For many deer hunters, butchering a deer at home is a natural conclusion to the hunt. Growing up, our family butchered our own deer. And on the evening of a successful opening day, carving out the fresh tenderloins was our first step in converting muscle to meat, and feasting on them was a tradition.
But one thing my mother didn’t understand about venison (and bless her soul, it’s the most important thing) would have made our meat much better. Venison and beef are both red meat, but should not be prepared similarly.
I firmly believe that mistake explains why some people say they don’t like venison. Everyone who processes or cooks venison needs to know this: When it comes to cooking, aging, and grinding meat, venison and beef are both red meat, but they are not the same.
Comparing a raw venison steak with a raw beef steak should make the difference obvious at a glance. In beef, the color will be brighter red, and marked by ivory-colored globules of fat called marbling. When the marbling is plentiful and evenly distributed, the meat is moist, tender and flavorful. Venison is a deeper, darker red, and it’s lean, which means it’s dry. Venison can only get drier if you don’t take proper precautions.
Recipes that add bullion, or salad dressing, or onion soup while cooking slowly can help. On the grill, aluminum foil and a closed lid can minimize loss of moisture. Cooking on the grill to 145 degrees should leave the middle a rosy pink. A higher temp means tougher meat.
How do you age venison? Back in the days when men had steel teeth and cast iron stomachs, hunters hung their bucks in snowy weather for a couple of weeks (sometimes more) and butchered them when they got around to it. If that method of aging had any ill effects, it didn’t seem to bother them, but proper aging is a more careful process than hanging your buck for weeks in the apple tree out back.
I asked a professional butcher friend from Canada, Othmar Vohringer, how long beef can be aged. “Beyond 30 days when the temperature and humidity can be controlled. But to age beef longer than 12 days,” he added, “meat condition and fat cover are important. Beef with good fat cover and good muscle structure [a mature, well-muscled animal] can be aged much longer than beef with little muscle structure and little to no fat cover.”
Beef fat, critical to aging beef, helps retain moisture and adds flavor. Venison fat is tallowy and unappetizing.
Temperature is very important. A week at 34 to 38 degrees is enough for venison. Too warm? Enzymes and bacteria will break down the muscle fibers quickly, even to the point of decomposing. Too cold? The action of enzymes and bacteria will be inhibited, and aging won’t accomplish as much. Too long? It gains in tenderness but loses more moisture. Since you can’t rely on weather, buying a used refrigerator and aging your meat in it might pay off.
Ground venison makes great burgers and is a good substitute for beef in spaghetti sauce and casserole dishes. Many commercial processors will make ground venison into delicious baloney, snack sticks, and summer sausage.
Again, you don’t grind venison like you grind beef. Top end ground beef has enough fat to give it moisture, which flavors the meat and holds it together on the grill. So, you need to supplement ground venison with something fatty. Some people prefer pork. Buying low cost ground beef (25% to 30% fat) is easy. Grind the venison twice, mix it with one-part ground beef and two parts venison, and grind a third time. Your patties will hold together and people who say they don’t like venison will probably think they’re eating beef.
Now you know enough to process your own deer. If you want to know more, you can find YouTube video tutorials to fill in the blanks.
When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He writes for top outdoor magazines, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.