How do I prepare and process Venison?
Why Eat Game?
"Euwwww," cry the husband/wife/children of the mighty
hunter who has just dragged home the antlered kill. "This
stuff is gamy and yucky. Do we hafta eat it?"
Disappointed, and maybe secretly agreeing with the spouse and
kids, the mighty hunter chokes down his or her portion of venison
and declaims in a hearty voice that it's perfectly good and really
just like beef if you grind it into burgers and mix it with salt
pork so you can't taste the deer.
This is a rather sad scenario that has undoubtedly been played
out more times than most hunters (and cooks) care to think about.
Why? It isn't because venison is a poor quality meat; far from it.
The finest chefs serve medallions of venison braised with sauce
Perigourdine and Merlot in their fancy restaurants, and they get a
hefty price for it because they know how to cook it properly to
maximize the enjoyable flavor. More importantly, they know how to
obtain it from the right source, which is a young and healthy
animal in prime eating condition.
The majority of game that tastes gamy, nasty, raunchy, sour or
just plain awful does so for one of two reasons: either you messed
up in the process of picking a target or you didn't treat the meat
properly after you killed it - sadly common outcomes among today's
generation of sport hunters who kill for antlers and not for meat.
Pick and treat your meat properly in the first place, and you
will not have any gaminess to worry about, nor will you need to
disguise the fine taste of properly prepared venison with strong
flavored marinades. Venison which is butchered quickly and
professionally with a high standard of hygiene and care is
comparable to the finest cuts of lean beef - only better and more
flavorful - and it has absolutely no gamy or unpleasant taste.
However, if you pick an animal to shoot that is not a good meat
animal, for reasons of age, sex or rutting condition, you don't
have anybody to blame save yourself if the results are not
pleasant. If you shoot an old, tough, nasty buck in rutting
condition because you want trophies, your dinner will taste crappy
and you will have silly pointy things to hang on your wall and
brag about. Enjoy your bragging rights and choke on your tough,
testosterone-laden dinner, and don't say you weren't warned.
Choosing Your Target
If you want to eat as opposed to rustically decorate your
fireplace, eyeball out a young doe with a nice chunky
brisket-shaped chest bespeaking plenty of fat. Look for graceful
rounding in the hindquarters as well; you want fat hams, and the
rump is where well-fed deer tend to put on padding.
Choose your target not for massive size or horned
protruberances, but for a body conformation that indicates a
plump, young, tasty meat animal. Read agricultural texts or
butchering handbooks for better information on how to judge this,
and study the pictures of cows, pigs and sheep carefully until you
are confident that you know by the eye at least some of the
characteristics that distinguish a fine meat animal from a poor
one. Then go out hunting; your taste buds will be better pleased
with the results.
Some folks say that wild game fat is rancid; I suspect that
these are the trophy-hunting folks who want to go shooting aged,
tough males for the dinner table. Silly people. If you must take
bucks, take the spikes; an old animal is a tough animal. You
wouldn't eat a cow that old, would you? Well, maybe you would, but
my palate will take a pass, thanks. I'll take the plump young meat
animals every time, preferably 18 months to 2 years old.
Fresh yellow-white fat from a well-marbled deer which has been
grazing in somebody's cornfield is perfectly good food; the main
danger here is eating too much of it and getting fatty deposits on
your hindquarters your own self. ;P Check each carcass as you
process it by frying a small portion of the fat and tasting it;
individuals can vary. But don't chuck this lovely stuff until you
have at least tried it. Venison confit crocked in its own fat and
drained is stunningly spectacular with garlic mashed potatoes and
sun-dried cranberry sauce, among other things, and the sizzling
fat from a side of deer ribs popping and browning over the fire is
an almost primal trigger to the hunter's appetite.
If you want this clean-tasting fat, don't hunt in areas where
the deer are known for desperate grazing habits; strong tasting
fodder can and does affect the taste of both fat and muscle meat.
You'll figure it out if you shoot an otherwise good meat animal
and it tastes like a pine pitch and mud marinade. Grouse is game
that is famous for this problem in particular, but deer suffer
from it too if they're browsing too much on scrub or tree bark.
Get as quick a kill as you can, for mercy's sake and also for the
meat's sake; an animal that dies in pain and fear is not as good
eating as an animal that dies quick and clean.
