Venison is not beef, so please don’t treat it like beef. The main difference between the two meats is that venison is much leaner. Although deer often carry a fair amount of subcutaneous and intermuscular fat, it’s usually trimmed away and discarded during the butchering process. What’s more, venison contains almost zero intramuscular fat that’s marbled right into the meat itself. This is the fat that makes other meats “juicy.” True, some meats from the grocery store contain injected water or marinades. So read the fine print. But when you’re cooking most meats, especially on the grill, juiciness is all about fattiness.
This doesn’t mean venison has to be drier or tougher just because it’s leaner. It only means you’ll want to take these differences into account and adapt your cooking techniques accordingly. Most important of all? Don’t overcook your venison.
It’s especially easy to overcook venison on the grill. Give that precious steak or backstrap your full attention. This will only take a moment. You can visit more with your guests later. Remove venison from the grill when it’s rare or medium-rare, then serve it immediately. Although beef steaks can withstand being cooked all the way through, venison steaks can’t. It doesn’t take venison long to make the transition from moist and tender to dry and chewy. The difference can literally be measured in seconds.
When in doubt, get your venison off the grill or out of the pan at least thirty seconds before you think it’s ready. That one simple step will do more than anything else to ensure moist, tender venison. Yes, an old buck might be tougher than a yearling doe, and we could sit around the campfire or the internet forum all night long debating whether venison needs to be aged—and if so, for how long and at what temperatures. But all those other variables together don’t add up to the damage you can do with twelve seconds of overcooking.
So if you remember just one thing about cooking venison, remember this: Don’t overcook it.
Al Cambronne is the author of Gut It. Cut It. Cook It.: The Deer Hunter’s Guide to Processing and Preparing Venison. His most recent book is DEERLAND: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness. On Twitter: @AlCambronne.