Venison on the Hoof and the Plate
Basil Fishbone

Venison (for our purposes, deer, elk, caribou, moose, and -- though not actually related -- pronghorn antelope) is, properly prepared, the finest red meat in the world. It has long had a reputation as the premier meat of Europe, reserved only for the tables of the aristocracy. In American cities, venison raised on game farms commands very high prices in fine restaurants and specialty markets.

So why is it, then that a great many hunters and their families and dinner guests regard venison, especially deer and antelope, as a barely edible meat suited, at best, for salami? There is a particular flavor, known as gaminess, that most (but not all) people find unpleasant. A very strong gamey taste can render an animal inedible for most people. Too many deer and antelope acquire a gaminess that they do not need to have, because hunters and butchers do certain things incorrectly. (I think this is true to a lesser extent of elk, moose, and caribou, which are less susceptible to gaminess. For reasons that are probably related, these animals are not quite as tasty as deer or antelope. Deer and antelope are also exceedingly tender if properly aged and trimmed of all connective tissue.)

Gaminess enters the meat when, during field dressing, the hunter allows hair, especially urine-soaked hair to get on and stay on the meat, or cuts the urethra so that urine sprays directly onto cut surfaces of the meat. The bucks, especially, have musk glands in the vicinity of their hind knees that soak the hair in the region with musk, and this can also contribute to gamy meat.

What to do? First, field dress and transport the animal with care, to avoid the above problems. Skin the animal as soon as possible, to get rid of the hair and allow for quick cooling. Antelope, especially, should be skinned in the field and wrapped in clean cloth (like an old cotton sheet) for transport. The hunter should also cut off the musk glands from both bucks and does when the animal is dressed. It is sufficient to remove the skin from the vicinity -- the glands will come off with the skin. Avoid slicing through the tendon on the rear of the knee; otherwise it will be difficult to hang. Then clean the blade before you cut anywhere near any meat. Try to keep it clean. People do things to game they would recoil in horror from if they thought their beef had been handled that way!

If at all possible, hang the animal, skinned and covered with cheesecloth, in a cool, dry garage or shed secure from animals -- or better yet in a meat locker -- for at least seven to 10 days, up to three weeks. Hanging meat tenderizes it, as autolytic enzymes begin to break down the muscle fibers. If it gets a little moldy, generally this doesn’t hurt anything. You just trim it off along with the outer filament. (I did encounter a mold once which was bad news. It grew on antelope hanging in a musty old basement, and proved to be highly invasive, penetrating deeply into the muscle, and really tasted terrible.)

Secondly, when the animal is butchered, if you take the short and easy route, you will end up with inferior, gamy meat. Many people bone and cut the meat into random chunks with steaks cut right through muscle masses, and including chunks or sheets of fat, tendons, and filaments (gristle). Or they take it to a commercial butcher, where the quarters are cut with a bandsaw into steaks and roasts familiar to consumers, including all the fat and gristle, and frequently bone. Bone and fat are repositories for the gamy flavor, and you must cut them away from the meat. This is a tedious and time-consuming process, but crucial if you want gourmet-quality meat. Venison fat also gets rancid quickly in the freezer. And gristle, of course, makes the meat tough!

To butcher venison properly, take a sharp flexible knife and strip off the outer layer of dried sheath and fat, then separate the individual muscle masses and remove them one at a time. To do this, tease an opening with your knife and fingers and follow the muscle mass around, separating it from the adjoining muscle. Each muscle will have an outer layer of filament. Strip off this filament and cut off any tendons, wasting as little meat as possible. Remove any small clumps of fat. Look carefully to find any filamentous sheaths that dive into the interior of the muscle. Carefully cut these out. Practice will make this easier. This process results in smaller steaks than you would get otherwise, but they are prime, prime, prime! Be sure to wrap well with freezer paper to avoid freezer burn, and label the packages (i.e., whitetail buck, loin, 2003).

So for steaks (and salami, for that matter), you have removed all the gristle material, and all the fat, and you end up with beautiful lean red meat. I leave gristle in stew meat, because it is necessary to ensure a moist and succulent end result.

Traditional European venison cookery usually employed elaborate marinades to cover up the gaminess and to tenderize the meat. With this method of preparation, this is generally not necessary. However, it can happen, particularly if you shoot a big old buck in the rut, that your best efforts will still get you gamy meat. Their bodies are pumped full of hormones and adrenalin, their hair is soaked with musky urine, and they can be gamy despite your best efforts. On the theory that antlers are not edible, you might consider not shooting these bucks during the rut. Also, what the animals have been feeding on does have some effect on the quality of the taste. If there is a problem of this sort in your area, hunt elsewhere. It is more of a problem with mule deer than white tail, but I love a good mule deer.

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