Northern Wilds Magazine
Shawn Perich
Points North

With venison, preparation is the key to good flavor

Last week I had coffee with a Canadian writer friend who accompanied her partner earlier this fall when he killed his first deer. Although she is new to hunting, my friend can already tell a good hunting tale, the gist of which was, “It was intense.” Pause. “It was very intense.”

The couple plans to continue hunting, because the Ontario season is still open. This time, my friend will handle the 30.06. Given her enthusiasm for the hunt and local food, I was surprised when she said they had the first deer commercially processed. The weather was warm, she explained, and they didn’t have time to immediately tackle the task. But I’ve no doubt they’ll learn home butchering in the future.

For me, processing venison is as much a part of the hunt as killing the deer. Generally, I’ll spend one or two late weeknights cutting, trimming, grinding and wrapping. The inevitable sleep deprivation that results is offset by the satisfaction of filling the freezer with prime venison. The care you put into processing is directly reflected in the quality of the meat you put on the table.

When butchering, I remove all bones, tallow, membrane and bloodshot areas from the meat. In fact, trimming is the most time-consuming step of the process. But clean venison is the tastiest. That’s why I was surprised when another friend who has eaten venison at my home many times recently asked what I do to take the “wild taste” out of meat.

“Do you soak it in milk?” he asked.

The answer, of course, is no. But the meat you’ll eat at my table does taste like venison. Perhaps that’s what he meant by a “wild” taste. Apparently, venison is an acquired taste for many folks. Not all whitetails taste the same. Generally, young bucks and most does have a milder flavor. Older bucks have a stronger taste and “tougher” meat. Some folks say farm country venison tastes better north woods meat because the deer are corn fed. I’ve never noticed much of a difference.

Rutting bucks are another matter. Once, I killed a forkhorn that was chasing a doe. He was fully in rut and I could smell the overpowering musk from 50 yards away when approaching the kill. The musk permeated the meat. After a couple of tries cooking it, we decided it was inedible. My father rolled his eyes, took the venison home with him and ate it over the course of the next year. It tasted just fine to him.

I sometimes wonder how much venison is wasted each year because people don’t know how to properly prepare it. I suspect the popularity of venison sausage is a testament to this. Because venison is so lean, most sausage recipes add a healthy amount of pork or beef for the fat content. The domestic meat and sausage spicing dilutes the venison flavor.

I enjoy deer sausage, but stopped making it with my venison a number of years ago in favor of eating lean, healthy meat. I keep the back straps and best cuts as chops and grind everything else as burger. The burger is used as a substitute for beef in most dishes. However, if I want grilled hamburgers, I use straight beef.

Venison chops often are grilled to medium rare. Sometimes I soak them first in an off-the-shelf marinade. The trick to cooking chops is to keep them moist. Venison is so lean that it quickly dries out. Like many folks, I also use them in dishes such as stroganoff or Swiss steak. If you don’t care for the flavor of venison, such dishes will disguise the taste. Some folks make chili with ground venison for the same reason.

As for other wild game, if I don’t like the meat, I don’t hunt the critter. One that immediately comes to mind is the woodcock. I know people who enjoy hunting and eating them. Most of those people own pointing dogs. My retrievers will neither flush woodcock nor retrieve them. Smart dogs. A favorite woodcock recipe among pointer owners is to wrap the tiny breasts with bacon and jalapeno pepper. That way, you don’t know what you are eating.

One bird I try to like is the sharp-tailed grouse. I often shoot a couple of them while pheasant hunting in the Dakotas. Unlike ruffed grouse—my favorite fowl—sharpies have very dark meat. The older birds have an especially strong flavor to my palate and taste, well, like sage brush. Last year I tried soaking a sharptail breast overnight in milk and then added it to a stir fry. The result was good enough, but I’ll still be satisfied with a couple of sharpies in a season.

I like the flavor of puddle ducks, such as mallards, wood ducks and teal. But I’m ambivalent about divers, such as ring-necked ducks. Geese, both Canadas and snows, are fine, but I’ve never killed more than handful in a season. I’ve certainly never killed enough of them that making goose sausage was feasible. I always bone out geese and early season ducks. Later, when ducks are fully feathered, I prefer to pluck and roast them. You can pluck late season pheasants, too.

While I enjoy moose and caribou meat, elk is another matter. To me, it tastes like coarse-grained venison. After multiple attempts at eating meat from multiple elk, I just don’t care for the stuff. Therefore, a mountain elk hunt likely isn’t in my future. And bear meat? Sorry, I’ve no desire to eat a critter that just spent the past month feasting on kitchen grease and stale pastries at a bait pile.

Right now, my freezer is full of venison, pheasant and ruffed grouse; all processed by me. While I don’t eat a meat diet consisting solely of wild game, I’ll have no trouble consuming what’s in my freezer by spring. Then it will be time to start eating fresh fish. Around here, something good is always in season.

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