There’s a special satisfaction placing that last package of hard-hunted and carefully cut venison in the freezer, closing the lid or door, and then sitting back to reflect on a job well done, knowing there are many great meals waiting there for your family.
By Tom Carpenter
But do you put the same value on ground-up venison as you do on those thick steaks for the grill; juicy chops for searing in a cast-iron skillet; savory roasts basting in the oven on a cold wintry afternoon; tender chunks or strips of shish-kabob or fajita meat searing over a flame; or cubes of delicious flank meat anchoring a stew? You should! Here’s why.
If you do a good job of cutting off the relevant trim, ground venison can comprise 30 percent or more of the meat volume from a deer. Bottom line: You’re going to be eating a lot of ground meat. And it’s prime meat, too. In the end, it’s just as delicious as any of those other prime cuts mentioned. Ground venison just comes in a different format. Maybe most important of all: Venison burger offers versatility and variety none of those other cuts can.
So here’s how to get the most (and the most appropriate) trim venison off your whitetail for grinding; make decisions on whether to include fat or other additions with your meat; process and grind your venison efficiently; properly prepare your meat for freezing; and store it so it stays delicious for as long as possible. Then we’ll explore concepts for preparing your ground-up gold to maximize variety, taste and enjoyment.
Cuts to Make and Take
Once your deer is skinned and hanging there ready for meat removal — and then while it’s on the butchering table for cutting up — it’s essential to know what cuts and trim to take, from where, for grinding.
Front Legs. Take as much front leg meat as you wish for ground venison. Front legs are usually a little tough, especially in older deer, and the meat is perfect for grinding into hamburger. Just use your filet or boning knife to carve meat off right down to the shoul- der blade bone, and off the lower leg.
Lower Back Legs. The lower back legs (below the “knee” joint) are perfect for ground venison. Trim these chunks and strips off right to the bone.
Outer Muscles. Behind the shoulders are several “flat” but meaty muscles worth cutting off and putting in the trim pile.
Neck Meat. It’s a shame to waste the neck meat. With a few cuts you can easily pull off a couple pounds of tender meat without much effort or time.
Other Trim. As you cut steaks, roasts and chops you’ll end up with an array of oddball pieces you don’t quite know what to do with. Put them in with the trim for grinding.
Ribs. Many people don’t mind spending an hour working over the rib cage for slices of meat to add to the trim pile for ground venison.
Once all of the trim is cu toff and in a pile, take your fillet or boning knife and chunk the meat into 2-inch-diameter or so pieces for grinding.
Yes Or No to Fat?
Now you have a decision to make: Do you add fat (or fatty ground pork or beef) to your venison before grinding? This is a personal or family preference. Here are the arguments for and against this practice.
For: Some folks like the “juiciness” that fat or fatty meat adds, because ground venison can be on the dry side. Plus, folks often like the “bind- ing” qualities that fat provides — for when you’re creating burger patties, for example. Plus, some family members might like the fact that beef or pork dilute the venison flavor.
Against: Most people drain fat when cooking ground meat anyway, so why add it? Pure venison has a great taste by itself, without being altered. You add to your cost when you add fat or fatty meat. Fat does not last as well or as long as lean meat in the freezer, so overall taste will suffer in the long run.
Grinding Techniques and Tips
Grinding is best performed by two workers. One person feeds the hopper and uses the pestle or a wooden spoon to make sure the meat is descending into the auger. Feed chunks of meat slowly and steadily into the grinder. A flat, low-sided pan works best for catching the ground product.
Here’s a tip: Place the chunked meat in the freezer for just 15 to 20 minutes to firm it up before grinding. Meat will process through the auger better when it’s chilled and a little stiff.
Grinders have cutter plates with different-sized holes that the auger pushes the meat through. It’s tempt- ing to try and grind your meat fine, but there’s really no need. You don’t want to smash and damage the fibers while squeezing out all the juices that make ground venison good. Use a medium or coarse cutter plate.
How you wrap and package ground meat has a big impact on the end result you pull from the freezer one, three, six or even nine or 10 months from now.
In the freezer, air is your enemy. The more air in your package of ground venison, the more prone it is to freezer burn, premature aging and lost taste. A vacuum sealer is a great investment in this respect. But what if a vacuum sealer isn’t in the budget? There are still some good options for getting good freezer shelf life out of your ground venison.
Create a portion of venison to freeze — 1 pound, 2 pounds, any amount that makes sense for your family and cook- ing needs — and lay it on a good-sized piece of plastic wrap. Fold the plastic over the meat and wrap it up, squeez- ing air out as you go. Place the wrapped meat on a sheet of freezer paper, wrap again, tape shut and mark with an indelible pen.
You can do a decent job squeezing air out if you use heavy-duty plastic freezer bags. But use the kind with the zip-lock tab (not the sliding seam you have to maneuver with your fingers), because it’s easier to quickly slide the bag shut as you squeeze air out of the bag. Quart-size bags are just about right for a pound or more of meat. The more you stuff in, the less room there is for air.
No matter how you package and wrap your venison, though, it’s only going to last until next deer season (up to one year). A freezer set at 0 degrees F is the preferred temperature. Most research recommends you use ground meat within that time frame for the best flavor.
So you’ve got a section or shelf of your freezer filled with ground venison. What’s next? You probably already have your own list of favorite uses and recipes for this incredibly versatile meat. But there’s a whole world of other options out there. Take a look at this list and accompanying tips, and see if you can add any concepts to your repertoire.
If you don’t create burgers from your venison, you’re missing out. Straight hamburgers, cheeseburgers, bacon cheeseburgers, California burg- ers, mushroom & Swiss burgers, patty melts, juicy Lucies, sliders and teriyaki burgers just get us started.
Because it’s so lean, ground venison is ideal for browning and then using in all kinds of Mexican meals. At our house, it’s only ground venison in the spaghetti sauce. Brown and add right to jarred sauce, too.
In this venison-lover’s opinion, wild meat is vastly superior to beef in any chili recipe. Any soup recipe that calls for ground meat is better with venison.
Here’s where I mix in some ground pork (1/2 pound per pound of venison, or think of it as a 2:1 venison-to-pork mix) to help the meat bind together and add some juices. Plus, add one egg and 1 cup of fine bread crumbs per pound of total meat to help binding; mix well.
The earthy taste of tomatoes and peppers matches perfectly with ground venison.
Lasagna, manicottis, cannellonis, rigatonis and other stuffed Italian pastas are great with lean ground venison, which meshes perfectly with Italian tastes.
Venison burger doesn’t get the respect it deserves. But if you follow a few simple steps when cutting up your deer, grind and store it right, and then employ a little creativity in how you use it, ground venison is golden on your table.
— Tom Carpenter is an avid bow- and gun-hunter from Minnesota.
Ground venison is great with vegetable soup and hot, buttered bread or cornbread. Give this fantastic recipe a try. It’s from Stacy Harris, one of our favorite friends and a great cook, and the author of some super cookbooks (and a DVD) with tips on preparation, cooking and more! You can get more of her super insights and recipes at her site, GameandGarden.com, too!
Garden Vegetable Soup
1 lb. venison, stew meat
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 onions, minced
1 celery stalk, finely sliced
2 carrots, finely diced
1½ cups butter beans
1½ cups corn
2 small potatoes
2 small zucchini, finely diced
6 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and finely diced
1 cup shelled or frozen peas
2 quarts water, or just above vegetables
A handful of spinach leaves, cut into thin ribbons
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Sprigs of fresh basil, to garnish
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup (packed) basil leaves
8 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons pine nuts
Hint: If you need dinner in a hurry and have a pressure cooker, cover the stew meat about 1½ inch with beef stock, onions, and ½ tablespoon of salt. Once the pressure cooker reaches a boil, turn it down to simmer and cook for about 15 minutes. Release the pressure and add to the soup.
1. Place garlic, basil, Parmesan cheese, and pine nuts in a food processor and process until smooth, scraping down the sides once. With the machine running, slowly add the olive oil through the feed tube.
2. In a stew pot, brown venison stew meat. Remove from pot.
3. Heat oil in a large saucepan. Add the onions and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they are beginning to soften.
4. Add butter beans, corn, potatoes, zucchini, tomatoes, peas, and meat to the pot with 2 quarts of water. Bring to a boil then lower to a sim- mer for one hour or until the vegetables and meat are tender.
5. Add the spinach leaves and cook 5 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add lemon juice of 1 lemon. Serve with pesto and Rustic Bread. Garnish with a sprig of basil.