Preparing and Cooking Venison

The following information on venison comes from Chapter 13 of How to Hunt Deer by Edward A. Freeman. How to Hunt Deer is also available to purchase in print.

Venison, the flesh of the deer family, is one of the best of meat foods. It is nourishing, easily assimilated and flavorful. Many people, for different reasons, will disagree with me when I make this statement, but most of those who have eaten the meat of deer which has been properly killed and taken care of, will say the same thing.

Some people are prejudiced and would not eat venison under any circumstances. Others have sampled this meat on an experimental basis, and, being prepared to dislike it, have disliked it. Still others have eaten venison that was not fit to eat and have therefore condemned all venison because of the sample. It is a fact that a large portion of the deer which are killed are not fit to eat by the time that they reach the table. There is no real need for this and it is too bad that so much good meat should go to waste each year for the lack of proper care. Venison is easily spoiled by improper care and it is a mystery to me how so much of it remains edible as long as it does after the treatment that most of it receives.

Most of our domestic meat animals are killed and handled under the eyes of Government inspectors in as sanitary a manner as possible. Every effort is made to see that the meat reaches the consumer in an edible condition. If a beef animal were shot through the body, perhaps several times; the viscera removed in an indifferent manner, perhaps in several pieces; blood and other foreign matter left in the body cavity; the carcass dragged over the ground to an unrefrigerated car and shipped, with the skin on, for two hundred miles, the meat would not pass inspection and would be condemned as unfit for human consumption. Many of our deer are handled in this manner and it is no wonder that some of the people who eat the meat from these deer decide that they do not like it.

Some people object to the “wild” or “gamey” taste of venison and the meat of other wild animals. This taste is largely imaginative. Each has its own distinctive odor, and odor plays a large part in determining taste. When the olfactory nerves are affected by a severe head cold, the food that we eat is almost tasteless, and a blindfolded man, holding his nose, cannot distinguish the difference in taste between a slice of onion and a slice of apple. We have learned to associate certain odors with certain foods and when we encounter these odors they give us an appetite. Food odors with which we are accustomed are, as a rule, pleasing; and when we eat the food, the entire digestive system is prepared to accept it, and we like it. On the other hand, unfamiliar odors are often offensive so we dislike the food, and often the stomach will refuse to accept and retain it. The French chef, with his many sauces, is able to overpower or disguise these odors so as to make almost any food palatable.

Venison, when properly cared for, needs none of these disguising sauces. The odor is no stronger than that of the domestic animals. It is different, with the same difference which exists among beef, pork and mutton, but anyone who approaches a good venison steak with an open mind is almost certain to enjoy it. It is a superior food and if the deer could be domesticated and treated as other domesticated animals, we would have an even better and tastier product.

All of the males of our domesticated animals, with the exception of breeding stock, are castrated in order to produce a better grade of meat, and they are killed at the age when they are the tastiest and tenderest. Buck deer—and in many states that is all that the hunter is allowed to kill—are taken at the poorest time of year from the flavor and tenderness standpoint, and at whatever age they happen to be. In spite of this, the meat from these bucks is often equal to the better grades of beef. Doe deer produce a better meat than old bucks at this time; and a young buck, under two years of age, or a barren doe furnish the best in eating during the hunting season.

Having the open season on deer during the rut gives the trophy hunter the utmost in sport and I would not have it changed to an earlier date because of the added difficulty in caring for the meat, yet the meat is not at its best at that time of year. Bull beef is classed as the lowest grade of beef and is used mostly in prepared meats. The pork from boars is often unsaleable and generally smells so strong while being cooked that it is almost uneatable. Rams are nearly as bad, and who would want to eat an old billy goat? I have tasted the meat from buck deer which were killed in August and September, before the hunting season; and there is as much difference between their meat and that of bucks killed during the rut as there is between the meat of bucks and that of does killed earlier or later in the year. I am not a veterinarian and cannot give a reason for this, except to speculate that glandular activity is dormant, or nearly so, before and after the rutting season; and this has an effect on the flavor of the meat.

The food which the deer eats has some effect on the flavor of the meat as well as on its tenderness. Summer vegetation is the best and venison, with the possible exception of milking does, is at its best near the end of this season. The milking does continue to improve as long as there is a plentiful supply of food, and a beechnut year produces superb venison late in the season.

After snow covers the ground, the deer are forced to browse and soon lose the fat which has been stored during the summer. The meat becomes tougher and is sometimes flavored by the twigs which the animal eats. When deer are forced to live on cedar for an extended period, the meat acquires a slight resinous flavor which is distasteful, mostly because it is unexpected. Spruce grouse have this flavor, but are excellent food after a person becomes accustomed to the taste. By the time that spring arrives, most venison is no better than the poorer grades of beef.

