Cooking Tips for Tenderizing Your Venison Cuts
December 15, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.