Skip to main content

Cooking Tips for Tenderizing Your Venison Cuts

Cooking Tips for Tenderizing Your Venison Cuts
Print Recipe

Anybody can cook a deer steak, but when it comes to the rest of the animal, hunters are often at a loss.

When faced with a roast or bag of trim meat, they unfortunately revert to that old standby of dumping a can of Cream of Mushroom soup over the top and convincing themselves they're doing the best they can with what they've got. There is a better way — lots of them actually — but they all start with understanding what causes tough meat and how to deal with it.

There are a number of factors that affect how tough, or tender, the meat from a particular big game animal happens to be. Many of them are out of the hunter's control, including the age of the animal, its activity level, diet, and environment. The issue with each of these is they present an unknown to the hunter.

You don't know anything else about that animal leading up to the 30 seconds or a minute that you interacted with it before the shot. Who knows how that deer has been living or what it has been doing up until that moment.


Instead, to get the most out of your big game, it's up to you to control the things you can control, such as field-dressing, butchering, aging, and selecting the proper cooking method for each particular cut.


Field-Dressing

I'm betting Bowhunter readers know a thing or two about field-dressing, so I won't dive into that subject too deeply. I do, however, want to touch on a couple of points, one of which can start arguments in camp, that I consider imperative to getting the best possible meat from your deer, elk, antelope, or other big game animal.

The first, and most basic, is the importance of cooling the meat as quickly as possible. This means opening up the body cavity and removing the organs soon after the kill. It's always surprising to me how many people will load a whole animal into the back of their truck or UTV in order to dress it back at camp. The bacteria that causes meat to rot thrives between 40 and 140 degrees, so it's imperative to do everything possible to keep meat out of this danger zone.

While it may seem counterintuitive, I also advise against using water to rinse blood or foreign matter from both the internal cavity and the outside of a skinned animal. Water can help cool the meat, but moist surfaces are a breeding ground for bacteria. When combined with warm weather, this is an invitation for spoilage.

If necessary, use a cloth dampened with fresh water — never water from a creek, river, or pond — to wipe down the carcass, but be sure there is plenty of good air flow to dry the surface quickly.


Aging

Despite what people say, aging is not the same as rotting. I've heard it called controlled decomposition, but even that might be less than accurate. Aging meat does two things: It breaks down connective tissues by way of naturally occurring enzymes, and dehydrates the moisture within the muscles, which can lead to a loss of up to 30 percent of the carcass's overall weight. Simply put, aging results in a more tender, albeit smaller product.

To inhibit bacteria growth and encourage enzymes to work, keep the meat above freezing and below 40 degrees. The ideal temperature range for aging meat is between 34 and 37 degrees. How long you age your game is a balance of how tender you want it and how much loss you are willing to accept. The longer the time period, the thicker the dry cap that must be removed. Three to four days is the minimum, with seven days being ideal.

I prefer two weeks when possible, although I know hunters who swear by the 21 to 28-day window. It comes down to personal preference and whether you can maintain the ideal temperature conditions without the risk of spoilage.


Butchering

Many hunters take pride in getting their deer tagged, bagged, and in the freezer all in the same day, and they're often the same group who complains about eating tough steaks. They don't realize how the onset of rigor mortis, and its resolution, partially determines the tenderness of meat.

venison_prep_4

There is an entire scientific dissertation about the effects of myosins and enzymes, but at its most basic, rigor mortis is the contraction of muscle groups that occurs soon after death. Those muscles then relax again, starting within 12 to 24 hours. If those muscles are cut from the bone before the rigor mortis releases, they won't stretch back out, resulting in tight, or tough, cuts of meat.

In hot weather, or a backcountry situation where starting the cooling process is critical, always err on the side of caution. There are ways to deal with tough meat, but you can't eat a rancid steak, so forget about rigor mortis and get that animal quartered and, if necessary, expose or remove the largest bones.