So much for the hunting precautions. On to the butchering. Once
you kill the animal, draw it as quickly as possible. Forget any
silliness about cutting its throat; if you must finish it with a
mercy stroke, use a brisket stick, thrusting your knife into the
brisket at first a straight then an upward angle to sever the
arteries around the heart. See a good butcher's handbook for
pictures and information on the correct method of brisket
If you are not confident you can do an accurate brisket stick
and the animal must be put down quickly, use a throat stab, not a
throat slice. Insert (stab) the knife blade side facing outward as
close to the animal's spine on the throat side as possible. Pull
straight forward with a single swift move until everything from
the front of the spine out to the throat is severed. This
technique reliably severs a throat; slicing tends to be useless
and unecessarily cruel if you do not have the strength or the
expertise to do it properly. Often, an inexperienced hunter will
miss one or both jugulars or cut insufficiently deep to bleed the
animal out quickly using the slice technique. The stabbing
technique essentially can't miss and it literally removes the
throat from the spine out, also severing the windpipe.
If you are approaching a downed deer that is still alive,
approach from the back if possible. Those hooves are razor sharp
and horns are no joke either. If you can get on its back and an
arm around a doe's neck forcing the chin up, the throat
stab-and-pull maneuver is easy and finishes the deer rapidly. If
your downed quarry has antlers, use them as handles and pull the
head up this way instead. Speed is of the essence; every second
your downed quarry remains alive, terrified and struggling
increases its suffering and decreases the quality of your fine
steaks and chops.
Expect there to be some struggling and continued attempts to
breathe even after the throat is severed. If this bothers you,
sever the spine just between the skull and the first vertebrae
with the deft insertion of a knife. WARNING - Don't attempt this
technique on a live deer until you have practiced it and can do it
reliably and quickly, one-handed, on a dead deer.
There is a reason I don't advocate spine severing, eye stabs or
braincase stabs as the first method of dispatch - it's dangerous,
as the knife can slip on a struggling animal and hurt you badly.
It's better to wait for a clean shot in the beginning, but
should you miss and cripple, it is your responsibility to finish
the animal as quickly as possible. Some hunters use a second
bullet or arrow at this stage, but there are certainly reasons to
prefer finishing with a knife. Should you wish to save the blood,
mix it immediately with vinegar in roughly 10-1 blood to vinegar
proportions to use in a civet or sauce. You have about one to two
minutes before it clots completely and is unusable for most
Get those innards outwards as quickly as possible and wash
and/or wipe the carcass down with a towel. If you have to field
transport, leave the skin on, but get the skin off as soon as you
make it to camp and get the temperature of that carcass down by
any means you can, as fast as you can. A carcass left at blood
temperature will quickly sour and ruin good meat, and getting the
skin off helps heat to dissipate. Ice can be helpful, but be aware
that moisture is not a good thing in general for meat, so you want
to keep it dry if possible as well as cold.
To start processing Bambi, fist the hide off the deer while it
is still warm from the kill, and mind those thin stringy flat
pieces of muscle under the forelegs that will stick to the hide
and make your job a pain if you don't catch them early on and
seperate them by slashing lightly ahead of the muscle and into the
silvery-white, slimy translucent membrane that seperates muscle
and hide. Pliers may help in getting the "slippers" off
from the lower legs. Watch out for those nasty hairs that get
stuck in the membrane and take forever to wash out. Pull that hide
and get it off your butchering floor. Plastic tarps are your
Don't pull the membrane from the muscle (the silverskin) if you
plan to hang the meat. Personally, I don't age venison if it's a
fat young doe, but that's a matter of taste. Once you've hung the
meat, you can trim the silverskin, which should be a bit dry and
hard in texture if you've hung it right (and it might even be
blackened; this is common enough for an extended aging process).
Some meat will go with it, but this is the price of aging.
I have two favorite ways to process a carcass. One of them is
the traditional gambrel hang, with a cross-hatched stick splitting
the legs and the deer hung from a tree. T'other, the one I pick
when in my home facilities under ideal conditions, is a
waist-height table with a raised metal surface which is holed to
allow blood drainage.
Removing Internal Organs
Hang the deer up by its forelegs to let gravity do your work for
you in removing those unpleasant bits. Unzip the front end of the
deer carefully as you do not want the guts on your shoes in a
hurry and by surprise, and have a barrel lined with a big Hefty
garbage sack between the deer's legs. I make a tiny cut
first, then slip my hand inside the carcass and keep two cupped
fingers on the back of the knife as I cut. This keeps the guts
from accidentally being slashed, which is as you probably can
figure a really disgusting mess. Unzip slowly and let the guts
fall down unbroken out of the slit you are making.
If you've done this technique right, you will have a mess of
guts neatly in the barrel. Urge them into the right place with
your hands. Wear latex gloves if you're fussy. Don't forget to get
the stomach out too, and carefully sever any connections between
the stomach and other organs. Let the stomach fall into the
barrel; it's tough and won't burst unless you were clumsy with the
knife earlier. The rest of the mass will likely remain attached;
fish around the diaphragm (just under the heart and lungs) with a
short bladed knife that is not too sharp and find the connections
to cut when you're ready to dump the stomach and guts. You may
find it helpful to haul out the guts in your fists and try to have
the connective tissue visible before you cut into it. Small
scissors can also be invaluable at this stage.
Don't forget to tie off the bung and find and carefully
find and remove the bladder, or your meat will be unsanitary and
smell funny. I once clumsily dropped a deer bladder I had just
carefully removed, and it burst on my tennis shoes. The results
were really unpleasant. Dispose of the bladder carefully and don't
let go of the tube on the other end until you have a wastes bucket
to dump it it.
Likewise, cut off the bung (the intestine leading up from the
rectum) about eight inches from the bottom and tie it off
carefully, after squeezing its contents to clear the area of your
cut. Tie off both ends with a standard square knot. Without
letting the cut ends touch flesh, dump the stomach and attached
guts into the waste bucket and push the tied-off bung end through
the rectum. Yes, I know this is gross. Do it anyways. Wear latex
gloves and discard them when you are done touching these less than
sanitary parts of the carcass. Take your knife and cut out the
deer's entire rectum, with some flesh around it, including the
tied-off bung. Carefully discard this unclean bit, without letting
it touch the meat. Wash your hands. Wash any meat which has come
in contact with this yuckiness very thoroughly, and cut out any
discolored or suspect pieces. Discard the guts and waste away from
your butchering area.
You can then fish around and grab a tough bundle of flesh up
past the heart that is attaching the rest of the more solid
innards to the carcass. Cut it as high up inside as you can reach,
and pull. The whole mess will come down, so have another clean
sack ready. This mess, except the green bubble attached to the
liver, is good eating - don't waste it. Wash it well and save it
on ice. You can eat the heart, the liver, the lungs, the spleen
and the diaphragm, though I recommend throwing the latter scrap of
tough flesh into the stock pot with the bones. Remove the nasty
green gallbladder from the liver carefully and pitch it along with
stomach and intestines.
You may wish to be extremely anal retentive about using all of
your kill, and try to get something out of the deer's less
pleasant parts. I used to be. Two experiences washing out deer
stomach and intestines and using them in haggis and sausage was
enough to convince me to never mind. They take hours to wash free
of ick and they don't taste all that wonderful anyhow. The only
use for deer gall that I know of is authentically medieval ink,
which you make by mixing in pounded oak ashes. Not in my food
One small warning: the kidneys of a deer can range from
flavorful to pungent and disagreeable; you can either discard or
soak in milk overnight to reduce ammoniacal odor and taste. The
kidneys of a rutting buck aren't even worth discussing; no
marinade can save them, except possibly turpentine. There is only
one recipe worth thinking about for buck kidneys in my opinion,
and it is this: bake the kidneys underneath a hot brick in the
oven for 8 hours. When finished, discard the kidneys and eat the
brick, which will probably taste better.
Take a hose to the inside of the carcass once it is gutted out,
or if you are field butchering away from a water source, wipe down
with a damp cloth thoroughly. Dry the meat with a clean towel
before proceeding. If the day is hot, throw some ice in the
carcass instead and skip the dry towel - the moisture content of
the meat might suffer, but the temperature is more important.
Processing The Meat
At this point, you have a whole mess of tasty and hopefully
clean-smelling meat ready for your processing. You can hang at
this stage if you like (I don't, especially with a doe whose
hindquarters are covered in nice yellow fat - mmmm!), but you can
also proceed to dismember into neat freezer and fridge packages. A
fresh-killed deer keeps a surprisingly long time in the
refrigerator, but your results may vary depending on the condition
and holding temperature of your refrigerator.
I seperate the meat into: shanks for long braising (venison
osso bucco is delish!), two shoulders, two hams which I usually
bone out, a whole saddle roast (that's the butt end minus the bare
bone you have left after the legs are gone), a crown tenderloin
roast with the backbone split in half and about 6" of the
ribs still on, two slabs of ribs for immediate BBQ slathered in
homemade sauce, the neck for stewing and the flank for scrap. You
can further reduce the saddle or the crown tenderloin roast into
chops; it depends on how many folks you want to invite over to
The Left-Overs: Burger, Sausage and Edible Organs
Now, all of this is damn fine eating and the only parts I would
turn into burger or sausage would be the flank, the neck and the
shoulders of a lean deer. (A fat deer makes a nice shoulder
roast!). The innards are nothing to waste, either. Stuffed deer
heart with breadcrumbs and onions and bacon is marvellous, and if
you're a medieval cook like I am, haggis is always in the works
when I get hold of a nice chunk of internals that includes spleen
and liver and lungs. Boiled deer tongue is not unlike beef tongue
if you are fond of such things, and you can also use the jowl and
palate meat in slivers in any French recipes calling for ox
Warning: skinning a deer head really and truly sucks, so less
than die-hard medieval recreation enthusiasts may choose to skip
this step. I've done it a number of times, but since I managed to
get carpal tunnel syndrome, I'm not sure I'll ever do it again. It
is some tedious and painful work, though you do get a nice
"deer face" that you can flesh out and tan to make an
interesting hat or shaman's pouch. Deer brains are good poached,
but make sure you cook them well and don't mind the bottfly larvae
that you will occasionally find in the nasal cavities of the skull
as they're not uncommon to find. If you're squeamish, don't delve
in there at all.
Even the bones of a deer can provide some amazingly good
eating. Cut the bones into fairly small chunks (1-2") or have
the butcher do it for you, roast them until lightly browned and
boil down with the scrap meat for 4-6 hours for venison demiglace,
which stores for months in the freezer and adds amazing flavor to
all kinds of dishes.
If you must make sausage, make it well. Venison can actually
make a very good sausage product that showcases rather than
disguises its unique flavor. Much depends on whether you do the
sausage "black" or "white" style, ie, do you
bleed and rinse the meat thoroughly first for a more delicate
product, or do you make a civet with the reserved blood mixed with
vinegar? The former will produce a mild, delicate product which
takes well to a bit of sage, basil and shallot in the mix. The
latter takes to onions and garlic or perhaps fennel or caraway.
The middle ground is to use fresh venison that is neither washed
and beaten free of blood or civetted, and much depends on the
individual carcass - age, sex, diet, condition, etc.
A lot of hunters ignorant of fine venison cuisine turn the
works into deerburgers or hash or sausage, trying to disguise its
taste rather than showcase it with fine cooking. I suppose if you
shoot a rutting buck deer and then don't gut it out before it
sours, burgers or sausage or dogfood is a reasonable destination
for such a wasted kill. But geez Louise, if you have a mountain of
fine gourmet steaks and roasts and chops in front of you and you
make mush out of them or allow them to spoil, you have just
effectively pissed money away into the snow. Also it's bad karmic
brownie points, y'know? Eat what you kill. Don't waste good food,
or the life of an animal, senselessly. The Goddess is watching
It is all very well I suppose to want to kill the biggest boy
deer with the biggest antlers if you wish to prove your fitness to
rule the herd and to mate with the does. I guess it's a phallic
kind of guy thing. ;P Since I'm not a guy, I'll just take good
venison where I can get it and never mind the big rack of antlers,
a sure indication to me of a less than prime meat animal.
Prime Meat: Enjoy It!
