After a big meal and a few drinks, my buddy and I recently got to talking about all the ways people mess up their game meat. My friend is a sous chef from Ithaca, NY, and we try to get together a couple times a month to cook wild game. Typically, the topic of conversation strays to venison backstraps—those amazingly wonderful lengths of deer meat that lie along the outside of the backbone next to the hide.
From a culinary perspective, there are certain principles that professional cooks tend to agree upon when it comes to preparing a piece of meat such as a backstrap. Having both spent time in kitchens over the years, professional and otherwise, we’ve developed a few opinions of our own. The following are a few of the best practices to get the most out of nature’s finest protein.
1. Cook the Venison Loin Simply
Of course, cooking is about far more than doing things ‘perfectly.’ Certain meals represent memories of people and places, and this is not a story about trash-talking your granny’s beloved recipe.
If your favorite way to enjoy venison is chicken-fried backstrap or teriyaki stir fry, we won’t begrudge you. That being said, a backstrap is something special to be cooked and eaten with care. For me, that means thick, perfectly seared and rested loins cooked to rare or medium-rare and sliced against the grain. Everything else—seasonings, sauces, sides, etc.—change freely, but the basic formula is almost always the same.
In general, the best way to prepare backstrap is often the simplest. Stuffing, bacon wrapping, or smothering backstrap in heavy marinades can transform and overpower the flavor and texture of the meat. These preparations have their place and can be done well, but they aren’t usually my first choice.
2. Cut Large Portions
One of the simplest ways to improve a backstrap is to cut it into larger portions while butchering—and that goes for when you’re freezing it or cooking it, too. When you cut backstrap into small chunks, strips, or medallions, you dramatically reduce the tenderness and juiciness of the meat by making it much more difficult to sear properly. This is because smaller pieces take up more surface area in the pan (or grill) than one or two large pieces. They absorb more heat than is being generated, which drops the temperature of your cooking surface. If the surface is not hot enough to maintain a sear, the moisture from the meat will seep out, and it will basically braise itself in its own juices.
The outcome will be chewier, drier, likely overcooked, and can lack certain textures and flavors compared to a properly portioned and seared piece. Larger pieces are also easier to cook. A split-second loss of attention might spell doom for a small cutlet, but a larger filet won’t be as delicate. For these reasons, I typically cut a backstrap in 6- to 12-inch pieces.
I also recommend cooking larger cuts of backstrap for recipes such as tacos or stir-fries, that call for bite-sized pieces. Cook the meat properly, slice, then incorporate it into your recipe. Don’t just cut it up raw, toss it together in your pan or grill, and hope for the best.
3. The Best Cooking Methods for Backstraps
My friend and I think the best two ways to cook a backstrap are either seared in a pan and finished in the oven, or simply grilled. Any pan will work for searing, with the only caveat being if you plan to make a sauce in the same pan after searing, you’ll want to use something like stainless steel and avoid cast iron because acids in the sauce can pull out odd flavors from the cast iron’s seasoning. Stainless steel and other quality non-coated pans can handle the oven and work great for pan sauces because any drippings from the meat or crusty bits from the searing process can be deglazed and scraped off to form the base for your sauce.
Pretty much all the same principles from pan-searing apply to grilling, so start with a clean cooking surface, get it piping hot, form a proper sear on your backstrap, then lower the temperature and use indirect heat until the meat is ready to rest. Grilling over charcoal or wood really does something special to the meat, but propane grills make temperature regulation significantly easier.
Lately, sous vide circulators and pellet grills have become popular, and honestly, they both work great. That being said, the crusty line cook in me would rather stick to what I know. I’m not above using them, but these methods are slow, and I’m impatient.
Whether sous vide or smoking, the basic idea is to cook the meat using indirect heat until it is slightly below your desired temperature before quickly searing it. This is called a reverse sear. Both methods work well to infuse flavor and slow down the cooking process giving you complete control of the backstrap’s temperature. There’s much less chance you’ll accidentally overcook or dry out your meat with pellet grills or sous vide because they take out much of the guesswork.