Improperly cared for, deer meat becomes an abomination; and proper care should start at the moment the hunter presses the trigger of his rifle, if he wishes to have a choice piece of meat.

It is not always possible to place a bullet just where the hunter wishes to put it, but every effort should be made to see that the deer is killed almost instantly and not permitted to wander for hours in a wounded condition. Aside from the humane aspect and thinking only of the meat, a wounded deer soon becomes a sick deer and the fever from this sickness will soon affect the quality of the meat.

A brain shot is the most effective, but the vital area in a deer’s head is so small that it is seldom possible to be sure of hitting this target.

A bullet in the lung area is slower to kill, but is about as sure, with the added advantage of more thorough bleeding. This bleeding will be mostly internal, but as long as the blood is drained from the meat, this does no harm, for as soon as the lung cavity is opened, it can be removed.

Shots through the paunch or intestines are seldom immediately fatal and the contents of these organs are certain to taint the meat around the bullet wound. The longer the animal lives after being shot in these areas, the greater this tainted area will be. This is often the cause of the off-flavor to which so many people object.

I have always tried for a lung shot unless I had a standing target at close range, in which case I shoot for the head. The former is the best shot for the trophy hunter who wants a head for mounting, as well as for the man who is interested in having good quality meat. The heart shot, while more effective, needs to be placed so far forward that one and sometimes both shoulders are penetrated by the bullet; and quite often a large amount of meat is affected. While shoulder meat is not the choicest part of the deer, it is too bad to have it spoil, and spoil it will if torn by bullets and not taken care of within a short time. Most hunters seek their deer at a distance from their home and they wish to transport the animal for display purposes without skinning or dismembering it. This prevents the proper care of any meat which has been ruptured by bullets, and by the time that the deer is prepared for eating, some of this meat will be spoiled or will have an off-flavor if still edible.

After the deer has been shot, the work begins. I have seen a novice walk to the deer that he has just killed and say, “Now what do I do?” The deer has to be transported out of the woods and the safest, and usually the easiest, way to do this is to drag the carcass. In order to make this chore easier as well as to cool the carcass, it is customary to remove the internal organs. If the deer happens to be a buck, it should be castrated at once. This may or may not have an effect on the flavor of the meat, but tradition says that it is the thing to do. Personally I don’t believe that it makes any difference. Many hunters try to bleed their deer by cutting the neck in order to sever various veins and arteries. I have seen deer with the head cut nearly off by hunters in an attempt to bleed the animal. This is a useless mutilation of the carcass, for dead animals will not bleed. The proper procedure is to insert a knife blade into the lung cavity through the thin skin and tissue at the base of the throat, thus draining the blood from this cavity. This is not necessary if the viscera are removed in the woods, although this cut should never be made if there is any possibility that the head might be used for mounting. It has been a good many years since I have tried to bleed deer except by shooting them in the place that would cause the most thorough bleeding.

The first step in removing the viscera is to split the skin and abdominal wall from the tip of the breastbone to the pelvic bone, being careful not to cut into the stomach or into the intestines. This may be done by placing the deer on its back with the shoulders slightly higher than the hips and cutting a slit large enough to insert two fingers at the tip of the breastbone. Insert two fingers with a knife blade between them into this slit and cut to the pelvic bone, using the fingers to keep the internal organs away from the cutting edge of the knife. Some people continue this cut between the rear legs and around the anus. I do not do this because it exposes some of the best of the meat to contamination.

After this cut is completed, roll the animal on its side with the open belly slightly down hill so that the organs will have a chance to protrude slightly. Run the hand between the organs and the abdominal wall to loosen the former where necessary and then find and take a firm grip on the gullet as far from the stomach as possible. Sometimes this can be torn by pulling, but I prefer to cut it with a knife. A pocket knife is safer to use than the awkward large-bladed hunting knife. After the gullet is cut, the stomach, with the intestines still attached, may be brought outside of the body. This makes room enough so that the hunter may reach into the pelvic cavity and sever the lower intestine. Before making this cut, press any matter that may be present out through the anus. Keep a tight grip on the intestine until it is removed from the animal. The entire alimentary tract should be removable as soon as this cut is made. Remove the bladder in the same manner as the lower intestine. If this organ should be full, gentle pressure will usually reduce the contents in a normal manner.

Many hunters cut around the vent, tie this with a string and draw it through the pelvic cavity with the intestines. The only objection I have to this procedure is that more meat area is exposed to dirt, flies and other contamination. And, for the same reason, I do not remove the external sex organs until I am ready to skin the deer.

