Venison: A Backwoods Love Story
My childhood in the backwoods of South Jersey revolved around school, my soccer team, and my dad—a lifelong woodsman and accomplished hunter who often came home slick with blood and smelling of gunpowder. Helping him butcher the carcasses he kept hanging in his butcher shed out back was a normal part of my life, so much so that it didn’t occur to me that not everyone had grown up the same way. That changed when I got to high school, and folks got to know me a little better. At one point, a new friend cried out with horror, “You eat deer meat!?” I remember thinking, just as shocked, “You don’t!?”
For my family, when venison was scarce, beef was a stand-in, chicken a cheap and common filler, and pork—which I hated and my mom thus regarded as a headache to fool around with—a last resort. My dad usually brought home five deer every season just to keep us all fed, and after we’d exhausted our supply of venison, the lean months in between hunting seasons were always rife with culinary disappointments. As much as I was teased for my “redneck” tastes and made to feel like a weird, preadolescent throwback to a less civilized era—a sort of blonde, pigtailed Encino Man—being raised on venison, with its intense flavor and gorgeous sanguine hue, was a privilege of sorts. Beef tasted like nothing to me until I got old enough to patronize the odd steakhouse, and even now, after having eaten a lot of quality beef, I’m not that impressed. Even at its best, beef just ain’t venison. It’s too tough, too bland, too… tame.
Venison is nothing like the pale, watery cuts you pick up at the local supermarket, all studded with fat and sealed up in their bloodless Styrofoam tombs. With deer, the flesh is a rich burgundy, the color of a juicy Malbec redolent with dark fruits. Save for a faint silvery sheen of connective tissue, the meat is incredibly lean, and is very low in cholesterol and saturated fat. It makes for an attractive option for those looking to build healthier meat consumption habits, or picky eaters with texture issues; you’re never going to find a big gummy hunk of gristle on a venison steak. The word “venison” itself contains multitudes; it’s a catch-all term that is commonly ascribed to deer meat but can also apply to moose, caribou, and elk, all of which I’ve eaten, and the latter of which I can safely say is the most wonderful wild game meat of them all. It takes a lot of effort to bring down and transport an elk, though, so the bulk of my experience with venison has come from whitetail deer.
Cooking venison is a breeze thanks to its character and makeup. When cooked, the short, thin muscle fibers lend the metal a firm but tender texture. For maximum flavor, it never hurts to use a marinade prior to cooking, though most cuts of fresh venison will never really need much more than salt and pepper, or Montreal Steak spice if you’re looking for a low-cost kick. Unlike factory-farmed meat, wild game animals have their own individual, pronounced flavors, and venison is no exception. A simple oil-based marinade will add a little oomph, and can also cut down on any potential gaminess; the older the animal when it’s harvested, the tougher its meat and wilder its flavor will be. As my dad says, it’s best served “still runnin’” which generally translates to the bluer side of medium rare. Because the fat content is so low, overcooked venison can be a grey, bone-dry nightmare, so tread lightly and keep an eye on your prize. You want to taste the blood.
The ideal means of cooking venison is to take a nice backstrap (a succulent loin cut the equivalent to a beef ribeye), trim away any of that ghostly connective tissue, butterfly it, slice it into inch-wide steaks, then sauté it with a little salt, pepper, butter, and garlic in a hot skillet for two to three minutes on each side. Once the juice runs clear, you’re good to go.
If you want to up the ante, forego the butterflying and slice it into inch-wide medallions instead; then wrap each medallion in a slice of bacon before it hits the pan; the added fat will yield a more succulent end result. If you really want to get fancy, invest in a sous vide, but the more old-school methods work just fine; as my dad would say, “Don’t try to church that shit up.”
There are as many ways to cook venison as there are opinions on the best way to procure it, though I will say that the pasture-raised version available online and in some supermarkets is a paltry imitation of the real thing. The majority of cuts you’ll encounter—like the backstrap, top round, sirloin, and eye of round—will come as steaks, which flourish on the grill or in the pan. Some cuts require more rigorous preparation, like the bony shanks (which benefit from slow-cooking) or the front shoulders, which are best ground up for hamburger or sausage. Pro tip: if you’re planning to make deer patties, you’ll need to add some fattier meat like beef or pork to help the mixture hold together.
The closest I’ve ever come to heaven is biting into my dad’s smoked venison tenderloin hot out of the smoker, or inhaling his grilled teriyaki venison kebabs quicker than he could flip them. Even now, whenever I go back to the woods to visit, my first order of business—after swiping fistfuls of venison jerky from the fridge—is to peer into his game freezer and see what I can purloin without him noticing. He always notices, but has so far let me get away with it. He knows what I’m missing.