Tender Mercies: The Perfect Venison Dinner
How to make the best of the season's bounty, with advice from processing experts, game-cooking pros, and a master chef.
I remember my first bite of deer meat. It was a California forkhorn mule deer, and I thought it was going to be delicious and tender. What appeared on my plate was a boiled, gray chunk with suspicious-looking brown flecks on it. “Coffee grounds,” my hostess explained. “you can’t just cook deer steaks. They’re too tough. You have to boil them all day in coffee grounds.” I can’t tell you what it tasted like-I’ve wiped it out of my memory. But she was wrong about the coffee grounds: that steak was the toughest thing I’d ever tried to eatÂ¿Â¿Â¿until last fall in North Dakota.
I’d been hunting whitetail deer all day and was looking forward to someone else’s cooking. The cook came in with a tray loaded down with steaks. He started serving them up, warning as he went from plate to plate that if they weren’t done enough he could cook them some more. “The barbecue’s still going,” he threatened. Six steaks, six plates: It was the first time I’d ever heard steaks go clank.
Those are the only two gut-wrenching venison encounters in my life. The trouble is the scene is repeated over and over all across the country. First deer or last deer, you’ve done all that work to fill the freezer; then you cook your first steak-and it’s tough. Can’t grill it. Can’t broil it. Definitely can’t chew it. What’s the matter with deer steaks?
In the first place, don’t compare deer steak to beefsteak: It’s like comparing wheat with nectarines. That T-bone you order at the restaurant is tenderloin and backstrap; deer steaks are usually cut from the round-much lower down on the animal, and thus less tender. The steer was fed grain for several weeks. Your deer? He’s eating catch-as-catch-can-and if you took him in the rut, he may not be eating at all. Oh, and how thick did you cut your deer steak? Your beefsteak was cut 2 to 3 inches thick (two to three times the thickness of most deer steaks). It’s a simple fact of kitchen chemistry that a thicker cut of meat stays moister longer when cooked.
In short, if you are harboring the delusion that when you throw that deer steak on the grill it’s going to come out like beef, forget it.
But that doesn’t mean it has to be terrible…or tough. If you have a mature deer, male or female, age it five to seven days at 35 to 45 degrees. This breaks down collagen (the fiber between the cells) and is the most common way good steak houses tenderize beef.
In my own kitchen, I’ve had only one deer that was tough no matter how I cooked it, and that’s out of about five deer a year for 18-plus years, with at least one trophy-caliber buck each year. The one tough deer was another forkhorn muley buck, taken in a late-season cold snap that froze the carcass within 24 hours of the shot. But that was an unusual circumstance: We don’t usually hunt at 23 degrees below zero.
If your steaks are tough, even after aging, then you’re either cutting them wrong or you’re cooking them wrong. You need to start thinking of deer steaks as more like skinless chicken breast (not in flavor, but in fat content) and less like coddled beef. And follow the four basic steps at right.
But be sure to relax. Deer steak is its own reward, as long as you don’t expect it to be something it’s not. Following are some recipes from people who have cooked a lot of venison.
–Eileen Clarke (Choice) Cut and Run
Years ago, early in my deer hunting career, I bagged an 8-point buck on a South Texas ranch. A leathery wrangler offered to skin and butcher the field-dressed deer in exchange for “some of the meat.”
My venison needs were modest, and a celebratory drink around the fire pit sounded more inviting than an hour or so with knives and saws in the barn, so I accepted the trade-out.
“How about if I save for you the backstraps-the best part, you know-and I’ll take all the rest,” he said, hunter to hunter.
“No prroblem,” I replied, hunter to hunter.
The next morning, I found two neatly sliced straps folded in a plastic bag in the walk-in cooler. I collected the venison and the tagged antlers and drove back to Houston.
I related the story to a good friend who has many years of deer hunting experience. “What about the tenders?” he asked.
“The tenders-the fillets. You know, like the filet mignon with beef.”
I, like many rookie hunters, assumed that backstraps and tenders were the same cut. The two straps, which run parallel to the backbone on the outside of the carcass, are indeed excellent meat, but the twin delicate tenders inside the cavity at the base of the hindquarters are choicest of all cuts.
Each slender tender on a whitetail deer is a foot or so in length, with perhaps the diameter of a silver dollar. Properly grilled and cut with a fork, a tender could make a venison lover out of a PETA supporter-assuming you don’t let some camo-clad slick talk you out of them.