Recipes and cooking methods for every bit of meat from a deer’s nose to toes.
Recipes and cooking methods for every bit of meat from a deer’s nose to toes.
One of the most frequent questions hunters ask me is how to cook a certain cut of meat. The answer to that question depends not only on the cut, but also your cooking abilities and dish preferences. Which means this cut-by-cut guides is going to be tailored to my culinary tastes, and how I break down my animals. This is by no means the only way to butcher and cook your cuts, but this is how I get the best results when using the whole deer. There are also some useful guidelines below—regardless of individual preferences—that will hopefully keep folks from attempting to grill shanks or stew backstrap.
The neck is a giant pain in the ass. It is possible, with a lot of practice to de-bone the neck and make a beautiful neck roast. You could also make a bone-in neck roast. Or you could do what most people do, and cut as much away from the bone as possible and grind it all up. Deboning a neck takes skill and time. Ideally, everyone should give it a try on each deer they shoot, if only to practice and hone their knife skills. Even if you mess it up the first few times, you can still grind all the meat so none of it goes to waste. If and when you do master the art of de-boning a neck roast, you’re in for a treat. There’s good amount of connective tissue in the neck, and slowly cooking it for several hours will result in one of the best pot-roast-style cuts on the animal.
2. Front Shoulders
Freshly-stuffed venison, maple, and cranberry sausage. Natalie Krebs
The front shoulders are the source for most of my ground venison. On really big deer you can get some nice blade steaks off the front shoulders, but I usually just grind everything on the front legs. I like to make all my own sausages, and my wife really likes plenty of ground venison to cook with instead of ground beef. Although I think a lot of people get stuck in a culinary box when it comes to ground venison, it’s actually one of the most versatile things to have in your freezer. Pretty much anything you could cook with ground beef, pork, or lamb will accommodate a venison substitute, including an endless amount of fresh and smoked sausages. I’ve used it in all varieties of dishes, from lasagna to pot stickers. Just remember that venison doesn’t have the fat content that domestic animals have. If you are going to make burgers, you need to add fat to the meat you grind, mix in some ground beef to the venison patties, or cook your burger medium-rare. If you overcook ground venison in a burger or meatballs, it dries out terribly and produces an off-putting grainy texture.
Venison shanks are tastier than you think. Jamie Carlson
Deer shanks have become my favorite part of the animal. Unfortunately, many people grind the shanks or—even worse—throw them out because they don’t know how to cook them. The shanks are full of connective tissue and sinew, and if you don’t know how to cook them, they end up tougher than shoe leather. But if you treat them to liquid and low heat for long periods of time, you’ll be rewarded with incredibly tender and succulent meat. Osso Bucco is one dish that highlights this. Cutting the shanks into 3-inch sections and leaving the bone-in is one way to cut the shank. My favorite way to prepare them is to cut all the meat off the bone and into 1-inch cubes. I use this meat in all my stews. That sinew and connective tissue melts out of the meat, adding richness to your stew and helping thicken the liquid you are cooking.
Pan-seared backstrap with a bourbon cream sauce. Jamie Carlson
I think it is safe to say this is most people’s favorite part of the deer. Easily grilled or fried in a pan, backstrap lends itself to quick and simple preparations. A lot of folks I know like to cut the straps into chops and grill them, but this often doesn’t work for me. Those little chops cook so fast they often end up overcooked. To control that a little better, I leave my backstraps in large chunks. I usually cut each whole strap into three pieces, which leaves me six pieces. Then I package them into two chunks per package for family grilling.
There are several methods for cooking a good backstrap and—at the risk of offending folks—none of them involve wrapping it in bacon. One of my favorite ways to cook them is seared in a pan with a bourbon cream sauce. There are several other methods out there for getting perfectly cooked meat. Perhaps nothing is more precise than the sous vide method, but that requires special equipment and can be time consuming, easy though it is. If you have a smoker or an oven, the reverse sear is another method that will give you wonderful results.
One of my favorite ways to cook them is seared in a pan with a bourbon cream sauce. There are several other methods out there for getting perfectly cooked meat.
I won’t spend a lot of time on the tenderloins: they are the smallest portion of the deer and, in my opinion, highly overrated. They are typically too small to feed the family and are, at best, one meal for myself. They’re tender, yes, but no more flavorful than any other part of the deer. I will usually eat them while I’m butchering the deer. I cook them simply, just seared in butter with a little garlic, salt, and pepper. Because they are small and very tender, they do lend themselves to wok-style cooking: high heat and cooked very fast.
Smoky deer ribs with drunken deckhand’s glaze. Krissie Mason
The ribs are an interesting part of the animal. I don’t do anything special with them, though—I always cut as much meat off the ribs as possible and through it in my grind pile. But that doesn’t mean you can’t cook them and have great results with them. Case in point: Josh Dahlke’s venison rib recipe was one of the best things I have ever eaten.
7. Odd Cuts and Organs
A jar of pickled venison heart. Jamie Carlson I know it may seem weird, but this is actually my comfort zone. I love the odd cuts from the deer, and I have tried almost everything that can be tried: the heart, liver, tongue, kidneys, and testicles (a.k.a Rocky Mountain oysters). It’s all good, with a few exceptions. I have not eaten the brain, lungs, or stomach, and I don’t know that I ever will. Unless, of course, I get the courage to make haggis. I love deer heart—so much so that I have asked all my hunting friends to save them for me. I like heart grilled, fried, pickled, and raw. The deer’s liver is another beautiful thing. It can be a little potent, but fantastic when prepared correctly. One of the best things to do with liver is make a sausage called Mazzafegati. It is a sweet and clean-tasting sausage that will change the mind of even the pickiest palates.
A broken-down hindquarter. The cuts are, from bottom left to right: Bottom round, eye of round, top round, and the sirloin. Top left to right: Shank, femur, and scraps for grinding. Jamie Carlson
Venison hindquarters produce the most meat, which can be broken down into large, usable cuts. I did my best to describe each cut below, although note that the terminology for these cuts is often different based on region. Above you can see the four whole pieces that come from the hindquarter. Also on the hindquarter are the shank and some stew meat that trims off the other cuts. I also left in the femur bone, which you can roast and use to make stock.
Jerky made from a bottom round. Jamie Carlson
The bottom round is a great piece of meat and, once trimmed, it’s very lean. I use it for making corned venison roasts, and for making jerky. It’s also a great piece for the grill, as demonstrated by this awesome recipe for carne asada by my buddy, Jack Hennessey.
Eye of Round
Eye of round appetizers. Jamie Carlson
The eye is situated right in between the top and bottom rounds. It’s like a small, hidden tenderloin. It’s very lean and only big enough for one person, but when paired with its mate from the other hind quarter, it can be made into a beautiful little roast like the one my friend Danielle Pruitt makes. Because it is so lean, it’s a great piece for curing. I’ll make a very nice bresaola every now and then that’s easy to make and packed with flavor. The eye is also a great candidate for nearly-raw tataki, a Japanese preparation.
Korean-marinated top round. Jamie Carlson
The top round is a giant piece of meat and perfect for cutting into steaks. I like to cut mine nice and thick, and then grill very fast on high heat. I like to keep my steaks very close to rare. But if thick steaks aren’t your thing, you could also cut this roast into thin cuts and marinate them (this Korean marinade work perfectly)
The sirloin is the football-shaped roast on the back of the leg. This is a great roast to brine and slowly smoke. I recommend a basic brine of salt, maple sugar, garlic, and bay leaves, then smoke with maple until it hits an internal temp of 150°F. Then, thinly slice it and pile it on a Kaiser roll with horseradish for the best sandwich of your life.