Rare roasted venison, fragrant with bay leaves and garlic on a bed
of wild rice with pecans, is serious cuisine. Deer neck braised
Moroccan style with lemons and honey and olives is delicious over
cumin-scented couscous. Venison shanks osso bucco, steam-braised
for hours in your oven, will fill the house with its tantalizing
perfume until the neighbors sniff their noses into your yard and
cry, "What's for dinner?"
In a rougher setting, wrap chunks of lean hind leg or whole
tenderloins in bacon and shishkebab them over the fire with a
little cracked black pepper, or throw a slab of deer ribs on the
fire and baste at the last minute with the best sauce your granny
ever gave you a recipe for.
If you must make sausage, make it well. Don't disguise the
taste of the meat; enhance it with the freshest herbs and the
finest ingredients. The conventional wisdom is that deer fat is
rancid; sometimes this is so and more often in my experience it
isn't. Fry a small piece and judge for yourself for each carcass.
If there isn't enough of it, add some fresh pork fat of the best
quality, and possibly some veal meat, which does not overpower the
venison as pork can do.
Venison should be done either rare or falling-off-the-bone well
stewed for the tougher cuts such as neck or shank. To enhance the
meat, marinades are permitted, but remember that if you've done
your job well in selecting a good animal and butchering it
cleanly, you don't need to overpower any gaminess with the
marinade. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlots are traditional
companions of venison, and should you have some money to splurge,
a fine red Bordeaux from one of the great vinyards would also not
be amiss. These can be sipped along with the venison as well as
making a fine marinade with the addition of some fresh herbs,
garlic and best quality olive oil.
Dry coatings for a venison roast are as good as marinade and in
many cases better; try powdered porcini mushrooms and pink
peppercorns in seasoned flour, or crushed dried chanterelles and
hazelnuts as a crust before roasting. Drizzle on some extra virgin
olive oil for additional basting on your lean meat. Herbs du
Provence, with lavender and rosemary, can add a note of delicate
sweetness when balanced by the mellow sweet tang of balsamic
vinegar. Keep your aceto balsamico in a small spray bottle; you
will find it amazingly easy to do a thirty second spray-on
"marinade" to all sorts of meats and vegetables that
way, and it can give a lovely caramelized look and taste to dishes
like mashed potatoes or baked savory pies if you spray it on at
the last minute.
To accompany venison, I recommend simple dishes with hearty,
earthy flavors - a duxelle of dark wild mushrooms perhaps, or wild
rice with roasted chestnuts and brandied dried cherries. The
simplicity of fluffy mashed potatoes drizzled with a bit of olive
oil and served with a head of softly sweet, caramelized roasted
garlic always complements a good piece of venison. Vegetables on
the grill can be sprayed briefly with balsamic vinegar and dipped
in fine olive oil and herbs, and then seared briefly before
joining the tender pieces of meat and the creamy pillows of mashed
potatoes on your plate.
Any sauce you want to use on your high quality meat can of
course be enhanced with truffles, and if you find yourself the
fortunate possessor of some of this Perigourdine black gold, chop
it very fine and simmer gently in a simple sauce made from the
roasting venison juices thickened with a little cream and flour.
Simmer (but do not boil) until your whole kitchen is perfumed with
the indescribably savory aroma of venison and truffles. Then eat
like the kings and queens of old, feasting on the finest viands in
your kingdom. Your deer deserves it, don't you think? Not to
mention the hunter.
Larousse Gastronomique gives recipes in plenty for venison done
in this royal style, often enhanced with foie gras or other
delicacies or enclosed in fine pastries. They knew how to properly
treat a deer in that culinary era, to be sure; and none went
wasted or unappreciated by the serious gourmet. The phenomemon of
"deerburgers" is a modern abomination of antler-mad
sport hunters who care nothing for cuisine and consider venison a
mere by-product of the hunt instead of its object.
I have no moral qualms with hunting, but when it comes to
wasting and mistreating fine meat, I will certainly have some
words to say to the ignorant boor who does not respect his kill
enough to use it properly. (The mildest are: Give it to me, you
bozo, and I'll enjoy it properly if you're not going to!)
However you cook your deer, you should certainly enjoy the
rightful reward of the hunt - the taste of venison in all its
glory, not disguised but showcased and enhanced by careful
handling of the meat and respectful cooking.