Deerslayers II: The Venison

In the comments to yesterday's post, Thomas D. sensibly asks after venison recipes. This is a practical and excellent question to have asked. Thos. suggests this one, adding that he likes to make a paste of the onion on the purée setting of his food processor in order to give the food a silky texture.

Thomas asked for book recommendations as well as recipes. The very best one I know is Dressing & Cooking Wild Game: From Field to Table: Big Game, Small Game, Upland Birds & Waterfowl, a product of The Complete Hunter. The material is exactly as advertised. It covers how to skin and dress an animal you've just killed if you don't happen to know, how to butcher, bone, and portion various parts, and includes many recipes that are a good start for learning how to turn it into excellent food. No fish are included, as the title indicates clearly: this is about hunting, not fishing, and even though the distinction between those arts is somewhat technical the latter has plenty of its own material to learn independently.

As for recipes, the first thing to recognize is that the deer has all the same parts as the bovine and the pig. Roughly speaking, and with some adaptations, you can do with one whatever you can do with the other. Pork shoulder makes excellent barbecue; you can barbecue beef chuck or venison shoulder with additional fat using otherwise the same techniques. Lard and suet, that being pork and beef fat respectively, are both good choices for the additional fat. Ribs can be barbecued like beef ribs, low and slow in the smoke. Smoke them at a lower temperature than usual to avoid cooking out fat for two hours, then wrap them tightly in aluminum foil and bring them to 205 degrees internally to kill parasites and bacteria and break down connective tissue.

(You will notice that all venison is to be grilled to 165 degrees internally, or else cooked at ~205-212 degrees if it is important to break down internal fibers to tenderize it. The latter process is easier to manage, as water boils at 212 F, and the temperature will not rise beyond that as long as water remains to boil: the extra energy will be used to convert liquid to steam instead of raising the heat. When you are grilling, you'll want to check regularly to be sure you don't overcook.)

The steaks come from exactly the same parts on a steer as on a buck. Your steaks will need to be cooked more thoroughly, however: 165 degrees, which is far too done for beef, in order to ensure food safety. A good marinade of red wine, red wine vinegar, and spices you like will help prevent this from drying out the steaks too much. Salt and some sort of pepper are the most important.

One thing that is different from meat that you buy at the store is that you will have all the organs to use if you want to do so. There's a great recipe for heart in the aforementioned cookbook; the stomach and such you can use for venison haggis, using due care to clean them properly before cooking and cooking them to boiling for an hour or more to ensure everything is thoroughly cooked and softened.

Much of the deer carcass will not be steaks, just as much of the steer is not. You will be left with a lot of what is usually turned into burger on a steer: possibly the chuck/shoulder, although that includes some of the best cuts of the steer for many great meals; certainly the round, or muscles of the rear end. Venison burger can be cooked like regular burgers, except that it is usefully wrapped in bacon for extra fat and cooked a bit more slowly to, again, 165 degrees internally. Salt and pepper -- I like chilies more than black pepper, but most people prefer black pepper. 

Some of this can be mechanically tenderized, either by a butcher who will turn it into "cube steak," or by yourself using a sharp knife that makes cuts across the muscle fiber. This is done at right angles, so that you are cutting across the grain first one way at about 45 degrees, then again at 90 degrees to the first cut. If there's a butcher nearby who specializes in game, he or she can run it through a machine much more quickly to accomplish approximately the same thing. Venison cube steak comes out very well. 

Perhaps the best way to cook any sort of venison is to braise it. That is a term of art that lots of cookbooks assume you will know without explanation, which is mysterious to younger people trying to learn to cook who have no idea what it might mean, so I will explain it thoroughly. To braise meat is to cook especially tougher cuts of meat in an appropriate amount of liquid -- possibly water but more wisely stock or beer, my favorite braising beer by far being Guinness -- so that it softens. Cooking is done at the low boil, as at just above 200 degrees muscle fibers and soft connective tissues like tendons begin to break down. It takes time, but the result is a very tender piece of meat as well as a broth that is enriched by the flavor of the process.

