Smoking meat is a timeless method of preservation or cooking dating back centuries throughout the world. Historical accounts reveal that smoking venison, waterfowl and fish has been refined and passed down through generations as an effective way to provide food for families and travel.
Food preservation was the main reason for smoking in olden times, along with salt curing. Shoulders, hams, slabs of bacon and, likely, sausages, along with fish and fowl, were hung in smoke houses or on racks near fires. Whether it was Nordic traditions of smoking fish on racks, African tribes with various game animals over fires or Native Americans and early settlers with venison, beef and pork in smokehouses, smoking has been an integral and important part of our food culture for centuries.
Today’s smoking methods are far more efficient and easy than those of the past. Although the traditions of a hewn log smokehouse have some charm, it’s definitely much more simple today to purchase or build a good enclosed smoker fueled by propane or, if you desire, a slow-burning wood fire.
Also, today’s smoked offerings aren’t limited to a venison roast in an upright propane-burning smoker. Some folks take a run at cheeses, spices, whiskey and beer — even salt. It seems the options are almost limitless.
Which Wood to Use?
Today’s vertical box- style smokers, such as Weston’s 30- , 36- and 48-inch models, include racks for the meat, a smoking box, a heat- ing element and a water bowl that provides moisture for the smoking process. This moist heat envelops the meat with a slow cooking process that locks in flavors, some of which come from the meat, the wood used and the marinade or rub.
In larger smokers at restaurants, whole logs are often burned slowly to get the job done. In smaller smokers like we use at home, wood chips soaked in water are preferred. They burn more slowly and release their flavors during the process.
Dense hardwoods such as oak, mesquite, pecan, walnut and hickory are typically preferred because of their sugar content and longer life in the smoke box. Softwoods such as pine, fir and cedar have resins that can foul the flavor of meat. Some smokers prefer apple or pear wood, both of which have a softer taste.
WATCH: See these top tips to avoid mistakes in early bow season and put more venison in your freezer!
Whatever your favorite wood, one of the critical things to remember about venison is to not overcook it. Because venison is lean, smoking might not take as long as with other meats. Also, because it’s lean, you might want to consider a pre-smoke brine and make sure you have enough water in the smoker’s pan. Layering venison roasts or shoulders with bacon is a good way to help prevent drying and add some fat and flavor.
If you prefer to use a brine or marinade, remember there’s a difference. A marinade coats the outside and typically has an acidic base, such as orange or pineapple juice, which helps break down the meat because of the acidity. A brine includes salt, sugar and spices that are absorbed into the meat via soaking overnight before cooking. Brining also works well for turkeys and waterfowl before smoking. Most suggestions for brine recommend at least 12 hours completely submerged or covered, but no more than 24 hours.
Dry rubs also are popular for smoking venison and other meats. Mix salt, sugar and your favorite spices together, and rub the meat liberally. Wrap it well with plastic wrap, and let it sit for an hour or more in the refrigerator so the rub can work its magic. Some folks let it sit overnight.
After smoking has commenced, most chefs recommend achieving a final internal temperature of at least 140 degrees. Smoking takes time, and hitting the right temperature and keeping it at that level for the desired cooking time is crucial. A big key is to be prepared before starting the process. Have everything you need ready, from soaked wood chips and liquid to a thermometer to check the temperature of the meat. Hit your target temperature for the cut of meat, smoke it for the appropriate time and then check the final temp.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees for beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops and roasts. The USDA doesn’t list venison, but you can hit that temp and be fine. When you’ve checked the venison and it’s done, don’t forget that it will have a brief residual increase in temperature after you remove it from the smoker. Remove the meat, keep it covered or wrap it in foil or plastic wrap, and let it rest to help retain the juices before carving.
What Can You Smoke?
The options with smoked venison are varied, from the hindquarter roasts to shoulders and neck roasts. The latter two have more connective tissue that, during the slow-cooking smoking process, will break down and add flavor to the meat.
Venison sausage is perhaps the No. 1 item prepared in home smokers across North America. Smoking sausage is relatively easy with today’s equipment. Whether you use a conventional smoker or one of the user-friendly propane models, be sure to smoke sausage meats for great recipes to the temperatures listed in FDA-recommended manuals.
If you’re smoking venison shoulders, you want the main bone, the scapula, to slide out easily from the meat. That leaves you with tender venison that can be shredded for pulled sandwiches or burritos. Ditto with neck roasts. Both are often overlooked by hunters because “they’re too much trouble,” when they’re really not.
Hindquarters can be broken down into smaller roasts for smoking. After you debone and separate the smaller muscles, remove the tough silver skin and tendons. An easy way to do this is to put the roasts into the freezer for about 30 minutes. It’s easier to carve away the silver skin with a semi-frozen roast.
Backstraps and tenderloins also can be smoked, although most hunters opt for other methods with these finer cuts. They definitely can be put on the smoker, though, with your favorite rub or marinade for some fine table fare. Be sure to remove the silver skin to avoid chewy meat and, again, because they’re lean, don’t overcook them, or you’ll have tough, dry shoe leather along with a good dose of frustration.
Carry It Hot or Cold
When you’re heading out in summer for a work or fun day at deer camp, a family outing to the lake or maybe a family gathering at the park, hauling cold foods can be tricky.
Keeping the cold stuff cold is easily done with a Yeti cooler, which has great insulation properties. These awesome coolers are designed with gaskets around the entire lid to retain cold temperatures; I’m sure you could keep anything hot, too, until you’re ready to eat.
They’re available in hard-sided coolers of various sizes, from small ones for food and beverages to large ones for hauling your deer and game. If you need “soft” side coolers, the Yeti Hopper and new Hopper Flip 12 are fantastic for travel and hauling gear to camp.
Peppercorn Smoked Venison Sausage
With Cherry Shallot Sauce
3 pounds venison, cubed
1/2 pound pork fat. Keep ascold as possible
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/8 cup coarse black pepper
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons onion powder
Natural hog casings
Makes about 3 pounds of sausage
2 small shallots, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
12 ounces canned cherries
1/2 cup Pinot Noir Wild rice, for serving
Hand-mix all ingredients for the sausage, and then use a meat grinder with a coarse plate to grind it. Grind half of the meat mixture a second time through a finer plate. Vacuum seal the ground meat, and let it marinate for one to two days.
Use a sausage stuffer or the stuffing attachment on your Weston Meat Grinder to stuff the sausage into casings.
Soak your wood smoking chips for 30 minutes. Preheat the smoker to 170 degrees with the water bowl filled. When it’s preheated, fill the smoking box, and hang the sausage onto sausage hooks. Smoke the sausage for two hours, and then adjust the temperature to 200 degrees and smoke for another two hours or until the internal temperature is 160 degrees.
While the sausage smokes, prepare the sauce. Saute the shallots in soy sauce and brown sugar until translucent. Pour in the cherries and wine, and turn the burner to high. Stir constantly. After it’s boiling, bring the sauce back down to a simmer. Stir occasionally. Allow to simmer for about one hour.
When the sausage is fully smoked, serve it over wild rice, smothered in cherry-shallot sauce.
For more great recipes and tools for your meat processing and preparation, visit www.WestonSupply.com.
Learn how to hunt, process, and cook a wide variety of wild game with Hunting for Food by Jenny Nguyen and Rick Wheatley. Begin with detailed instructions on the best practices for hunting different types of game, including coverage of how to find or attract the game you’re looking to hunt, best times for hunting, and the gear you’ll need to be successful.