Saturday, February 16, 2013

Venison - From Woods to Freezer

My husband is an avid hunter.  And while most of my immediate family were not big hunters, times were lean and I learned early on how to make use of all the natural resources available.  So as my husband's hunting skills grew, I couldn't see letting all that venison go to waste.  Most of my experiences had been that it was dry, tough, and either tasteless or very gamey.  But I had a couple of good experiences and I liked other game meats like partridge, pheasant and rabbit and I thought I could do some research and find ways to use it.
I started out using mostly venison burger with the occasional meal of venison steaks that I struggled with.  I found that the quality and taste of the meat varied widely from deer to deer so my husband and I started keeping the meat of each animal separate and making note of who processed it, how the meat was packaged, how it was killed, what it was doing when it was killed, what kind of food sources it had primary access to, how old it was, and what season it was taken.
I also started searching for tips on how to cook venison and people in my family started finding me venison cookbooks.  My two favorites and the most helpful are "Venison Cookbook" by A.D. Livingston and "Amazing Venison Recipes" by Jim Zumbo.  Both of these books feature a lot of good information from their authors who are experienced hunters and cooks.  What surprised me the most and ended up being of the most value are the sections on how each step from the minute the deer is in sight until the finished meal is on the table, can affect the final taste.  And after I've been cooking following their advice on handling venison for about 16 years, I can say that it totally translates to the real world.
I'll have more in this venison series and lots of recipes to share but if you know these things about the meat you are using and keep each animal's meat separate so you can track which one you are working with, you can adapt regular recipes to work with each kind of meat you have.  So let's start at the beginning and consider the things you need to know about the meat you are working with in order to have a successful culinary experience with your venison.
The Animal and Nature:
  • You are what you eat - all food animals taste different based on their diet, hence the corn-fed beef advertising.  Deer from Michigan's southern lower peninsula eat a diet that is more full of grains, juicy green grasses, leafy plants, and fruit and they naturally have a taste that is more like beef.  Deer from Michigan's northern lower peninsula and the upper peninsula have a diet that is more full of dry grasses, pine, seeds, roots, bark and other more acidic plants.  As a result, their meat has a stronger "gamey" taste, is more acidic or bitter, and is more lean and tough as they travel greater distances to get enough food.
  • Hormones - they change the makeup of the meat.  A buck in rut will have a more musky taste to his meat than he will if he is shot before or after the rut when his hormone levels have gone down.  
  • Age - an old doe's meat will be more tough and often be very poor at absorbing flavors.  A very young deer, however, will be very tender and flavorful and will need much less seasoning - like veal.
The Hunter's Skill:
  • Adrenaline - a deer that was on the run and scared when it was shot, or that ran a long ways after being shot, will have adrenaline in its system and that adrenaline will cause the meat to have stronger "gamey" flavors.  Whereas, a deer that was calmly walking along relaxed or browsing and was killed very quickly by the shot will be more mild tasting and often more tender.
  • Shot placement makes a big difference - The most tasty meat comes from deer that are dropped pretty much on the spot and die very quickly before they lose a lot of blood and before stress hormones circulate.  Deer that have been gut shot are sometimes inedible.  By the time they die, they have usually run a long way and all the hormones, adrenaline, and acid from the gut has flown through their entire system and affected the meat.  Deer shot with a gun can also have a metallic taste depending on the kind of shot used.  A single bullet shot will ruin less meat and leave less of a metallic taste to the surrounding meat than that shot with buckshot.  Time spent target practicing before the season can make a big difference when it comes to taste on the dinner table.    
  • Time - the longer it takes to find and gut the deer, the more gamey the meat usually tastes for the same reasons as shot placement affects the meat.  Some people are OK with leaving a deer in the woods overnight to go find it the next day to gut and still eat the meat.  My husband and I have never been comfortable with that so we do whatever is necessary to find and take care of the deer right away.
  • Cleanliness - drag the deer the least distance possible.  Dragging not only stretches the fibers of the muscles, therefore, breaking and bruising, and stretching the fibers of the steaks which will affect how tender it is, but it exposes the deer to all sorts of contaminants that may work its way into the meat and affect the taste.  As soon as possible, take a hose and rinse the entire deer as clean as you can get it whether you are taking it to a processor or not.
Processing and Packaging:
  • Find a good processor - ask others who they recommend in your area.  The good ones are the busy ones and may cost a little more but you will have more meat from each animal and it will be better quality, taste and you will have less prep work in the kitchen.
  • Time - I know some people are OK again with the idea of letting the meat "age" like beef before processing.  Food safety is more important to us so we go by the rule that if it is cold enough for the whole carcass to freeze solid overnight than it is OK to hang well-rinsed and protected in the garage for 1-2 days until we can get it processed ourselves.  If it is any warmer than that, the deer is taken to the processor the same night or very first thing in the morning.
  • Trim, trim, trim, rinse, rinse, rinse! - again, cleanliness of your meat makes a huge difference.  One little hair sealed in that package of meat in the freezer for a couple of months can leave a very bitter taste to the meat.  While deer don't have much fat, they do have a lot of silvery tissue/tendons that run between cuts of meat.  This tissue also has a bitter taste when it is cooked so the more of this that gets trimmed away, the better your meat will be.  While some of it in a roast is OK, I usually break my roast in half along that silver tissue when I defrost it and skim the majority of the tissue off the roast.  I find that it helps tremendously with the taste and texture of the finished roast.  For steaks, it is fine to have a little of this running through a section of the steak, but a good processor will trim it off the outside edges of the steak for you.  If they don't, trim it off yourself before cooking.  Unlike a beef steak, this will not get crispy and tasty - it will lend a bitter taste to the meat and shrink into a rubberband...
  • Packaging matters - fresh meats do not keep in the freezer the same as store-bought meats that are injected with liquid fillers and preservatives so venison, like farm-raised meats, will freezer-burn and absorb other tastes from your freezer easily if it is not protected enough.  A lot of processors now use vacuum-sealed packaging for steaks and other cuts and plastic "chubs" for ground meat and that works best and should help keep your meat good for at least 2 years (ours never lasts that long!).  If you are processing the venison yourself or using a processor that doesn't use vacuum-sealing, the next best route is to wrap the meat well in a layer of plastic wrap with all air bubbles removed and then wrap well in heavy-duty freezer paper.
In a future post, I'll cover defrosting, tenderizing, marinating, and other things you should know to decide which recipe will work with your venison.

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