Tenderizing Tough Cuts

Once you've got your deer, elk, or other venison dressed, aged and butchered, you're left with a variety of cuts. Some, like the backstraps and well-named tenderloin, can be as soft as butter. Others, particularly those from the neck, front shoulder, shanks and parts of the hindquarter, are generally tough. Dealing with these cuts requires preparing them through one of three methods — tenderizing, marinating, or slow cooking.

venison_prep_3

For steaks, chops, and other thinner cuts, mechanical tenderizers are generally the best option. This includes crank or push-style cubers that use fine blades to sever the muscles into smaller lengths. For the hunter who processes a lot of game every year, these are a great investment.

For those who don't DIY, you can also ask your butcher to cube the steaks and chops for you. My go-to method for tenderizing round steaks and chops cut from the front shoulder is a meat mallet, which works well, although it is more time consuming.

When it comes to marinades, many, if not most, of them don't do what you think they do. Certainly, they do flavor the meat, but studies have found marinades can actually make meat tougher by causing the proteins to unwind and press together, forming a tight bond that squeezes moisture out.

This same study, and others like it, have also found that the acids used in marinades penetrate meat at the rate of just a few, as in one or two, millimeters per day. So even a three-day marinade isn't going to penetrate much past the surface of the meat. There are marinades that call for enzymes rather than acids, and enzymes actually do tenderize meat by breaking down the muscle fibers and the collagen that holds the muscles together. However, you have to be very careful when marinating with enzymes as they can make the meat mushy rather than just tender.

So go ahead and use those marinades to flavor your venison, but don't think they're tenderizing your meat.

In The Kitchen

All of the previous points are important to getting the most from your big game animal, and no less important is where the meat and heat meet — in the kitchen. Whenever I pull a package of venison from the freezer, I always make a point to remember to match the method to the meat.

That means cooking tender cuts like steaks and chops with high heat, fast and dry, such as grilling or pan-frying. And, I never cook these cuts past medium. Medium rare is even better. There's a reason fine steakhouses state right on their menu: "Not responsible for steaks ordered well done."

Before I go any further, I need to dispel the notion that eating rare game meat is dangerous. Not true! In fact, I would argue that it's actually the opposite. Who knows where that piece of meat from the grocery store has been, or who has handled it before you bought it. With wild game, particularly if you process it yourself and use sanitary practices, you know every moment of that steak's life, from the time you shot it until it goes on your plate. If you don't process it yourself — and that's okay — use a meat processor you trust. In any case, eating a deer steak cooked to medium rare is as safe as doing the same with a prime cut of beef.

Braising

Every hunter knows the master Cream of Mushroom soup recipe. Put your venison roast in a Crock-Pot. Maybe throw in a few onions. Dump in a can of Cream of Mushroom soup and let it cook all day long. You know what you're doing when you do this? Or anytime you're using a Crock-Pot or slow cooker? Braising.

Braising is the act of cooking something using moist heat, generally over a long period of time. It is also one of the most important cooking techniques for game cooks, and probably the one I use the most, although I typically braise in the oven or stovetop using my cast-iron Dutch oven. However, instead of using Cream of Mushroom soup (Have you ever looked at the ingredients of that stuff?), I don't cover up the taste of the game. I enhance it instead. And I do this with something healthier and better tasting than Italian dressing.

It can be something as simple as a carton of store-bought (or better yet, homemade) stock, or a more complicated recipe, such as the three featured here. Either way, braising big game is the best way to make the most of your meat.

Recipe 1: Venison Barbacoa

Ingredients:

€¢ 1 lb. venison stew meat (or venison roast, cut in 2-3 inch cubes)
€¢ Flour
€¢ Salt
€¢ 1 medium onion, chopped
€¢ 5 cloves garlic
€¢ 1 cup apple cider vinegar
€¢ Juice and zest of one lime
€¢ 1-3 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
€¢ 2 jalapenos, seeded and chopped
€¢ 2 tsp. cumin
€¢ 2 tsp. oregano
€¢ 1 tsp. black pepper
€¢ 1 tbsp. red chili powder
€¢ 1 cup game or chicken stock
€¢ 2 tbsp. canola vegetable oil

Directions:

Heat oil in Dutch oven or heavy, lidded pan over medium-high heat.