A good venison braise takes a minute to set up because there are several steps, but in the end it is fantastic. You start by taking an iron Dutch oven and getting it smoking hot. Then you add fat to the bottom -- lard or suet, but you can use a vegetable oil like avocado or even olive -- and brown the salted and peppered meat in it. (With cube steak, I sometimes like to put it in a plastic bag with some white flour as well as salt and pepper to coat it first: 'country fried' or 'chicken fried' steak, as we called it when I was young.) As soon as it is seared brown on each side, remove it and set it aside.

Next, add chopped or sliced onions, and cook them into the hot oil until they begin to brown. Then add garlic, and any sort of other vegetables you want -- potatoes, tomatoes, whatever you think you want. Cook these until they show browning signs as well. 

Now return the meat to the pot, and add your beef stock or beer or whatever you choose. I said to use "an appropriate amount," and that amount is just enough to cover it and no more. Bring it to a boil on the range, adding aromatics like sage or oregano or rosemary once it is boiling. Then transfer it, covered with the heavy iron lid, to an oven between 300-350 F for an hour or so. After this it will be ready to eat.

Braising is basically also how a crock pot works. You sacrifice the good that comes from the multiple steps in return for the relative ease of just adding everything to the crock pot and leaving it for many hours. At minimum you should brown the meat on the range before you add it to the crock pot, though, or you will lose much of the flavor. 

Another excellent recipe for venison burger is Scottish steak pies. Scotland has its own deer, and venison recipes run deep in the culture there. Any of the several excellent Scottish meat pies can substitute slow-cooked venison in a brown gravy for beef steak. The Forfar Bride ("bride-ee") is especially good because of the onion adding moisture and softness in the cooking -- Thos. idea again, but this time trapped in by the pastry. Traditionally this is short crust, but a lot of people now substitute puff pastry because it's readily available in sheets from the local grocery's frozen food section. It's easy enough either way, but the grocery option saves time and adds butter.

Additional recipes are very welcome in the comments below.


J Melcher said...

Thank you for that, especially the bit about braising. I think the current fad cookware item "insta-pot" might figure into this somewhere, without the pressure cooking features.

Distracting myself: the Norman Conquest introduced into the English language distinctions between the livestock and the meat. Cows provide beef, chickens provide poultry. Pigs make pork and deer provide venison. So far so good.

What happens with "New World" critters? Did buffalo and moose and turkey and elk all escape Norman-esque words for the meats? Or did the Americans simply abandon any such distinctions which the English (or perhaps, French gastronomes) invented and used?

Grim said...

Distracting myself: the Norman Conquest introduced into the English language distinctions between the livestock and the meat...

Sir Walter Scott has one of the Saxon characters in Ivanhoe point out that the words for the animals who have to be worked and managed are all English, while the words for the delicious foodstuffs are all in French. That tells you a lot about who was doing the work in post-Conquest England, and who was dining on the rewards. Here is the passage; you'll notice it applies to 'poultry' and 'venison' just as well:

“Why, how call you those grunting brutes running about on their four legs?” demanded Wamba.

“Swine, fool, swine,” said the herd, “every fool knows that.”

“And swine is good Saxon,” said the Jester; “but how call you the sow when she is flayed, and drawn, and quartered, and hung up by the heels, like a traitor?”

“Pork,” answered the swine-herd.

“I am very glad every fool knows that too,” said Wamba, “and pork, I think, is good Norman-French; and so when the brute lives, and is in the charge of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name; but becomes a Norman, and is called pork, when she is carried to the Castle-hall to feast among the nobles; what dost thou think of this, friend Gurth, ha?”

“It is but too true doctrine, friend Wamba, however it got into thy fool’s pate.”

“Nay, I can tell you more,” said Wamba, in the same tone; “there is old Alderman Ox continues to hold his Saxon epithet, while he is under the charge of serfs and bondsmen such as thou, but becomes Beef, a fiery French gallant, when he arrives before the worshipful jaws that are destined to consume him. Mynheer Calf, too, becomes Monsieur de Veau in the like manner; he is Saxon when he requires tendance, and takes a Norman name when he becomes matter of enjoyment.”

Tom said...

Thanks, Grim! This is great.

douglas said...

I had a great venison marinade recipe that was supposedly as they would've used in the middle ages, which I used to cook the venison sous vide in a vacuum bag, in the marinade. It came out well, with beautiful color. Alas, I've looked all over and can't find it. *sigh*

The braising instructions are a revelation! Thank you.