COOKING WILD GAME – FAST OR SLOW?
There are as many ways to cook a deer as there are to cook domestic meats. As a matter of fact, you can grab the nearest non-game cookbook and substitute the words beef, pork or lamb with venison and you’ll have a new wild game cookbook on the shelf. The ingredients will be pretty much the same, but cooking times may vary considerably. When it comes to cooking, the biggest difference between domestic meats and wild game is the fat content. Venison has about one-third of the fat content as compared to beef. It is much less forgiving when overcooked because it lacks the marbling of a beef ribeye steak.
Tough, sinewy cuts like neck roasts, shoulders and shanks are incredible table fare when cooked slowly, at low temperature and with enough liquid added to a covered pan to keep them moist while on the way to tender. Just about any hunk of meat will eventually be fall-off-the-bone tender after it has been slowly simmered. If it’s not tender enough, keep cooking.
When faced with lean, gristly, bone-in cuts of venison, let heat do the work for you. I do like to use trimmed and ground shoulder meat for sausages and burger, but more often than not, I give the bone-in shoulder a good rub and stick it in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, I’ll brown it with a hot grill or oven, place it into a roasting pan and throw in some celery, carrots and onions. Add a can or two of beer, broth or wine until there is an inch or so of liquid in the pan. Cover and place in a 300 degree oven or ‘cue for about 8 hours. Check it after 4 or 5 hours to make sure there is still an inch or so of liquid in the pan. Keep an eye on it after about 7 hours, checking for tenderness every 30 or 40 minutes. Eventually, usually less than 9 or 10 hours, the shoulder bone can be cleanly extracted and beautiful hunks of meat will be ready for making tacos, stews and incredible pulled-meat sandwiches. The majority of the sinew will have disappeared and your yield in cooked meat will far surpass whatever you would get from trimming meat from the raw shoulder.
The better cuts of venison, those from the loin, tenderloin and some of the better hindquarter muscles are best cooked quickly with high heat. I understand that some folks have been raised on steaks that have been cooked until there is no visible color beside black on the outside and gray in the center. How you overcook your steaks is your business, I want you know that it hurts a little when I see a well-done deer steak. A whitetail tenderloin that has simply been rubbed with olive oil, salt and pepper and placed into a screaming hot skillet for a few minutes per side is a wonderful thing. It’s tender, just a tad sweet, but mostly neutral in flavor and not a bit gamey. Please, put the bottle of sauce away. I’ll have mine as is.
The in-between temperatures produce the gamiest of flavors. Try this. Take a trimmed sirloin or backstrap steak and cut it in half. Cook one-half to an internal temperature of 125 degrees, just about medium-rare. Leave the other half in the pan until it reaches 165 degrees, or a little under well-done. Same piece of meat, but the lesser cooked portion is tender and moist. The more cooked piece is more pronounced in gamey flavor, much drier and chewier. If you do happen to overcook your venison, not by choice but by mistake, all is not lost. Add some liquid to the pan, cover it, lower the heat and let the magic happen. In an hour or so, the formerly dry venison will be infinitely more edible.