Salt venison chunks well and dust with flour. Add venison to Dutch oven, working in batches if necessary.

Meanwhile, add next 10 ingredients (onion through red chili powder) to blender and blend well.

When meat is browned, deglaze the pan with chicken stock, scraping up any browned bits. Add meat back to pan and cover with cider-onion slurry.

Bring to simmer. Lower heat, cover and let cook for 4-6 hours. (Alternately, cook in low oven (275°), covered, for 4-6 hours.)

When meat is done, shred with two forks and serve with tortillas, fresh cilantro and lime wedges.

Recipe 2: Caribourguignon

Ingredients:

€¢ 1 lb. caribou stew meat
€¢ 3 strips salt pork, chopped
€¢ 3 carrots, chopped
€¢ 2 stalks of celery, chopped
€¢ 1 medium onion, sliced
€¢ 1 small onion, quartered
€¢ ½ lb. sliced mushrooms
€¢ 3 cloves garlic, minced
€¢ Flour
€¢ Splash of brandy
€¢ 4 cups red wine, broth or water
€¢ Cornstarch
€¢ Butter
€¢ Salt and pepper

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350°

Heat olive oil in Dutch oven over medium, medium-high heat.

Add salt pork, sauté until fat renders and remove, reserving.

Dry meat with papers towels.

Brown meat in small batches, removing to drain on paper towels.

Cook sliced onion, celery and carrots in drippings until soft, 7-10 minutes.

Add minced garlic.

Deglaze pan with brandy. Flambé to burn off alcohol.

Lightly dust caribou with flour and return to pot.

Return reserved salt pork to the pot.

Add salt, pepper and spice. (Remember, the sauce will reduce, so don't go overboard on the salt.)

Add enough wine and/or stock (or water) to come to the level of the meat. Cover and place in oven.

Turn oven down to 300° and simmer bourguignon for 2 hours.

Near the end of the 2 hours, melt 2 tbsp. butter in pan and sauté quartered onion. Add to the stew.

Sauté mushrooms in 2 tbsp. of butter. Add to pot.

Stir paste of 2 tbsp. melted butter and 2 tbsp. of cornstarch into bourguignon.

Cook 10 more minutes and serve.

Recipe 3: Stout Smothered Venison Steaks

Ingredients:

€¢ 2 + 1 tbsp. vegetable oil
€¢ 4 venison shoulder steaks
€¢ Kosher salt
€¢ 2 tbsp. flour
€¢ ½ tsp. cumin
€¢ ½ tsp. onion powder
€¢ ½ tsp. paprika
€¢ ½ medium onion, sliced
€¢ 2 tbsp. brown sugar
€¢ 2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
€¢ ½ cup Guinness or other stout or dark beer
€¢ ½ cup beef stock
€¢ 1 14.5-oz. can diced tomatoes

Directions:

Liberally salt both sides of steaks. Using a meat tenderizer, rolling pin or the flat side of a heavy butcher knife, pound steaks to ¼-inch thick and let steak rest 10 minutes. Pat dry with paper towels.

Whisk together flour, cumin, onion powder and paprika. Dust steaks with seasoned flour.

Heat oil in pan set over medium-high heat.

When oil is shimmering, add steaks and fry 6-8 minutes, flipping once halfway through. Remove steaks from oil to a paper towel-lined plate.

Transfer sliced onions and a pinch of salt to pan, adding additional oil if necessary, and sauté until translucent — about 3-5 minutes. Sprinkle brown sugar over the onions, stirring to coat.

Deglaze pan with a few dashes of Worcestershire, scraping up any browned bits.

Return steaks to the pan, along with next three ingredients. Lower heat to barely a simmer, cover and cook for 1½-2 hours, until meat is meltingly tender. Remove lid, raise heat and simmer 30 minutes until gravy is reduced by half.

(Representative image, ingredients may vary)

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Texas Hog and Whitetail Hunt

Texas Hog and Whitetail Hunt

Bowhunter TV Editor Derek Mleynek sets up for some hog and whitetail hunting at Canyon Ranch in Texas.

