In a few weeks I’ll be deer hunting. Someone recently told me that squirrel is the best meat in the woods. And while I plan on testing that theory and presenting you with a squirrel recipe one of these days, until then I’m clinging on to the notion that venison is the best meat in the woods.
The key to good venison is aging it properly. Just like a good 12 ounce T-bone at Peter Lugers, venison needs a lot of hang time. The “gameyness” and “chewyness” disappear when you treat ‘er well.
Venison has less fat than beef but it has the same basic enzymes and lactic acid. So the process is very much the same.
Properly aging a deer begins as soon as you’ve made your (clean!) shot:
1. You carefully open the animal and remove the entrails inside the chest cavity, being careful not to puncture any organs. Then, you flush the cavity with several gallons of cold water. It is important to cool the meat as fast as possible. If it’s cold outside, simply prop the chest cavity open with a stick. If it is warm outside, place bags of ice inside the cavity. You should also keep the inside of the cavity dry by wiping it with towels.
2. Hang the deer from the rear legs, high enough to avoid touching the ground. Then remove the hide, head, and front legs.
3. Muscles go into rigor mortis, a stiffening which lasts about 24 hours, and butchering during this time is a very bad idea. The muscles will contract and become irreversibly tough. So proper aging begins as soon as rigor mortis ends. (The same is true for buying fish by the way, but that is for another day!). To properly age your deer, you must keep it at temperatures above freezing and below about 40 degrees. This holds bacteria (and rot) at bay, allowing natural enzymes to do their work. A side of beef takes 3 to 4 days at 40 degrees F. for this process to begin.
4. Collagen is the stuff that supermodels and the ladies of Orange County use to puff up their lips. It is also what causes meat to be tough. Young animals have very little of it between their muscle cells, but as an animal gets older, more develops. Natural enzymes break down this collagen as the meat ages, so the longer it hangs, the more tender it becomes. That is why your Peter Luger’s T-bone is so expensive… it takes extra time and energy, which cost money. Your supermarket beef may only age a couple of days which means it usually falls short of its full flavor potential. A wise butcher will do your meat justice.
5. At 40 degrees F, 7 days of aging is usually sufficient, but for larger deer longer is better. If you don’t have a cool basement or walk-in cooler to age your meat, you can home-age your venison in the refrigerator. Skin the quarters and bone-out the other large sections of meat. These will fit in the average refrigerator.
6. Once it is aged to your liking, you can break the meat down further, into rounds, tenderloins, loins, ribs, stew meat, shoulder, ground meat, sausage etc…
7. Then you must package it properly for the freezer. Vacuum sealed bags are best, but if you don’t have that sort of contraption, carefully wrap each piece in several layers of plastic wrap and place each in a sealable bag, making sure to remove all the air bubbles along the way. Submerge the bag in water leaving the seal above water and squeeze out any remaining air bubbles. This will prevent freezer burn. Check the meat from time to time and if you do see freezer burn it’s time to eat it! This process works for all fish and game.
8. When you’re ready to prepare your venison treat it in the same way you would beef. If you like your beef medium-rare, cook your venison to the same temperature. Don’t overcook it! There is less fat in venison and it will dry out quickly. The more you cook it, the more flavor and juiciness will be lost.
Food tastes so much better when you work this hard to make it… so on that note, I give you this recipe for braised venison shoulder…enjoy!
“Braised Venison Shoulder”
For the Marinade:
For the Marinade:
For the Venison Braise: