Iíve eaten a lot of good deer meat. But Iíve eaten some really bad deer meat, too. Iím only a self-trained butcher, but I process five or six animals each fall, and have been doing so for a decade or more.
Iím no Scott Leysath, either, but my wife and I do eat venison in some form two or three meals per week, year-round. I think we eat pretty good.
Some things consistently make venison really tasty. And some things will ruin the flavor, too. Here are a dozen of the worst offenders.
1. Poor Field Care
In the real world of hunting, things happen. We all make bad shots on occasion. And while we know not to ďpushĒ a deer thatís been hit marginally, realize that the longer it takes for the animal to die and the farther it runs, the more adrenaline and lactic acid builds up in the animalís system and muscles. Ever had a glass of good-tasting acid? I didnít think so.
The faster a deer hits the ground and can be field-dressed, the better the meat will be. Some of the best-tasting deer Iíve ever had have been shot in the head with a gun. The animal is killed instantly, and the meat is uncontaminated by blood and entrails from the chest cavity. That said, head shots are risky. The lungs remain the best place to aim.
2. Failure to Cool Quickly
Internal bacteria rapidly takes over after death, expelling gases and causing the animal to bloat. Thatís the first step in decomposition. This process is accelerated in warm weather. Learn how to field dress a deer, and get to it ASAP. Removing those organs is the first step in cooling the animal down.
On a cold nightóin the mid-30s or loweróa deer can be left hanging skin-on overnight. In especially cold weather, some hunters like to age a deer in such a manner for several days (more on aging in a bit). I live in a warm climate, and most of the deer I shoot in a seasonís time are during early bow season, so I donít have that luxury. When I find my deer and get it field-dressed, I plan on having it skinned, quartered and on ice within the hour.
3. Shot the Wrong Deer
Modern deer hunters are in tune with deer herd management. Weíve learned of practices that contribute to the health of a herd, including which deer to shoot. Given the chance, most of us want to shoot a mature buck with big antlers. Me included.
Old bucks are perfectly edible, but rarely the best. Muscles get tougher with use and stringy with age. An old buck thatís spent a full autumn fighting, rubbing, scraping and chasing does will be lean. Expect chewy steaks. Same thing goes for an old doe thatís burned all her summertime calories producing milk to nurse fawns. I usually make hamburger, sausage and jerky out of such animals.
For steaks, you canít beat a young, crop-fed deer. Deer that spend a summer munching on corn and soybeans have an easier lifeóand more fattening food sourcesóthan those that spend a lifetime wandering the big timber in search of scattered mast and browse.
The tastiest venison Iíve ever eaten came from a 1 Ĺ-year-old fork horn shot through the neck near a picked corn field during early bow season. That young deer had nothing to do all summer except get fat. Am I saying to forgo everything the QDMA is teaching and whack every young buck that walks by? No. But I am saying if a deer for the freezer is your goal, young bucks from the early season are usually good eating, and have more meat than does to boot. If you want to shoot one and itís legal, go for it. You donít owe anyone an apology.
4. Failure to Age / Purge
Iíve been told that aging venison on ice is a mistake, but I donít buy it. The mercury rises above 50 degrees on most days of deer season in my area. Thatís too warm to let a deer hang, so icing them down is my only option. I line the bottom of a cooler with a layer of ice, add my deer quarters on top of that, and then cover them with more ice.
I keep the cooler in the shade with the drain plug open and on a downhill incline. Thatís very important. The idea is to let the ice slowly melt and drain from the cooler. This not only keeps the meat cold, but purges an amazing amount of blood from it. Do this for at least two days, checking the ice a couple times per day in especially warm weather. (Note: if you do this without a drain plug, youíll get the opposite effect; deer quarters that are essentially marinated in bloody, dirty water. Does that sound tasty? Didnít think so.)
5. Dirty Knives and Power Saws
A deerís legs are held together just like yours: with ball-and-socket joints and connective tissue. Learn where these are, and you can cut an entire skinned deer apart within minutes with a good pocket knife. Laying into a deerís legs and spine with a power saw puts bone marrow, bone fragments and whatever mess was on the saw blade into your venison. Would you season your steak with bone fragments and wood shavings? Didnít think so.