Canyon Ranch Roundup Part 1

Canyon Ranch Roundup Part 1

Bowhunter TV's Derek Mleynek and Equipment Editor Tony J. Peterson head to Texas for a late-season mixed bag hunt that promises plenty of action.

Turkey Decoy Beatdown

Turkey Decoy Beatdown

Bowhunter contributor Matt Palmquist witnesses a hen trying to destroy one of his decoys while hunting turkeys in Kansas.

Tree Saddle Hunting: Best Platforms & Ring of Steps

Tree Saddle Hunting: Best Platforms & Ring of Steps

We all need a spot to place our feet in life … and even more so when in the saddle. The two options are a platform or ring-of-steps. For longer hunts, platforms are more comfortable and most familiar. Ring-of-steps are lighter and easier to pack for shorter-duration hunts and long hikes.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

New tree saddles, platforms, sticks and more provide greater efficiency and enjoyment when tree saddle hunting.Tree Saddle Hunting Gear Round-Up - Best of the Best Treestands & Blinds

Tree Saddle Hunting Gear Round-Up - Best of the Best

Mike Carney - November 23, 2020

New tree saddles, platforms, sticks and more provide greater efficiency and enjoyment when...

This venison kebabs recipe marinates for a full day to take the already flavorful Asian bulgogi sauce to the next level.Grilled Korean Bulgogi Venison Kebabs Recipe Recipes

Grilled Korean Bulgogi Venison Kebabs Recipe

Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley

This venison kebabs recipe marinates for a full day to take the already flavorful Asian...

Inspired by “Buzzwinkle,” a lit up moose in Anchorage, this Apple and Cheddar-Ale Moose Burger Recipe is sure to be a delicious party on your taste buds with every bite.Apple and Cheddar-Ale Moose Burger Recipe Recipes

Apple and Cheddar-Ale Moose Burger Recipe

Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley

Inspired by “Buzzwinkle,” a lit up moose in Anchorage, this Apple and Cheddar-Ale Moose Burger...

The advantages to using a binocular bivy system are many, and they go well beyond providing full protection for your glass.Why You Should Use A Binocular Bivy System Field Tools

Why You Should Use A Binocular Bivy System

Joe Bell

The advantages to using a binocular bivy system are many, and they go well beyond providing...

See More Trending Articles

More Recipes

Braised pork belly is sweet, salty, and full of umami; it pairs well with venison and hardboiled eggs in this Japanese-inspired recipe.Japanese-Style Venison and Pork Belly Recipe Recipes

Japanese-Style Venison and Pork Belly Recipe

Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley

Braised pork belly is sweet, salty, and full of umami; it pairs well with venison and...

Serve this Spicy Apricot-Bourbon Wild Turkey Recipe over a pile of steaming hot mashed potatoes, and you've got a winning dinner.Spicy Apricot-Bourbon Wild Turkey Recipe Recipes

Spicy Apricot-Bourbon Wild Turkey Recipe

Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley

Serve this Spicy Apricot-Bourbon Wild Turkey Recipe over a pile of steaming hot mashed...

These blackbuck antelope steaks are marinated, wrapped in bacon and then grilled until medium-rare and delicious; this recipe also works well with pronghorn steaks or tenderloins.Grilled Bacon-Wrapped Blackbuck Antelope Steaks Recipe Recipes

Grilled Bacon-Wrapped Blackbuck Antelope Steaks Recipe

Brian Fortenbaugh

These blackbuck antelope steaks are marinated, wrapped in bacon and then grilled until...

Inspired by “Buzzwinkle,” a lit up moose in Anchorage, this Apple and Cheddar-Ale Moose Burger Recipe is sure to be a delicious party on your taste buds with every bite.Apple and Cheddar-Ale Moose Burger Recipe Recipes

Apple and Cheddar-Ale Moose Burger Recipe

Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley

Inspired by “Buzzwinkle,” a lit up moose in Anchorage, this Apple and Cheddar-Ale Moose Burger...

See More Recipes

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Bowhunter App

Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Bowhunter subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now