4. How to Achieve the Perfect Sear
Searing is probably the most important step for the majority of cuts—backstrap or otherwise—and also where most people have trouble. The main function of a proper sear is to scald and caramelize the meat, creating a crust layer that prevents moisture from escaping. When a piece of meat heats up, it starts to leech moisture and proteins, and searing builds structure to stop it.
The biggest mistakes people make come down to bad temperature regulation and overcrowding of the pan or grill. When a pan isn’t hot enough, it not only fails to sear, but the meat sticks to the pan and any crust layer that did form tears away. To ensure a proper sear, portion correctly, use a super hot pan, cook in smaller batches, and be patient before you start poking or flipping the meat too soon. On the initial sear, I try not to touch the meat until I’m just starting to wonder if it’s going to burn. Repeat the sear on all sides, and even the ends if you can.
This browning—also known as the Maillard reaction—is a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives seared/browned foods that distinct umami (meaty) flavor. There’s a night-and-day difference between a piece of meat that has been properly browned and one that has not, and the correct execution of that first step will set the stage for the rest of the cooking process and ultimately determine the deliciousness of your food—whether your cooking backstrap or another cut of meat.
For pan-searing, you’ll want to use some sort of fat as a cooking medium. Those with a higher flash point such as vegetable oil are technically superior, but you can also use other fats like olive oil, bacon fat, or butter. You’ll just need to be more proactive in regulating the temperature to avoid burning.
5. Avoid Marinades with Venison Loins
You want to keep a backstrap as dry as possible throughout the cooking process to ensure a better crust, juicier inside, and more consistent doneness. Whether pan searing or grilling, you can achieve this by using high, dry, direct heat, and minimizing things like marinades.
Marinades can be great for grilling but are often too wet to get a proper pan sear. Although, the right marinade can actually help form an amazing crust if you can keep your pan hot enough to evaporate the moisture. If I do marinade a backstrap, I keep it extremely simple—seasonings, olive oil, maybe something garlicky or acidic, and something sugary to help caramelization.
While marinades have their place, I generally prefer to use a dry rub instead. I’ll mix it up depending on what I’m going for, but there are a ton of blends on the market if you don’t want to make your own. I highly recommend a dry rub called, Musketpowder.
6. The Temperature for Backstraps
Venison backstrap is best served between rare or medium (and that’s pushing it). Period. The end.
But if you want to nail your temps like a pro, you’ll need to learn to gauge doneness without cutting holes in your meat. There’s no point in painstakingly containing juices with a perfect sear if you’re just going to stab it with a knife to see what the center looks like. Stick and probe thermometers are handy tools, but with some experience, you can learn to intuit doneness by hand.
Here’s a trick most professional cooks use to gauge doneness:
Open and relax one hand. With the pointer finger on your other hand, feel the pad on your palm just below your thumb. The firmness you feel is roughly comparable to an uncooked, raw piece of meat. Now gently squeeze your thumb to your pointer finger and feel the pad again. Repeat the process with each successive finger for an approximate indicator of ascending doneness—i.e., pointer is rare; middle is medium-rare; ring is medium; pinky is well-done. Now press on and squeeze a backstrap while cooking and compare that feeling to how the pad on your hand feels. You should have a pretty good idea where it stands. Basically, if the meat is still soft, it’s raw to rare; if it starts to bounce back when squeezed, it’s med-rare to medium; and if it’s firm to the touch, it’s medium to well.
Read Next: Two Ways to Cook a Roasted Leg of Venison
If you do use a thermometer, these are the numbers to shoot for:
Rare: 125°F, Medium-Rare: 130°F, Medium: 135°F, Medium-Well: 145°F, Well-Done: 150+°F
Whether you’re grilling or pan searing you’ll want to account for the residual heat left in the meat (and pan) once you stop cooking. Expect the meat to rise between a quarter and half a degree of doneness (ex. medium-rare to medium) after resting.