I keep three sharp knives handy when Iím cleaning a deer. One is for field-dressing. This one will be a stout knife with a drop point for prying through bone. Another is for skinning. Though a skinning blade with a gut hook is nice to have, Iíve been using a long-bladed fillet knife the last couple seasons, and it works beautifully. These knives can be honed to a razorís edge and quickly re-sharpened. Other than quickly dulling a knifeís edge by slicing through hair, skinning is not taxing on a knifeís blade, so a flexible fillet knife works fine. Finally, I swap over to another knifeóagain, with a heavier bladeófor my quartering. The point to take from all this is to keep your knives separate so you reduce contamination of the meat with blood and hair.
6. Poor Trimming
Unlike beef fat, deer fat does not taste good. Neither does the sinew, membranes and other connective tissues holding the various muscle groups together. Venison, whether destined for steaks or hamburger, should be trimmed free of anything thatís not rich, red meat.
7. Burger is Too Lean
Ironically, because fat needs to be trimmed away for the best flavor, venison often becomes too lean for hamburger purposes. Patties made for grilled double cheeseburgers often fall apart soon after hitting the hot grate. The solution is to add some fat, either beef or pork, when youíre grinding venison. We use cheap bacon, mixed at a rate of 5:1 (5 pounds of venison per pound of bacon). It makes our patties stick together, and the bacon adds a great flavor.
8. Used a Cut-Rate Processor
Some commercial deer processors do a great job. But some do not. I once took a deer to a processor, filled out my paperwork and watched him disappear to the freezer room. He weighed my animal and returned with a corresponding amount of packaged, frozen venison. ďWe mix all our meat together and package a lot of burger at once,Ē he said.
For all I knew, the deer I was getting couldíve been gut-shot, left to hang in 90-degree heat, and then dragged along a black-top road en route to the processor. No thanks. That was the last deer I ever took to a processor. Insist on getting your own deer back when you have processing work done. If thatís not possible, Iíd advise doing business elsewhere.
9. Marinade Problems
ďFirst, soak for 48 hours in Italian dressing ÖĒ
Itís enough to make a venison-lover cringe. Look, Italian dressing and BBQ sauce taste fine, but youíd better be a ravenous fan of them if youíre using them to soak venison steaks for two days. At the end of those two days, your steaks will taste just like Ö Italian dressing or BBQ sauce.
Thereís nothing wrong with a little splash of flavor enhancement, but try lighter flavors that complement, rather than mask, the flavor of deer meat, and keep the marinade time short. My usual maximum is three or four hours. A favorite marinade for grilled venison steaks is a mixture of olive oil, a spoonful of balsamic vinegar, a spoonful of Worcestershire sauce, some minced garlic (with the juice), a squirt of mustard and salt and pepper to taste.
10. Cooked Too Cool, for Too Long
Venison recipes, especially grilled recipes, often call for removing the meat after a couple minutes per side. For many, the result of that is, ďthis is raw and gross.Ē And so they place it back on the grill. After a while, it turns gray, chewy, dry Ö and still gross.
Grilled venison is best when eaten with a medium-rare interior, but the outside needs to be cooked. In order to do that, your grill needs to be hot enough to instantly sear the meat surface and lock in those flavors and juices. Flip your venison steaks one time. If you donít have nice grill marks after three or four minutes, the grate isnít hot enough.
11. Improper Packaging and Freezing
Freezer burn doesnít help the flavor of ice cream or anything else, deer meat included. Modern vacuum packaging systems are handy and save on space, but Iíve used some that resulted in freezer-burned meat after a few months. If youíre buying a vacuum-sealing unit, get a good one.
We package our deer the old-fashioned way, first wrapping our portion in clear plastic wrap, and then covering that with heavy-duty freezer paper. Each package is clearly labeled, not only so we know what cut of meat is inside and when it was killed, but also which deer it came from. If one animal proves especially tough, we know to use that meat for slow-cooking recipes.
12. Getting too Fancy
Thereís no big mystery or secret to cooking venison. Treat it as you would treat very lean beef, and youíll get outstanding results day in and out. We substitute deer burger for beef hamburger in virtually everythingóchili, tacos, sloppy Joeís, burgers on the grill, spaghetti and who knows what else. We never plan on a ďwild game nightĒ at the house. We just plan to cook dinner, and that usually means wild game by default.