How to Cook Venison

So you want to learn how to cook venison? Well, have no fear, the Firepit and Grilling Guru is here to save the day!

Although venison may be considered somewhat of a rarity when it comes to red meat (you don’t find it in your typical supermarket or butcher shop often, do you?), cooking venison should not be a cause for fear or panic. Although there are some special things to keep in mind when cooking deer meat, venison is not all that different from other red meats such as beef and you can even adapt most beef recipes to become venison recipes as well.

Learn more about how to cook venison below!

How to Cook Venison: What is different about cooking venison?

Although venison has many similarities to beef and other red meats, there are a couple important aspects to venison that should be kept in mind.

  • Venison is a lean meat: Most of beef’s more tender cuts have some degree of fat marbling running through the meat. In case you haven’t noticed, there are 2 general types of fat on or in cuts of beef. There is the thick, dense bands of meat around one or more sides of many cuts (most people don’t eat this part or eat it sparingly), and there are the lacy strips of meat running through the meat itself, separating parts of the muscle. The first type tend to be more tough and sinewy. However, the fat running through the meat, referred to as marbling is actually highly sought after and prized for the delicious, tender juiciness it imparts to the meat as it cooks. As the meat cooks, that tender fat melts into the meat, adding a juicy succulence to it. That is why prime beef is so sought after and expensive, it tastes better with all that great marbling!

    However, one of the important things to note when learning how to cook venison is that venison is naturally a much leaner meat than most commercial beef. The dark red meat is packed with rich flavor, but there is much less fat overall, especially the marbling type. The reason this is important to note is that without that marbling, deer meat can tend to get dried out easier without that melty marbling fat to keep it juicy. While this may sound like a bad thing, you can deal with it and, as long as you plan for it, you can avoid venison that tastes like cardboard.

    There are two ways that I suggest avoiding dried out venison: 1) larding and/or barding and 2) avoiding overcooking.

    • Larding & Barding: To fix the low marbling fat problem in venison and other very lean meats, many people will insert strips of lard into the meat before cooking. This fat then slowly liquifies during cooking, keeping it moist. Deer tallow and other fat is not very tasty so most people lard meat with pork lard (such as back fat), bacon or other juicy, flavorful fats. Traditionally, this is done with a larding needle but you can use other methods too. This is especially useful for slow cooked roasts and braised cuts. If you can’t lard the meat, you can also bard it. Barding is basically just wrapping the outside of the meat in a high fat cut, like lard strips or bacon. You’ve probably noticed that bacon-wrapped anything tastes good. So does venison!
    • Avoiding Over-Cooking: Because of the lean nature of venison, if you cook it even a bit too far, it tends to get dried out quickly. While you can avoid this problem with slow cooked roasts and stews by including other fats (larding/barding above) and other moisture (wine, broth, etc.), for faster cooked steaks and tender roasts this may not be an option. For these faster cooking cuts, I recommend cooking venison no more than medium rare. This leaves the inside of the meat still a dark reddish color. If you go beyond this point, it will tend to get tough and dried out quickly.
  • Not All Cuts of Venison Should Be Treated Equally! You wouldn’t cook a beef filet mignon tenderloin the same as a chuck roast or brisket would you? Then why treat all cuts of venison the same? When learning how to cook venison, you can generally use the same rules you do with cooking beef and pork. Some cuts are naturally more tender than others. Others may be more tough with more connective tissue that only breaks down with long, slow cooking.

    In general, cuts that are the most tender do well with higher heat, faster cooking, similar to how you’d cook a steak. You want the inside to stay somewhat rare or close to rare while you get a nice crust of caramelization on the outside. The best cuts for this on the deer are the tenderloins and backstraps (steaks). For cuts that come from the fore- and hindquarters, such as rump roasts, sirloin, shoulder roasts and such, a longer, lower temperature cooking style is better, especially if you provide some fat and/or liquid to the dish to keep the meat juicy. If you cook these cuts quickly, they will be tough (maybe even inedibly tough), but with long, slow cooking, they become fall-apart tender and delicious. These cuts can be used for slow roasts, braises, soups and stews, such as this delicious Red-Wine Braised/Roasted Venison Recipes.

How to Cook Venison: Start with Quality Meat!

One last thing I should comment on is the overall quality of venison that you cook with. When learning how to cook venison or first trying it, some people have bad experiences with it either because it was prepared poorly (dried out from inappropriate cooking for example) or because the quality of the meat was not very good to begin with. If anyone tells you that venison is “gamey” then they probably have not had well handled venison. While any red meat can become gamey with improper handling, proper care of the meat during processing can ensure fresh-tasting quality meat. The problem here is that most hunters are not butchers or chefs, so they don’t understand or have the capability of caring for the meat appropriately after it is shot. The large majority simply load the deer up on their truck as is and bring it to their butcher/processor later that day or even a day or two later. For quality meat, venison requires some urgent care. The temperature of the meat should be brought down to refrigeration temperature quickly after killing and the internal organs should be removed rapidly (both to aid in rapid cooling but also to prevent contamination by gut bacteria). If these steps are not taken early, it can lead to gamey, off flavors to the meat.

Also, after initial field dressing and cooling, most venison does benefit from dry aging, similar to beef. It helps to tenderize the meat and concentrates flavors. I’ve hung deer in low temperatures for a couple weeks or more and the meat really benefits from the treatment. If you aren’t prepared to take these steps with a deer you catch, or don’t feel comfortable doing them yourself, maybe do a bit of research ahead of time to find a quality butcher who will take your deer rapidly after you harvest it and will process the deer in a way that maximizes the potential of your venison.

Most importantly, have fun! Experiment with different venison recipes and learning how to cook venison will be fun and rewarding!


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