7. Add Sauces and Other Flavors
When cooking a backstrap, and venison in general, I like to use earthy herbs and spices like juniper, rosemary, cumin, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. Rich flavors like coffee, brown sugar, smoked paprika, etc., also work well. I usually pair backstrap with some sort of natural sweetness from berries or other fruits like apples, pears, or dried cherries. I also tend to incorporate a fat component to a lean venison dish, whether that’s in the form of oil, butter, bacon grease, or otherwise, and I like to use acids like citrus, whole grain mustard, or apple cider vinegar for a little bite to cut through the fat and richness. Pairing backstrap with condiments like chimichurri, or incorporating a vinaigrette into your dish, works perfectly for this reason.
Read Next: 3 Great Sauce Recipes for Venison
Whatever you’re cooking, the fundamental rule is to seek balance. You want crunchy and soft textures, sweet and savory flavors, etc., and they should all flow and complement each other, but also contrast without clashing. I like to spread these flavors between the different aspects of a dish so each bite is slightly different and interesting. As cliche as this phrase has become, every meal should revolve around salt, fat, acid, and heat.
In general, you can treat a backstrap a lot like you would other lean proteins such as pork loin or filet mignon in terms of the flavors you would pair it with.
Recipe: Pan-Seared Venison Backstrap
Now that you know how to cook your cut of venison backstrap to perfection, pair it with a dried cherry reduction, arugula salad, and a fried egg.
Admittedly, this is pretty much a chefy recipe for steak and eggs, but it’s also a blueprint. If you can execute the technical aspects of cooking backstrap you can serve it at whatever temperature and pair it with whatever you want. By practicing and knowing and what to look for at each step, you’ll gain insight and control of the process no matter the method.
For the dry rub
Yields approximately ¾ cup of rub
- ¼ cup kosher salt
- 1 Tbsp. black pepper
- 2 tsp. onion powder
- 2 tsp. garlic powder
- 3 Tbsp. brown sugar
- 2 Tbsp. ground dark roast coffee or espresso
- 2 tsp. smoked paprika
- 1 tsp. chili powder
For the backstrap and sauce
- 6-10 inch piece of backstrap
- 2 Tbsp. butter
- 1 Tbsp. vegetable or olive oil
- ¼ cup dried cherries
- ½ cup red wine
- ½ cup beef or game stock
- 1 tsp. brown sugar
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 pinch pepper
For the salad
- 1 cup arugula or spring mix
- ⅓ cup shaved fennel
- ¼ cup red onion
For the salad dressing
Add all ingredients except oil to a bowl, beat ingredients with a whisk rapidly then slowly add the oil. Use as much or as little oil as it takes to thicken the dressing without oversaturating it.
- 1 Tbsp. whole grain mustard
- 1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 pinch pepper
- 1 egg
Note: step 3 is optional
- Clean and dry backstrap, thoroughly coat it in dry rub.
- Get a stainless steel pan piping hot but not so hot as to burn your oil. Add about a tablespoon of oil and sear the backstrap on one side in the pan. Once a crust forms, flip and sear on all remaining sides and ends evenly.
- Lower the heat. Melt a pad or two of butter in the pan, and spoon the butter over the meat, basting it.
- Wipe out any burned oil or spices from the pan with a paper towel.
- Transfer the backstrap to another pan and place it in an oven preheated to 425°F for around 3-5 minutes for rare to medium-rare. This amount of time may vary depending on the size and thickness of the portion.
- Remove the backstrap from the pan to rest while you make the sauce.
- Drain the majority of oil/butter and return the searing pan to the stove on medium-high heat.
- Deglaze pan with wine, add stock, dried cherries, brown sugar, then whisk and reduce until cherries have hydrated and the sauce has thickened. As it thickens, add a little more butter to help smooth out the sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste
- Fry the egg in a separate pan.
- Slice backstrap against the grain and serve with the cherry sauce, arugula salad, and a fried egg.