Preparing The Perfect Venison

The Sweet Taste of Sucess
A renowned chef reveals the secrets to preparing perfect venison-- no matter what the cut.

By Tom Dickson

Venison can be one of the most succulent, delectable dishes you set on the holiday table. Prepared correctly, a slice of venison should drip with juice, yield to a butter knife, and taste sweet on the tongue.

So why does so much of it taste like cooked hockey glove?

Ken Goff, executive chef for the Dakota Resteraunt in St.Paul, knows the reason.  Considered one of the country's top indigenous-food chefs, Goff has been featured in Gourmet magazine, in The New York Times, and on the Discovery Channel's "Great Chefs" series.  An expert on cooking wild game, Goff has learned that different parts of a deer call for different cooking techniques.

"Many cooks don't understand that cooking methods that always apply to certain cuts of venison will almost never apply to others," says Goff.  "If you know which cuts to cook using quick, high, dry heat and which to cook in liquid over low heat for a long time, you'll get the best possible flavor from your venison."

Goff brings a passion for wild game, particulary venison, to his kitchen at home and at work.  "It's fantastically flavored and much more interesting than commercial meat," he says.  Though not a hunter, he prepares venison harvested by friends and regularly serves New Zealand farm-raised venison dishes, such as venison loin with blueberries, to his customers.

Venison Basics

In some respects, says Goff, cooks can view venison as they do beef.  Both are the dark red meat of large grazing animals.  And the cuts of both animals are similar: A sirloin of venison is a steak that comes from the lower back of the animal, as does beef sirloin.

But that's where the deer and the cow part company-- and where cooks need to understand the fundamental diffrences between the two meats.  According to Goff, beef can be distinguished from venison primarily by its tasty fat, which is marbled throughout the meat.  The fat of venison, on the other hand, tastes like boiled leather when cooked.  It is found only outside of the meat and should be trimmed from all cuts.  Lacking fat within the meat, uncooked venison has less moisture than beef does.

Though less fat content makes venison easier to dry out when cooking, it also makes a serving of venison leaner than a similar-sized one of beef.  Venison has roughly one-half the fat by weight of beef.

More important, in Goff's view, is that venison has "more and better flavor than beef."  Heavy with fat, beef has a mild, rich taste.  Lacking fat, venison is "tangier and more intense," he says.  That sweet tang of dear meat comes from the copious blood, which also gives raw venison steaks their rich, burgundy color. "Dark meat like venison has more capillaries, so there's more blood in the tissue," Goff says.  "Blood is sweet.  If you accidentally prick your finger and suck it, you can taste that sweetness."

The longer you cook venison, Goff explains, the more bitter it becomes.  "That's what people call the 'gamy' taste," he says.  "It's the same bitter taste as overdone liver, compared to the sweet taste of liver cooked medium rare."

It's a cook's job, he says, "to keep the venison sweet."

Hot and Fast

If the meat in question is one of the tender cuts found on a deer's loin (T-Bone, Club, Rib-Eye, Sirloin, or porterhouse steaks) or upper rump (rump roast), your job couldn't be simpler: Cook venison at high heat-- the quicker the better.  "Cook it no more than medium rare," Goff says. "That way you save the juices, which saves the sweetness."

Isn't there a risk of getting sick from eating rare meat?  Not if the animal was dressed and butchered properly, says Goff.  "For a piece of game to be unhealthy, something had to happen to the animal after it died, such as fecal matter getting onto the surface of the meat," he says.  Goff advises hunters to avoid puncturing the intestines when field-dressing deer, because this is where fecal and other contaminants are concentrated.  "If you get any contaminents on the meat, wash them off with snow or water as soon as possible," he says.

Slow and Moist

Unfortunately, relatively little of a deer's total weight is composed of tender cuts from the loin.  "Most of a deer's bulk is the legs and shoulder," Goff says.  "These are weight-bearing muscles that have a lot of tough ligaments and connective tissue."

When pan fried or sauteed, cuts from the shoulder, front legs, and lower back legs stay tough and chewy, which is one reason many hunters turn much of their deer into venison sausage.  He says even densest shoulder roast can be made tender and succulent by slowly cooking it with moist heat.

To break down the strong, connective tissue, tough cuts generally call for cooking a long time (two or more hours) at low temperatures in liquid by either stewing or braising.  In stewing the meat is seared briefly at a high heat, then completely submersed in wine, broth, or other liquid.  In braising the meat is only partially submersed.

