Every so often I publish a blog post either about hunting or with a picture of an elk steak in it. Usually after this I get at least one or two questions about how to prepare game meat so that it doesn’t taste so “gamey.” I hear lots of people saying they would hunt but they don’t like the taste of the meat, or that they just don’t know how to cook it. Likewise, whenever we serve game to friends and family, we get lots of surprised comments about how flavorful and good the meat is, not at all gamey as they expected.
Since hunting season is just around the corner for many parts of the country, and since our family mainly eats game meat, I thought I’d share a bit about how we process and cook the meat, and how we deal with the “gaminess” of venison and other meats. Over the next couple of weeks I plan to publish a series of hunting related posts, including recipes for cooking wild game.
Making wild game into a delicious meal was learned through trial and error over the last nine years of cooking and processing game. We’ve made some discoveries that have really helped us. When people refer to venison as gamey they are either speaking of the toughness or dryness that often occurs when cooking the meat, the distinctly wild flavor, or both. It’s a bit backwards but I’m going to talk about cooking game meat first. This addresses the toughness and dryness of venison. In part two, I’ll talk about harvesting and processing game and how that directly affects the taste of your meat.
Venison is not beef.
It might seem obvious, but deer, elk and antelope are all very different from cattle.
When you cook beef, the fat and marbling you should look for when buying a steak keeps the meat moist, tender and flavorful. A delicious juicy steak depends on it’s fat. Nicely marbled beef can be tender and choice even cooked past medium. This is because cattle is mainly fed corn to fatten them up (literally, to fatten them).
If you’ve ever cooked grass-fed beef, you know what I’m talking about. Grass-fed beef is leaner than conventional corn-fed beef. Often grass-fed beef is “finished” on corn (meaning the last few weeks of it’s life it gets corn to add in some fat). And even if it is not, grass-fed beef still has more fat than venison. Cows are bred to stand around and eat. Cattle ranchers make an effort to keep their cattle from using their muscles. Even if not confined, they don’t want them running around. They want lazy, fat, contented cows. They want tender muscle. 1,400 pounds of well-marbled, tender muscle.
We all know a muscle that is exercised gets harder, tougher, stronger.
Deer (and certainly antelope) don’t just stand around all day filling their stomachs. They live their lives using their muscles. They have to keep on the move, running and jumping, staying away from predators. They have to search out water and food. Their food is not usually a lush field of grass or corn (unless they are Nebraskan whitetail). It’s often patches of under-brush, sage and other soft-wooded plants. Deer eat twigs and bark and shoots. They are nearly fat-free beings, trim at 150 (or perhaps 400 for an elk) pounds, with the hardened muscles of athletes.
This means you can not cook venison the same way as you cook beef. While you might like your beef steak medium- to medium-rare, your venison needs to be much closer to rare, else it becomes shoe leather. It generally should not be cooked well-done or it will be ruined, dry and tough.
Likewise, grouse, pheasant and duck are not chickens. You must add fat when cooking grouse and pheasant. Duck is an entirely different bird and it’s breasts can be treated as red meat, cooked to medium-rare or medium.
How to cook wild game:
To start with, use thick cuts of meat. If you get your game processed by a butcher, ask them to cut your steaks an inch thick or thicker. Or if you process your meat yourself, use a ruler or make yourself a template when cutting, so your steaks don’t end up too thin. The idea here is to preserve moisture as much as possible and not over-cook the meat. Deer and elk steaks are going to be smaller than beef steaks anyway, so if your steaks are thicker, you have more leeway with this. Remember, you can always cut your meat thinner if you need to later, or for other uses as you get used to cooking your game.
Venison greatly benefits from a marinade. Most of the time we, at the very least, drizzle our elk, deer or antelope steaks with olive oil and let them sit in it for 20 minutes to half an hour before we cook them. Olive oil, crushed garlic and thyme is a great, simple combination.
Before cooking we also add fat to the pan (or grill). Heat your pan and add a bit more olive oil. Then cook the steak, flipping once, being careful not to over-cook it. Remember that venison is smaller and less forgiving than beef, so keep a close eye.
Bacon grease and lard are delicious, traditional ways to add fat to your venison. A lard-seared elk steak, to die for. Onions sauteed in bacon grease, the perfect base for a venison stew. Or keep it simple with olive oil.
After cooking, let your venison steaks rest for up to ten minutes, covered, before serving.
Notice that I didn’t mention salt? This is because salt draws moisture from meat. When cooking venison, salt should be added just before serving.
Important to remember here is that you can’t just take a beef recipe and make it into a venison recipe without accounting for the leanness of the meat. You want to do your utmost to preserve the meat’s juices and moisture.
If you enjoy stir-fry and fajitas, I recommend using a flank-type steak, cooked whole to medium-rare and then thinly slicing. Only add the sliced steak into the pan for the last few seconds (if at all).
Check out websites like Field and Stream’s The Wild Chef blog or Hunter-Angler-Gardener-Cook for lots of delicious, trusted game recipes.
If you’ve enjoyed what I’ve posted about cooking wild game so far, please subscribe to have my future posts shown in your RSS feed or emailed directly to your inbox by using the form in the sidebar at the right. Thanks for reading.
I read the above with interest and have a couple of questions regarding your thoughts on the use of salt.
1) I am a subscriber to Cook’s Illustrated, and one of their methods of salting beef steaks is to use Kosher salt while the steak is on the counter coming to room temp. After 20 minutes or so, the salt has drawn the juices form the meat, but continued resting allows the juices to re-enter the meat and the results are wonderful.
2) What about bring?
Your thoughts on this are greatly appreciated and I look forward to Part 2.