Venison has a reputation for tasting distinctly different from the domestically raised beef most folks eat. Yes, a whitetail tenderloin stands little chance of passing for a grass-fed Angus filet, mainly because venison is much leaner. Beef is generally more tender and succulent than venison, but with proper care a prime venison cut is equally, if not more, delicious.
Don’t take my word for it. In a recent interview with Bowhunting 360, a blogger for Modern Hunters said mule deer back strap (loin) is the best meat he’s eaten. Those words came straight from the mouth of a former vegan turned hunter.
I’m not a professional butcher, but I grew up in a hunting family that served venison dinners weekly. My dad taught me how to clean and care for deer we shot each fall. Later, during college, venison became a staple because of its availability and my meager grocery budget. That taught me firsthand that hunting for your own meat can lower food costs drastically compared to beef.
Don’t believe it? Consider: If a household consumes red meat twice weekly, the family would require roughly 120 pounds of it annually. That’s about the equivalent of two large boned-out whitetails. That much beef, if it consisted of one-third steak and roast and two-thirds burger, would cost about $600, according to current USDA prices.
So is deer meat far cheaper? Look at it this way: For what most folks spend on beef in one year, they could buy a basic bow or crossbow and get it set up to hunt. Their only other necessities are a knife and a license, which is typically less than $50 for any state resident. Once you have a bow to hunt with, the yearly costs of “sourcing” local, organic wild venison for your table would be minimal.
Wild game also offers health benefits. For example, 4 ounces of beef contain 310 calories while an equal portion of venison contains 125. Beef also carries 9 grams of fat, 4 of which are saturated, while venison contains 3 grams, 1 gram of which is saturated. Venison contains more protein, 26 grams to beef’s 24, and provides more vitamins and minerals.
My days of venison chops with Oodles of Noodles and all-night studying are long gone, but my fiancé and I harvest several whitetails each year to fill our freezer with healthy, ethically sourced meat. One benefit is the satisfaction in knowing the origins of every venison meal we eat. We process every cut ourselves, and have learned the finer points for ensuring our venison consistently tastes its best. Let’s review four key factors in that process.
1. The Deer You Harvest Matters
Different deer can yield different qualities of meat. Many hunters go afield hoping to provide organic table fare for their families, as well as an old buck with big antlers for their wall. Deer racks are cool, but as the saying goes, “You can’t eat the antlers.” Older deer can produce tough, chewy meat. Old does spend summer and fall nursing their young, which burns lots of calories. Once the breeding season or “rut” sets in, does are run ragged by testosterone-charged bucks. This heightened activity, which usually occurs during bow season, leaves bucks little time to feed and rest, which burns away almost all their fat reserves. Although meat from older deer killed during or after the rut is edible, it can lack the quality of venison from younger, more rested deer. If you decide a particular deer fails your standards, set it aside for jerky, sausage and hamburger.
The best venison I’ve tasted often came from young does taken in early autumn from agricultural areas. Younger deer usually provide the most tender venison, and when taken early in the season they’ve usually been eating well for months. Abundant forage and crops provide deer a full, well-rounded diet, and they don’t burn many calories searching for food, which they often must do in winter.
How a deer dies can also affect the taste of its venison. Bowhunters always try to dispatch game quickly and humanely. But if an arrow misses its mark and inflicts a marginal hit, the animal can release lots of adrenaline as it flees and eludes its pursuer. However, if you don’t push it immediately, it will usually lie down within 100 to 200 yards. Even if you must let it sit overnight, you’ll usually enjoy quality venison if you retrieve it early the next day.
2. Quick Cleaning and Cool Meat are Musts
Once you’ve recovered your animal it’s time to get to work. Again, time is of the essence with field care. First, remove all of its intestines and internal organs. After making a small cut to open the animal’s hide below its sternum, cut from the inside as you open the abdominal cavity. This minimizes the amount of hair you cut loose, which keeps it from sticking to exposed muscle (meat) and membrane.
Bacteria grow fast in warmth, so cool the carcass or its quartered sections as soon as possible. Expedite cooling by removing the hide so the deer’s residual body heat can escape. You have three options for the next step in the cooling process. If a meat locker is available, hang the carcass or quarters to cool and drain blood from the muscle tissue.
Although a meat locker is the best option, most hunters make do with a refrigerator, which is essentially a miniature meat locker. Place a grate-style cooling rack (intended for baking) atop a cookie sheet, and place the quarters or boned venison on the grate. The gap between the rack and the cookie sheet collects draining blood while the venison cools.
If you’re hunting a remote area or don’t have access to a locker or refrigerator, pack the quarters or boned meat inside a cooler with ice, pull the drain plug, and tilt the cooler so it can drain. This cools the venison quickly and purges blood as the ice melts. Keep the cooler stocked with ice until processing the meat and storing it in a freezer.
When outdoor temperatures are 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, you can hang the deer for a day or more before boning it out or breaking it down. You don’t need anything fancy to hang a deer during cold weather. Throw a rope over a large tree limb or the rafters in your garage. If outdoor temperatures are consistent, you can let it hang several days to age, which produces the most tender cuts. Venison should not be frozen until it has completely cooled. Freezing warm meat can trap body heat inside and make the meat tough.
3. Cut the Fat
Processing game meat isn’t difficult, but it can be time-consuming when you’re still learning these skills. The inner loins and back straps are simple to remove, and most of the meat on the animal’s front half will be used for stew, burger and small roasts. The rump and upper rear leg contain the largest pieces of meat, and the individual muscle groups are easily identified and separated. To make this task easier, simply follow the lines between the muscles as you slice and separate them with your knife.
As you remove all meat from the quarters, slice away all fat, tendon fibers and sinew, which is the fibrous tissue that encapsulates muscle groups. Unlike beef fat, venison fat does not taste good. Use a dry paper towel to wipe away all hair that settles onto the meat. If you plan to grind your own burger meat, consider adding fat because venison is very lean. This is a personal preference. Some people do not find it necessary. In my case, I add pork fat into the mix. It’s available at little cost from most butchers and enhances the venison’s flavor. Others simply grind some bacon into the ground venison.
If you don’t have a meat grinder, a basic manual-crank model costs less than $30. You can also package all burger trimmings and ask a butcher to grind them for you, or pack them into individual packs for stews and slow-cooker meals.
Once you finish processing the venison, package all the cuts and burgers in freezer wrap or vacuum-sealed plastic to prevent freezer burn. If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, simply wrap the venison in clear plastic wrap and then again with freezer paper. Label each pack with the species, cut and harvest date.
4. Cook It. Eat It. Enjoy It.
When prepping and cooking venison, don’t overthink it. Venison burger can be used just as you would beef burger in anything from tacos to spaghetti sauce. When preparing steaks and roasts, treat venison as you would any lean meat. Do not overcook it. Venison steak is best served medium-well and not overly seasoned. There’s no need to add lots of marinades and secret concoctions if you take proper care of your venison. It tastes great on its own!
To learn more about how venison stacks up against beef, and to review some great venison recipes, check out this link: Venison vs. Beef. Also if you want to try hunting as a route to sourcing your meat and living a healthier lifestyle, locate an expert in your area to help you get started.