Although slow-cooking softens the venison tissue, it makes the meat bitter by overcooking the juices. Goff's simple solution is to add something acidic, such as vinegar, tomatoes, or wine, and something sweet, such as onions or fruit, to temper the bitterness that develops during cooking.

Color and Sizzle

Goff says that by applying these cooking basics, even beginning cooks can prepare juicy, tender venison dishes no matter what cut they pull from the freezer.  By following a few other easy tips, a cook can make a great meal even better.

"I like to add color and beauty to any dish," he says.  "And to do that, you need to buy colorful and beautiful ingredients."

As Goff prepares venison dishes, he applies a rainbow of condiments such as diced red pepper, chopped chives, cut-corn kernels, dried cranberries, and slivered almonds.  "I'll add whatever seems right at the time," he says.  "If I've got some big blueberries, I might put those on the side, or with a wild rice side dish I might mix in pepper and corn to give it those nice red and yellow colors."

Aesthetics also explains why Goff sears venison as a first step to most dishes.  Also known as browning, searing--charring the meat surface with high heat-- doesn't seal in the juices as many cooks believe, Goff says.  "In fact, if you sear it too long, you'll actually lose moisture by overcooking," he says. "What searing does is give the exterior that bit of charred taste that we like.  It also looks good, and if something looks good, the eater will be predisposed to enjoy it.  Searing also creates a nice aroma and sizzling sound."

Goff keeps side dishes simple but exciting.  Instead of the traditional noodles, for example, he might spoon his venison stroganoff over large, crunchy croutons made of day-old french bread sliced 1-inch thick and fried in butter.  "Add some cooked carrots on the side, serve with a little bottle of red wine, and a dish like this would be fancy enough for company food," he says.  "But really it's just glorified peasant cooking."

Goff recommends laying out all measured ingredients (for example, half cup finely diced onion) before you begin cooking.  "This will allow you to proceed with the recipe at the pace it requires," he says.  He also recommends using heavy pans for sauteing and browning meat and vegetables and cooking at the highest temperature the burner allows.  "That means you have to work quickly, but you'll see it's worth it," he says.  Goff uses a 50-50 mixture of clarified butter (melted butter minus the milk solids) and canola oil for cooking, but says any light vegetable oil will work.

Goff's Advice on Aging Meat

Let game hang in cool (33-45 degrees F) temperatures for several days.  During aging, says Goff, enzymes break down the cell tissue in the meat, making it more tender.  The process is often used to tenderize older deer, which have tougher meat.  "The enzymatic activity also makes the flavor stronger and more complex." Goff says that less moisture is lost by aging a deer with the skin left on. "If you take the skin off before aging, cover it with several layers of cheesecloth to keep insects off."

Trimming

"If it's white, take it off," Goff says.  He recommends trimming all fat and the thick, white connective tissue called silver skin.  The thin, translucent silver skin can stay on the meat.

Cutting

"Cutting across the grain results in more tender venison beause the long, strong strands of protein are shortened."

Bone in vs. Bone Out

"It's a matter of trade-offs," Goff says.  "The bone gives it more flavor, but it makes for a more unwieldy piece of meat.  Many people think venison already has enough flavor without the bone.  It's up to the individual."

Venison Basics

Tough Cuts
From the neck and from the shoulder of deer older than 3 years: Neck roast and chuck roast.  Cooking:  These cuts are best cooked slowly in moist heat, by browning first, then braising or stewing with the addition of sweetness and acidity to balance the bitterness.

Medium Cuts
From the lower rump and upper back leg (the round) and from the shoulder of deer younger than 3 years: Round steaks and Roasts.  Cooking: These can be cooked quickly at high heat if tenderized by pounding thin to break down the tough tissue or if sliced thin after cooking.  Otherwise, they are best braised or stewed.

Tender Cuts
From the backstrap: T-bone, Club, Rib-Eye, Sirloin, Porterhouse, Tenderloin.  From the upper rump: Rump Roast.  Cooking: To get the most flavor from these cuts and keep them tender, cook them rare to medium rare by pan frying or sautéing briefly over high heat.

Trimmings
Small pieces left over after butchering and trimming fat and silver skin.  Cooking: Trimmings from the tender and medium cuts can be sautéed and made into stir fry.  Trimmings from the tough cuts work best in stews.  Trimmings from the shanks and between the ribs can be made into sausage when combined with an equal portion of pork fat or pork shoulder and spices, such as sage (breakfast sausage) or anise (Italian sausage).