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Cook smart to keep venison moist and tasty

Try these recipes to ensure your venison dishes are delights, not disappointments.

JEFFERSON CITY--Ask someone who doesn't like venison why, and they are almost certain to say it is tough or that it has a "gamey" taste. It doesn't have to be that way.

Firearms deer hunters checked a record 273,905 deer this year. By the time Missouri's archery season closes Jan. 15, the total harvest will exceed 300,000, setting the table for millions of venison meals in the coming months.

Much of that meat will end up as sausage, jerky or ground venison for chili, spaghetti and stroganoff. The remainder will turn up on tables as steaks, roasts, loins and cutlets. With the right preparation, these cuts can be as mild as veal and as tender as a beef pot roast.

Know Your Venison

The first key to venison cookery is understanding that deer meat has no internal fat. Deer deposit fat under their skin and inside their abdomens. Their muscle tissue is free of the fat "marbling" that sets prime beef apart from lower grades.

This is good, since deer fat has a strong flavor and an unpleasant, waxy consistency. It also is good for people who have to limit their fat consumption.

However this also means that venison doesn't benefit from internal basting while cooking. To keep venison juicy, you have to preserve its natural moisture or supply extra water and fat. When someone tells you that the venison they have eaten was tough, it usually means it was fried or roasted too long without added moisture.

The other thing you need to know about venison before you begin cooking is the age and sex of the deer it came from. The older the deer, the tougher the meat. Venison from yearling deer (about 18 months old) is tender and has a mild flavor. Venison from fawns (about six months old) is similar to veal.

The sex of deer is important to cooks because mature bucks undergo a remarkable transformation each autumn in preparation for mating. Steroid-like male hormones cause bucks' neck muscles to swell, making them look a little like defensive linemen. They develop a musky smell, too, and their meat takes on a stronger flavor.

The older and bigger the buck and the more active it is in mating, the more pronounced the "gamey" flavor. However, such meat can still produce excellent meals in the right recipes.

The quality of venison also varies widely depending on the care it receives. A deer that is field dressed carefully and promptly after being shot and then kept clean and cool until it goes in the freezer will yield good meat. Shoddy care can compromise the quality of even the best deer carcass.

Handle with Care

One way to ensure against toughness is to cook tender cuts fast and serve them rare. An example is cooking tenderloins--the best of all cuts--in an oven preheated to 450 degrees. The intense heat sears the outside of the meat, locking in juices and flavor. Cooking time depends on the thickness of the loin. For best results it should be pink in the middle. Loins from young deer cooked this way are five-star fare.

You can get similar results by sautéing half-inch slices of loin in a little butter or olive oil. Cook them just until they are lightly browned on each side. The key is not cooking them any longer than absolutely necessary.

The other way to prevent tough, dry venison is to cook with moist heat. In the case of old deer, pressure cooking or canning may be the best option. For average cuts, nothing beats slow cooking in a cast-iron Dutch oven.

These throwbacks to pioneer times have tight-fitting lids that seal in moisture. Put a layer of vegetables, such as carrots, in the bottom with your choice of seasoning and a little water and arrange 3/4-inch thick venison steaks on top. Cooking at low heat for several hours produces fork-tender meat with pan drippings for gravy.

Dutch oven cooking can be done in a kitchen stove or over coals in the fireplace. If you don't have a Dutch oven, a crock pot will serve the same purpose.

Venison from gamey bucks is best used in highly seasoned recipes. A classic is Swiss steak. Tomato sauce and cooking sherry tenderize the meat, and these and other robust aromas blend to make the flavor of the meat less noticeable.

Smoking or barbecuing also can enhance the flavor of venison from older bucks. Bass Pro Shops--a Missouri Company--sells a sausage seasoning mix that turns ground venison from older bucks into a savory treat.

When working with tougher, stronger-tasting venison, consider using one of several commercial rubs and seasoned salts made in Missouri. These include Andy's Seasoned Salt (Andy's Seasoning, Inc. St. Louis, (, My House Salt (My House Seasonings, and Old World Steak Dry Rub and Marinade (Old World Seasonings, Kansas City, (

You can reduce gamey flavor by soaking cuts from big, old bucks overnight in salt water to draw out as much blood as possible. This works best when the meat is in thin cuts, such as steaks. To reduce gaminess even more, soak venison in white vinegar for an hour before cooking.

Here are some recipes to get you started. You can find more in the classic "Cy Littlebee's Guide to Cooking Fish and Game," available at Conservation Nature Centers statewide or from The Nature Shop online,

Dutch Oven Doe

2 pounds venison steaks
8 oz beef stock
1 pound peeled carrots
4 tsp. Andy's Seasoned Salt
6 celery stalks
2 cups bread crumbs
2 medium onions, chopped
4 oz bacon
4 oz. can mushrooms
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
3 Tbsp. olive oil or butter

Combine bread crumbs and seasoned salt. Dredge steaks in salt/crumb mixture and set aside. Fry bacon in a 12-inch Dutch oven. Add onion and sauté until soft. Remove onions and set aside. Add olive oil to pot and fry steaks until brown on both sides. Remove meat and set aside. Put celery and carrots in bottom of oven. Add beef stock and liquid from mushrooms. Arrange steaks on top of vegetables, top with mushrooms and sprinkle with cheese. Bake at 300 degrees until tender, 2-4 hours.

Hat-rack Buck Swiss Steak

4 pounds venison round steak cut into serving-sized pieces
4 Tbsp shortening
1 tsp. MSG
salt & pepper
1 cup flour
4 Tsp catsup
2 tsp. paprika
2 cans tomato soup
2 cloves chopped garlic
16 oz. canned mushrooms with liquid
2 oz. cooking sherry

Combine flour, salt, pepper, MSG and paprika. Press steaks into flour, then put on a cutting board and work flour mixture into meat with a tenderizing mallet or the edge of a heavy plate. Melt shortening in a skillet and brown steaks. Put meat in a shallow, covered casserole pan. Combine remaining ingredients and pour over meat. Cover and cook 1 hour at 325 degrees.

Button Buck Scallopini

2 pounds young venison loin
4 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
4 chopped green onions
1 tsp. dry rosemary
8 ounces canned mushrooms
1/2 tsp. dry thyme
8 oz. tomato sauce
1/2 tsp. fennel seed
4 oz. dry white wine
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
2 tsp. red pepper flakes (optional)
1 cup flour
salt & pepper
2 Tbsp. butter

Saute onions and parsley in olive oil until tender. Add tomato sauce, mushrooms (with liquid), rosemary, thyme, fennel seed, garlic powder and (if desired) pepper flakes. Simmer for 20 minutes. Slice loin into 1/2-inch cutlets. Mix flour, salt and pepper. Roll loin in flour and brown slices in a skillet with butter. Add sauce and simmer for 10 minutes. Add wine and simmer another 10 minutes. Serve with warm garlic bread or focaccia bread.

- Jim Low -


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