Toward the end of the year, deer and elk seasons open. Avid hunters trek into the wilderness in search of wild game. And if you’re a friend to these hunters, you can receive dark and delicious meat without having to learn how to clean a deer. Learning how to cook venison is the easy part after a hunter’s hard work.
Both elk and venison are two of the healthiest red meats available within the United States. This is because they subsist on a natural diet of grass and edible shrubs, exercising to keep a healthy balance of lean muscle. Venison has 33 calories and one gram of fat per ounce, and a serving provides about 50% of a recommended daily intake of protein. It also provides over 15% of your daily iron needs. A 3.5-ounce serving of elk contains only 146 calories and three grams of fat, compared to 8.2 grams in the same serving size of beef. Elk also offers 100% of your daily recommended dose of vitamin B-12, 15% of iron, 20% of thiamin, phosphorus, zinc, and vitamin B-6, 45% of riboflavin and 30% of niacin.
Both types of meat are stronger in flavor than grass-fed beef but venison is especially gamey. Flavor is affected by the deer’s diet and behavior. For instance, a buck that eats primarily sagebrush and Russian knapweed will be dry and tough, with a bitter flavor from the weeds. A doe which languishes in alfalfa fields will be much more tender and mild. The lightest-flavored venison comes from deer farms where they are regularly fed hay and grain pellets, never needing to run from predators. Mule deer reportedly tastes stronger than red deer. The flavor of elk is midway between venison and grass-fed beef, and taste is determined by living conditions in the same ways.
If you’re wondering exactly how to cook venison, the low-fat content can mean tough, dry meat, so some hunters age the venison or elk, wrapping it in sterile coverings to cure in the cold open air or hanging it in walk-in coolers. This breaks down connective tissues, resulting in more tender meat, and concentrates the flavor. Brining the meat prior to cooking draws in additional moisture. Because of its strong flavor, cooks often soak venison in milk or vinegar to remove blood and calm the gaminess. Others pair the meat with bold seasonings such as soy sauce and garlic. Over-salting or overcooking wild game denatures it to a leathery texture.
Venison fans laud the pure flavor of the meat and will eat a thick steak with little seasoning. But if you aren’t yet converted to the dark gaminess, consider using the meat for lamb recipes. Moroccan tagines, Indian curries, and Greek marinades all pair well with wild game. Mexican dishes which use goat will also taste amazing with venison or elk.
Cutting and cooking wild game follows the same learning curve as raising meat chickens and learning how to cut a whole chicken. The first time can be confusing but afterward, it becomes very rewarding. If you have just received a gift of wild game, consider aging it for three to seven days by placing it in a clean container in your refrigerator. Trim fat before cooking, since this absorbs much of the flavor from the animal’s bitter diet. Brine the meat first if you don’t intend to add it to soups or curries.
Ways to Cook Venison and Elk
Burgers: Chop meat up in a food processor or dedicated meat grinder. Though some people add suet or lard for moisture, doing so will change the flavor and add fat. Instead, use bread crumbs or quick-cooking oats, your favorite spices, and a couple eggs to act as a binding agent. Try to grill only to medium-rare at the most. If someone at your table needs well-done meat, offer a flavorful barbeque or steak sauce as well.
Tacos: Thinly slice meat and marinade overnight in lime juice, cumin, chili powder, fresh pressed garlic, and a teaspoon or two of salt. Lightly rinse the next day to remove excess salt. Sear on a griddle or in a pan for just a few minutes then allow the meat to rest before serving so it can draw in some of the moisture that cooked out. Top with more lime juice, cilantro, chopped fresh onion, hot salsa, and queso seco cheese.
Medallions: Slice meat about 1/8 inch thick and several inches wide. Soak in milk then dredge in flour mixed with seasonings such as garlic powder, sage, and dried parsley. Heat oil in a frying pan. Flash-fry, being careful not to overcook, and let meat rest before serving. Serve with a thick, strong sauce such as teriyaki or barbecue.
Tagines: Mrouzia is a traditional Moroccan stew that uses lamb, raisins, almonds, honey, and a spice blend called Ras El Hanout. Venison compliments the dark, deep, and slightly sweet flavors. If you don’t have a fired clay tagine, cook in a covered skillet or crockpot. Keep the temperature low and simmer for a long time until the meat is very tender.
Chili: Either grind the meat or cut it into small chunks. Brown in a frying pan with a little oil then add to a pot or slow-cooker with your favorite chili spices and ingredients. Cook slowly on low heat. If you’re using canned beans, simmer the chili until the meat is very tender before you add the beans to ensure they don’t disintegrate before your meat is perfect.
Stews: Cut meat into chunks no larger than one inch thick. Browning isn’t necessary but it will enhance the flavor of the finished dish. Simmer meat in a covered pot or slow cooker, ensuring it is almost as tender as you want before you add your potatoes, carrots, and onions. Cook until the vegetables are done, seasoning with ingredients such as garlic, parsley, cumin, or beef stock. For a thick stew, whisk in a few tablespoons of wheat flour within the last fifteen minutes of cooking.
Curries: Rogan Josh is a popular tomato-based curry using lamb. Both venison and elk would complement the clean flavor of the tomatoes and the strong spices. To enhance flavor and tenderness, mix small chunks of meat with salt and lemon juice and let sit for an hour, then mix in the yogurt and let it sit overnight in the refrigerator.
Jerky: Sporting goods stores carry easy jerky kits complete with spices and easy instructions. If you don’t have a sporting goods store near you, search online retailers. Kits make the first jerky experience much more pleasant. Or, if you wish to follow the true Wild West style, research how to make pemmican.
Sausage: Both venison and elk are too dry to make a flavorful sausage, so additional fat must be added. Consider buying leftover pork fat from a butcher or incorporating existing pork sausage into the wild game. If you don’t eat pork, add beef fat or beef sausage such as chorizo. Add more seasonings such as marjoram, sage, and garlic. Or make a sweeter sausage by adding real maple syrup.
Learning how to cook venison and elk meat recipes doesn’t have to be intimidating. By following a few guidelines you can enjoy tender and flavorful wild game as a delicious and healthy indulgence.
What tips would share with some who wants to learn how to cook venison and elk?
Originally published in 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.