At the risk of insulting your favorite recipe, I’m going to go on a limb here and suggest that way too many venison recipes include massive amounts of bacon, barbecue sauce, and the kind of cheap Italian dressing that comes in gigantic plastic jugs. That’s just wrong. As hunters we should be celebrating the tast of venison, not trying to cover it up.
When venison and other game meats have a strong “gamey” flavor, it’s often because of how they’re handled in the field. And when hunters age their venison just a little too long, they may not get exactly the results they expect. But most venison tastes delicious. It doesn’t taste like beef, but it’s not supposed to.
These days even beef doesn’t taste like beef. Most beef cattle in North America are now raised in feedlots. Of the rest, nearly all are fattened on grain during their final weeks before being slaughtered. That makes for more fat in your steak, but less flavor. As consumers, we’ve been trained to expect that beef should taste bland, and this in turn shapes our expecations of what venison should taste like.
Recently, however, more and more people have been experimenting with grass-fed beef, which probably tastes a lot like the beef our grandparents ate. I say “experimenting” because they usually only try it once or twice. Being leaner, grass-fed beef may not seem as tender and juicy as feedlot beef—especially if it’s overcooked. What’s more, many consumers find that it has a stronger flavor. Out on the internet, disappointed diners accustomed to feedlot beef are complaining that their grass-fed beef tastes fishy, gamey, liverish, or just plain weird.
One reason is that grass-fed beef is much richer in Omega-3 acids, those “good fats” touted as a health benefit of fish. And so, by the way, is venison. This nutritional difference is directly related to differences in the animal’s diet. Although neither grass-fed beef nor venison taste all that fishy, they do have a different, richer flavor than feedlot beef. Similarly, a deer that’s been browsing on northern cedars may taste different from one that’s been sneaking out into farmers’ cornfields every night.
But there’s no reason for either of those deer to taste truly “gamey.” Just remember to field-dress your deer immediately. Then keep it cool on the way to the processor. If you’ll be processing it yourself, don’t procrastinate. If you prefer to age your venison for a couple days at temperatures barely above freezing, fine. Just don’t overdo it—especially if daytime temperatures creep upward. As bacteriologists say, “Life begins at 40.”
No matter how carefully you handle and process your venison, it won’t taste like beef. It will still taste like venison, and that’s a good thing. So don’t smother that flavor. Savor 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.