After the digestive organs have been removed, cut the diaphragm and remove the lungs. This cavity will usually be filled with blood, and this should be removed so that the interior of the animal will be as clean as possible.

If, for any reason, it should be necessary to leave the deer in the woods for any length of time, over night or longer, it should be hung up and not left on the ground. It is almost impossible for one man to hang a sizable deer without the aid of some mechanical device and the simplest of these, which may be found in the woods, is the tripod. Three poles, not less than twelve feet long, should be cut. Tie two of these poles together at the ends, then tie these to the deer. Spread the opposite ends of these poles so that they are six or eight feet apart and use the third pole to raise the deer as far as possible. Bring each foot of the tripod nearer to the center until the deer is off the ground.

Sometimes it is possible to use two saplings as two feet of the tripod. Grey birch trees are good for this purpose and the natural spring of the trees is a help in lifting the weight of the deer. Pull the tops of the trees down and tie them to the deer and then work the third foot of the tripod into position.

It may be possible to improvise a windlass. Cut a pole with a right-angled branch. Place this across two limbs which are high enough that the deer will be off the ground. Tie one end of a rope to the pole and the other end to the deer. Use the branch as a lever to wind the rope around the pole until the deer is off the ground. Not too difficult a task if there is a place to stand while operating the windlass.

There is a difference of opinion about the method of hanging a deer. Some hunters hang them by the head while others hang them head down. Use your own method. Domestic animals are hung with the head down so that if there is any objectionable settling of body fluids during drainage, this will occur in the less valuable cuts of meat. A good rule for the hunter to follow is to hang trophy animals by the head and meat animals by the feet.

Deer should never be left on the ground as this interferes with the rapid cooling that all meat should receive. The portion of the animal which is in contact with the ground is very liable to retain the body heat long enough to start the decaying process.

When the hunter arrives at his home or camp with his deer, it should be rehung and the body cavity cleaned with a wet cloth. Water in the tissues of the meat will cause the meat to “sour,” so wash only the body cavity and be sure to wipe it dry. The anus may be removed at this time. The breastbone should be split and the remainder of the gullet and the windpipe should be removed. Always hang a deer in a cool place out of the sun and protect it from flies and other insects.

When it is necessary to transport a deer on the hood of a car for a long distance, it will help preserve the meat to place some sort of insulation between the animal and the car if the temperature is above freezing. It might be better to make the trip in the cool of the night instead of the heat of the day. Of course, the later in the season the deer is shot, the less trouble there will be in keeping the carcass cool during transportation.

Many people think that for venison to be good, the deer should be left to age for an indefinite period of time. This depends on individual tastes. The person who has to transport his deer on the hot hood of a car for any great distance has a deer which needs no further aging and one which should be taken care of as soon as he arrives at his home. The aging of meat should be under controlled conditions and not in someone’s shed or back yard, and least of all on the hood of a car. Controlled aging improves most meat and if the aging process could be halted at the right time it would be a good idea to permit a deer to hang until it reached the right stage for the best eating. Unless the meat is frozen or is in cold storage, this aging continues so fast that there is only a short period of time before decay begins. If we wait for a deer to age before starting to eat the meat, some of it is sure to spoil before the entire animal can be consumed.

I usually skin my deer as soon as possible after I arrive at my home and often start eating the meat on the day after the deer was killed. Any freshly killed meat is a mild laxative, so care should be taken about overeating fresh venison.

The rib and flank sections are the first to lose the body heat, therefore they should be eaten first. The back (loin and chops) comes next. The tenderloin, choicest cut of this section, is about the most susceptible to spoilage and, being in close proximity to the viscera, is often affected if these organs are ruptured and their contents permitted to come in contact with the meat. The rear legs should be eaten after the back has been consumed and the forward quarters should be saved for the last. By following this procedure, the entire animal will be uniformly good. Aging of the fore quarters makes them almost equal in quality to the more choice cuts of the deer.

The edible organs—kidneys, liver, heart and tongue—are good or poor according to the individual’s taste. I have never eaten the kidneys from a deer. Friends who have, tell me that they are good, but I have always owned cats which had to be fed and they seem to relish these organs. My cats usually received most of my deer livers. Perhaps if I had taken the trouble to prepare these organs in such a manner as to remove some of the bitterness to which I object, I might relish this meat. I like the heart and the tongue, but seldom bother to use the latter because of its small size. I used to skin and prepare the deer which a neighbor would kill and he always insisted that I skin out the head so that he could use it. He said that it was good, that he cooked it the same way that people cook calves’ heads. He also used the brains, a food which is not popular in my part of the country.

Venison lends itself well to mincemeat. The neck is the part to use. Beef suet should be used rather than the fat of the deer, which has a tallowy texture that is objectionable when cold. This is particularly objectionable to people with false teeth. I sometimes use some of this tallow when pan-broiling venison steak and relish a small amount when it is hot. When cold it is not appetizing to me.

