by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, September 15, 2012.)
Just because venison is red meat doesn’t mean it should be cooked the way you cook beef.
Here we are on the cusp of deer season, and people will soon
be sinking their cuspids into the same lean, tasty meat that sustained
thousands of generations of Native Americans. Some people, however, won’t care
much for the taste.
People have opinions about venison. They toss around words
like “gamey,” and “dry,” without ever defining what gamey is or considering
what to do to prevent dry meat.
I don’t call venison “gamey.” In fact, I’m not sure what
“gamey” is. Yes, it is game, but I don’t hear anyone describe rabbit, turkey, or
pheasant as gamey. They’re all different, just as venison is different from
Right there is the big clue why people make plenty of mistakes
cooking venison. Just because deer meat is red meat doesn’t mean it should be
cooked the way you cook beef.
Most of the mistakes people make when cooking venison have
to do with the fact that the meat is dry. If you address that issue, you can enjoy
this season’s venison more than ever.
Why is venison dry? First, because it’s lean. It’s lean
because it lacks the marbling beef has. Marbling consists of those globules of
fat you see sprinkled throughout a good beef ribeye. They melt when cooked, and
penetrate the meat.
Two words sum up what marbling adds: juiciness, and flavor. Health
experts argue that juicy beef isn’t friendly to your heart, but juicy beef gets
along very well with your taste buds!
So, let’s chew the fat about fat for a minute or two. Beef
fat tastes great; venison fat tastes terrible. It coats the inside of your
mouth. It’s tallowy. It’s better used in the candles on your dinner table than
on your dinner plate. If the truth is told, fat might be the reason people
think venison tastes “gamey.” Here’s a simple solution – trim away all the fat.
Whittling the fat away does nothing to keep the meat juicy,
but it does a lot to make the meat more palatable. After trimming away the fat,
you’re ready to deal with the dryness.
Why does venison dry out? Because moisture in beef and moisture
in venison are totally different. When you grill beef outdoors you get
flare-ups as the melting fat fuels the fire. Beef can afford to lose some of
its moisture into the fire. Venison can’t. In fact, moisture in venison goes
the other way – it evaporates into the air and nothing can restore it.
What can you do to keep venison from drying out? Some people
use marinade to add moisture. Evaporated milk, Italian salad dressing, and
teriyaki sauce are a few common marinades. Five to six hours is usually enough time.
You can also add moisture to venison by wrapping it in
bacon, cooking it in gravy or mushroom soup, or laying some strips of beef fat
Another way people dry venison out is by slicing it too thin
before cooking. If you like it sliced thin, either cook it submerged in a sauce,
or slice it after it’s cooked. Venison cooks very quickly, so if it’s sliced
thin prior to cooking, it won’t take much heat to dry it out. An inch isn’t too
thick. After you cook it, slice it as thin as you want.
Perhaps the most common way to dry venison out is to
overcook it. Lots of people use meat thermometers these days, and you should
use one for venison just as you would for pork. New guidelines say 145° F is
adequate for pork. The same works for venison. When you use a meat thermometer,
insert it so the tip is in the thickest part of the meat.
A meat thermometer gives you confidence your meat is cooked through,
even though it’s still pink inside. Don’t cook until the pink gets gone, because
the moisture gets gone too.
Finally, avoid salt. Salt is absolutely necessary when you
preserve meat by drying. (Think jerky.) But when you’re cooking meat, salt will
further dry it. Make the decision about salt at the dinner table, not at the
stove or grill.
If you put your tag on a deer this season, and you can
get it to the dinner plate without drying it out, this is the season you’ll
change someone’s mind about venison.