My 16-year old daughter Vanda is the ultimate cuisine critic. She is picky to the extreme, inspecting her food meticulously before and after she dips it on her plate, then smothering it with gobs of ketchup and/or mayonnaise. Among her list of "banned" meat items is fish (because it tastes like fish and she found a bone once), hot dogs (because they got nasty stuff in them), any cased sausages (What’s that case made of?) and the list goes on.
She does, however, approve of and enjoy venison, even though she found a deer hair on a backstrap filet once. Matter of fact her "specialty" is spaghetti sauce made from ground venison. I must say, it’s very good. My family of three easily consumes three deer per year.
Missouri deer biologist Lonnie Hansen says, "Some people turn their noses up at venison, but it is most often because of a bad previous experience in which they were served an awful-tasting piece of ‘gamey’ meat. Usually the bad taste results from improper processing or cooking, but the sequence of events from before the shot to the table determines the palatability of the game."
What can you do to serve the best venison meat? For purposes of this column, I will concentrate on the quality of venison, what to do with it from the freezer to the table and how to maintain the quality of the final product.
Venison is no longer just a meat for hunters. The non-hunting, health-conscious segment of society, especially those with heart health issues, is turning to naturally raised venison as a chemical-free, low-fat source of protein, minerals and vitamins.
Famous outdoor writer Charles Alsheimer says, "The demand for ‘naturally’ grown foods has exploded in recent years, creating a healthy awareness of the benefits of venison as an alternative meat."
Historians suggest that venison has been consumed as a food longer than other meats that are more popular today. While venison and other wild game have roamed the lands for millennia, the practice of domesticating venison for food seems to have begun in ancient times, during the Stone Age. While the ancient Greeks seemed to be the first civilization that printed a guide to hunting, the ancient Romans lauded the pleasures of hunting and consuming wild game. Today, venison is enjoyed by many cultures that still rely upon hunting to gather their food. In addition, for a variety of reasons, farm raised venison is becoming more popular. Today, New Zealand and the United States are the leading countries specializing in the domestication of venison.
Venison should be high on the list for the health-conscious consumer. Venison contains concentrations of nutrients, such as protein, iron and lower amounts of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and calories. Compared to domestic animals, cholesterol tends to be lower in venison than all other meats except turkey and fish. All things considered, venison contains generous quantities of beneficial nutrients, while being low in total fat containing significantly lower amounts of both saturated and total fat.
Although human blood cholesterol level is useful in assessing heart disease risk, it is not the only risk factor. Furthermore, the level of saturated fat in the diet affects blood cholesterol levels to a greater extent than simply the amount of dietary cholesterol consumed.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends choosing a diet low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Three ounces of venison contains only five grams of total fat.
"The way deer and cattle store fat is why venison is healthier than beef" Alsheimer said. "Deer accumulate most of their fat around their organs and in single layers, typically atop muscle and underneath the hide. These fat layers can easily be removed during the butchering process. Whitetails also have less fat in their muscle tissues because they are constantly exercising."
Alsheimer adds that, "farmers typically fatten their cattle for market, which means they feet them more than ninety percent grain to add weight during the ‘finishing’ stage. The weight gain occurs primarily between the muscle tissues. This creates ‘marbling,’ which, while giving beef superb flavor, increases the meat’s fat content."
Deer fat is not marbled or laced through the muscles like that of beef. Consequently, venison is a very good source of protein, while, unlike most meats, it tends to be fairly low in fat, especially saturated fat. Four ounces of venison supplies 68.5 percent of the daily value for protein for only 179 calories and 1.4 grams of saturated fat. Venison is a good source of iron, providing 28.2 percent of the daily value for iron in that same four-ounce serving.
As with other meats, be careful when handling raw venison that it does not come in contact with other foods, especially those that will be served uncooked. Wash the cutting board, utensils and even your hands very well with hot soapy water after handling the meat.
If your recipe requires marinating, you should always do so in the refrigerator as the meat is very sensitive to heat which can increases the chances of spoilage. When defrosting frozen venison, do so in the refrigerator and not at room temperature, placing it on a plate to capture any liquid drippings. Remove all muscle sheath from edges of steaks or roasts.
Cooking may do more to make or break flavor and tenderness of venison than anything else. Lack of fat makes venison susceptible to drying while cooking. Many experienced chefs feel that fully cooked venison is unpalatable because it becomes tough and bland tasting. Intact pieces of venison (filets or steaks versus ground) are less of a problem with pathogens and the best choice for those who like their venison medium or medium rare not well done. Well done venison can be dry and chewy. To be safe, it is recommended that venison be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees.
Marinating or cooking for long periods with moist heat produces the most flavorful product. By undercooking, one risks exposure to pathogens naturally present or introduced while processing. Ground meat especially should always be cooked thoroughly because the process of grinding exposes much surface area to potential pathogens.
Enjoy your venison and share it with family and friends. It’s a big part of the hunting experience. This truly healthy meat is worth bragging about.
Kent Kammermeyer is a certified wildlife biologist. His column appears monthly.