrenheit; just above freezing is better. One of the reasons people receive unsavory venison back from meat processors is that during deer season, the door of their meat locker is opened and shut all day, letting warm air sneak in, and allowing temperatures to creep up past 40 degrees. Processors don’t like to talk about this, but it happens.
4. The rut. Note that this is the first time the animal itself comes into play as a factor in meat quality. Rutting and post-rut bucks and bulls are in ragged shape. They’ve been running around and fighting for weeks, and they have a lot of hormones racing through them. They’ll be leaner and tougher than before the rut.
5. Age and sex. All things being equal, a young doe will be more tender than an old male. But keep in mind that a young male might be more tender than an old doe. You can get good venison from an old, rutting buck, provided that the first three factors are all done right.
6. Diet. Grain-fed whitetails and mule deer will be fatter and nicer-tasting than deer subsisting on sagebrush or pine needles. That doesn’t mean a muley that’s shot in the sage won’t be good; it’s just that you might find yourself preferring the whitetail doe that you shot in the alfalfa field. That said, venison from all sorts of animals, with all sorts of diets, can be wonderful; these observations are just the fine distinctions that can elevate your culinary awareness and enjoyment.
7. Butchery. Bad butchery, whether in the form of sloppy knife and saw cuts, meat ground with loads of sinew and no added fat, or failure to remove enough silverskin from roasts and stew meat, can seriously damage meat. This is why many of us choose to butcher our own deer and elk. Good butchers are like good mechanics — hold onto them, and treat them well.
With these tips in mind, here are some venison recipes to try: