Are You Game? How to Grill or Smoke Venison and Similar Meats
We often receive emails or messages on social media asking Steven for more information on grilling or barbecuing game meats. This one, from Matt G., is representative:
I really love your shows and cookbooks. Your recipes have expanded my palate and cooking methods. I cook a lot of wild game, primarily deer. Your recipes work very well with that meat. I’d love to see you put out a cookbook geared towards wild game. Keep up the good work!
A few years ago, the fast food chain Arby’s put venison sandwiches on the menus of select outlets. The promotion, which lasted one day, was a publicity coup for the company. But don’t expect to see whitetail burgers at your local take-out place anytime soon. The fact is, unless they hunt themselves or have a generous sportsman in their circle, most Americans rarely—if ever—have the opportunity to eat game meats like venison.
The word venison usually refers to deer, but the word is derived from the Latin word venari, which means to hunt or pursue. Deer and other cervids (elk, moose, reindeer) have been on mankind’s plate since our Neolithic ancestors discovered fire. In the U.S., it is illegal to sell venison harvested in the wild. But thousands of deer farms have sprung up in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas in the past 20 years, making the processed meat available to the general public.
Tips on Grilling and Smoking Venison
Like grass-fed beef, venison is very lean with little intramuscular fat or marbling. But there are several ways to enhance its succulence and tenderness:
- Naturally tender cuts, like the loin and backstrap, should be cooked to medium-rare. Overcooking will dry them out.
- Drape or wrap the meat with bacon before grilling or smoking.
- Marinate tougher cuts, such as the leg, in your favorite marinade. Any marinade suitable for beef will work well with venison. (See Steven’s book, Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades for ideas.) A few juniper berries, crushed with the side of a knife or cleaver, pair well with game meats.
- Expose meats that will be cooked for several hours to flavor-enhancing smoke, then wrap in unlined butcher paper or foil with a small amount of liquid—beef broth, fruit juice, soda pop, wine, or beer—to finish the cook. Be sure to save any juices that accumulate for serving with the meat.
- Serve a jus, gravy, herbed butter, or sauce on the side. One of our favorites is Steven’s Three Hots Horseradish Sauce. Fruit sauces or salsas are also complimentary to game meats.
- Add ground suet or fatty bacon to ground venison for the juiciest burgers.
A Quick Guide to Venison Cuts and the Best Cooking Methods
As with all barbecue, of course, it’s important to pair the cut of meat with the most appropriate cooking method. Here’s a quick guide:
Grilling Venison Backstrap or Strip Loin
Venison backstrap, which runs on either side of the spine, is prized for its tenderness. (Trim off any visible silverskin before grilling.) Similar to but smaller than a beef tenderloin, it is best when grilled whole to rare or medium-rare over a hot fire. (It can also be cooked using the reverse-sear method.) Let the meat rest briefly, then slice into medallions.
Grilling Venison Rack
This includes the backstrap and ribs and can be grilled just like rack of lamb. Again, the meat will retain more juice if you leave the rack intact, then separate into chops after cooking the meat to medium-rare. Season the outside as you would prime rib—garlic, rosemary, and salt and pepper, for example, Dijon-style mustard, or a compound butter like Shallot Sage Butter.
Smoking Venison Leg/Haunch/Rump
The four muscles that make up the leg (see the banner photo above) can be smoke-roasted whole, spit-roasted, or cut into steaks. When cut into cubes, it also makes good Dutch oven stews or chili. Alternatively, you can trim off the fat and sinew and turn the meat into venison jerky.
Smoking Venison Shank
If you’ve ever eaten osso buco, you know how proper cooking can turn this collagen-rich cut into something sublime. We like to give shanks an hour of fragrant wood smoke at 225 to 250 degrees, then transfer them to a foil drip pan with a half inch of liquid (beef broth, wine, beer, etc.) on the bottom. Cover tightly with foil and cook at 300 degrees until fork-tender. The time will depend on the thickness of the shank. Serve with polenta, mashed potatoes, or rice.
Grilled and Smoked Venison Recipes