Jose Souto, Chef Lecturer in Culinary Arts and author of Venison: the Game Larder, runs through the basics of cooking venison, including a break down of the many factors that may affect the flavour. This article will get you thinking about how you treat your meat right through the journey from field to fork.
I am often asked how best to cook venison. The answer to this question is not as simple as you might think. Every animal has muscles that it uses more than others, these parts of the animal are tougher and need more cooking. The less-utilised muscles are more tender and require less cooking.
In the UK we tend to break down carcasses by the bone structure of an animal. This gives us several different prime joints in a carcass of venison: 1 x scrag (or neck) , 2 x shoulders, 1x long saddle, 2 x breasts, 2 x fillets and 2 x haunches.
From some of these primary joints we can get individual portions and prepared joints which fall into two categories:
– First-class cuts that should be cooked by a quick method as they are tender and contain no sinew. Quick cooking methods include frying, griddling, barbecuing, roasting and grilling. Joints and portions that fall into this category are loins, cannon, cutlets, steaks, fillets, medallions, chops, haunch, rump, racks and saddle.
– Second-class cuts that should be cooked by long and slow methods of cookery as they are tough and contain sinew that needs to be broken down. Long cooking methods include stewing, pot roasting and braising. Joints and portions that fall into this category are shoulders, breast, scrag and shank.
When cooking both classes of cuts we need to remember a couple of things. Firstly that venison contains very little fat and any fat it does contain sits on the outside of the muscles not throughout. This means the meat can have a tendency to be dry if overcooked in the case of first-class joints, or cooked too fast in the case of tougher, second-class cuts. Therefore, second-class cuts should be cooked slowly and at a low temperature, giving the sinew time to breakdown and melt into the meat. This will help keep the meat from drying out and allow it to tenderise to the point of becoming loose or falling off the bone. First-class cuts need to be trimmed of all sinew because the cooking methods used for these cuts will not be long enough to break down any untrimmed sinew. First-class cuts should be cooked no more than medium; this way the true succulent flavour of these tender cuts will be at its best.
Whilst writing Venison: The Game Larder I was asked by many people to explain the difference in flavour between the six species of deer found in the UK. At first I thought that this would be a simple task as I had tasted each of the species and could distinguish the differences between them. Simply speaking I find muntjac to be the strongest in flavour, followed by red, sika, then fallow, roe and finally Chinese water deer. But I soon decided that this sort of definition of flavour was difficult to stick to when discussing wild venison. Why? I hear you ask. Well there are so many anomalies in defining the flavour of wild venison, including age, sex, species, time of the year, conditions of harvest, treatment of the carcass and hanging time. Let’s look at how each of these may affect the flavour of the meat.
Age: the older the animal the lower the quality of meat. Young animals are more tender, but these smaller carcasses have lower yield and a lesser developed flavour.
Sex: during the rut, older stags and bucks take on a smell and flavour that taints the meat. This restricts what the meat can be used for.
Species: as described in the rough guide above.
Time of year: in late-summer and autumn most species are at their best since they have put on weight throughout the spring and summer. These animals are preparing for the winter ahead and also, in the case of some species, the rut.
Conditions of harvest: when deer are shot in the field there should be no, or as little stress as possible, before and as the animal is killed. Any stress will cause lactic acid to taint the flavour of the meat and make it tough. It can also cause the meat to have blood spots within the muscle. Most of the deer shot abroad in driven shoots are susceptible to this. In Spain, for example, I have heard many of my fellow chefs saying that 90% of the venison they cook is stewed to counteract this taint and toughness of the meat – whatever joint they are using.
Treatment of the carcass: we should all aim to gralloch an animal within 30 minutes of it being shot, and sooner in warm weather. Once the animal has been shot, gasses will form in the gut that could spoil and discolour the meat. Bleeding should take place even sooner, because the blood will collect in the area where the animal has been shot and, in the instance of a neck or chest shot, begin to migrate throughout the muscles around the wound. This will cause the meat to discolour and cause blood splatter within the muscle. An un-bled and un-gralloched carcasses will begin to decompose and spoil very quickly. The blood will also create pockets of gas that will hiss as they are cut into. On the rare occasions I sit in high seats, I am constantly being pulled up because when I shoot a deer I feel compelled to climb down and bleed each animal in turn, instead of waiting until the end of the of the stalk so as to maximise on possible numbers. This is because I have my chef’s head on, not my deer management head.
Hanging: much debate has been raised about hanging carcasses. I have heard people say that carcasses should be hung in a chiller with head and feet off as soon as possible. I have also heard the debate about not washing out carcasses after gralloching. Some of what I have heard makes sense, some not. This I what I do and why: once I get the carcass back to the larder I will wash out the internal cavity cleaning out any blood. What I do next will depend on the weather. If it is cold I will allow the carcass to cool at ambient temperature for a few hours and wait for rigor mortis to set in. If the weather is warm I will place the carcass into the chiller at 10°C. With small deer I will remove the feet but not the head (this is because my chiller is a small one and will not take head on larger deer – otherwise I would also hang these with the head on) and hang it in the chiller at 6 °C overnight then lower the temperature to 3°C. The reason for the gradual cooling is to stop the carcass going in to chill-shock and therefore the muscles tightening. The reason for leaving the head on is because the head is a weight that pulls down on the carcass and keeps the loins and neck elongated and straight. When the head is removed before chilling the neck will curl up and the loin shrinks as the carcass relaxes.
Normally I will tend to hang roe, Chinese water deer and mutjac for two days before butchering. With larger species I like to leave them for at least five to seven days. During this time two things happen: the meat relaxes and bacteria begins to breakdown the fibres in the meat as it matures. In fact if you take the temperature of the meat it will be a degree or two higher than the chiller, this is because as bacteria works it produces a small amount of heat.
Not a lot of work has been done on maturing and ageing venison. And this is something that I will be looking at doing in the not too distant future, with the help of a maturation fridge from Angel Refrigeration who produced ‘The Game Larder’ chiller as used in the book. The challenge will be to see if air-drying venison will improve the flavour and add value.
The better you understand the different factors affecting the flavour of your venison, along with basic knowledge of the different joints and how best to cook each one, the more justice you will do to this really wonderful meat in your cooking.