It is often desirable to preserve a portion of a deer for future use. Any meat which is to be preserved by any method should be taken care of as soon as possible after it is killed. Aging before preserving is not necessary or desirable. In this modern age, quick freezing is the answer to preservation.

In the far north, trappers and other wilderness dwellers who depend on wild meat for food have always used nature’s deepfreeze. The meat is hung outdoors and nature does the rest. There are seldom any warm days and it keeps in a frozen condition all through the winter. In past years I have used this method here in Maine, and, while there was some thawing and freezing, there was very little spoilage. I would skin the deer, cut it up as usual, use the back as fresh meat and hang the four legs in an open shed out of the sun, letting them freeze. Any spoilage which occurred was on the outside and could be trimmed off before cooking. This meat kept well and was aged to perfection before spring, in spite of the fact that recognized authorities claim that frozen meat does not age.

On one occasion I killed a deer near the end of the season and after the necessary state inspection and other delays I did not arrive home with it until well into the evening. I was cold and hungry so I hung the deer in the shed and went into the house to eat and thaw out after the day’s hunt. I did not get around to skinning the deer until the next day and by that time it had frozen so hard that it was next to impossible to start the skin. There were three licenses in my family at the time and mine was the last to be filled. We had plenty of meat on hand and I decided to leave my deer in its frozen condition for future use. The meat kept all right, but I will never freeze a deer with the hide on again. When the time came for me to use the meat, I would saw outa chunk, take it into the house and wait for it to thaw enough so that I could remove the skin, and then try to pick out the hairs which were in the meat as a result of the sawing. From that time on I have always skinned my deer before freezing.

Next to freezing, canning is the best method of preserving venison. Cook the meat as you like it best, pack it in jars and process it the same as any meat. If there are any meat juices or gravies as a result of the cooking, be sure to include them with the meat in the cans or jars.

Venison may be salted (corned), but it absorbs salt faster than many meats, making it difficult to freshen the corned meat enough to have a tasty product after cooking. It may be slightly salted and smoked, but the resultant product is not very satisfactory, except from a nutritional standpoint. Meat treated in this manner will not keep as well as by other methods.

The primitive method of drying results in a leather-like product which will keep for a long time, but is only good for soups and stews.

Venison is at its best as steak, and, like all steaks, is best when broiled. Grill or pan-broil, whichever is the more convenient, and it will be good unless overcooked. Pieces which are not suitable for steaks should be used as pot roast to obtain the best in flavor and texture. As a roast, I find that venison is a little too dry for my taste unless it is undercooked. The meat has little fat in the tissues and none of the marbling that we find in good beef so that roasting has a tendency to dry it out. Roast venison should be accompanied by a tart sauce or jelly. Cranberries are ideal for this, but individual taste should indicate the sauce or jelly to be used.

Boiling is the poorest method of cooking any meat and unless all of the juices, together with the meat, are used to make a stew, boiled venison is nothing but a mess of fibers—filling but not tasty.

The tougher cuts of venison may be ground and used as hamburger. I prefer to do this rather than to boil them, and perhaps others might prefer the hamburger to a pot roast. The addition of a small amount of beef suet to the ground venison will improve the hamburger without destroying the flavor. By combining one-third ground venison and two-thirds pork trimmings and seasonings, we can have a sausage which is delicious, although it is not a whole venison product.

I mentioned that venison needs no disguising sauces in order to be good, but I sometimes treat some of the rougher cuts with tomato catsup. I cut the meat into bite-size pieces, pan-broil until nearly cooked, cover with diluted catsup (about half and half, water and catsup), cover and let simmer for not less than half an hour or until tender, adding water as necessary. If you should ever try this dish, it might be a good idea to double the estimated amount necessary for your family, as second helpings are almost a certainty.

Venison, no matter how cooked, is a good food, and the better the carcass is taken care of, the better tasting it will be, so when you kill your next deer, try to treat the meat in as fine a manner as possible so that you may spread the enjoyment of your hunting trip over a longer period of time.

Kill the deer as quickly and cleanly as possible.

Remove the viscera as soon as possible.

Keep the carcass off the ground and, if there are flies around, keep it covered.

While transporting a deer to your home, try to keep it away from the heat of the motor and from the heat of the sun.

As soon as you arrive at your home, skin the deer and care for the meat. Keep it cool and if any is to be preserved, do this as soon as possible.

If you do these things, I am sure you will have a deer that will have no disagreeable taste or odor, and not a piece of carrion which must be hauled away and buried.

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Preparing and Cooking Venison

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