Some people don’t like to eat game because it’s too, well, gamey. Others prize wild meat for exactly this quality. Lack of gaminess, one might argue, is lack of any real flavor in meat. When we bought venison this week, we found tons of recipes that claimed to mask the gamey flavor, but this seemed to defeat the whole purpose of eating venison. Isn’t trying to take the gaminess out of venison like trying to take the beefiness out of beef?
Meat from grass-fed animals has more flavor than meat from animals fed only grain, so it just makes sense that meat from animals feasting in the wild on everything from ragweed to wild clover to dandelions has the most flavor of all. In venison, this flavor comes across as slightly sweet and very rich, with a bit of a grassy, herbal quality to it. Truly wild venison has a stronger, more nuanced flavor than most venison sold in butcher shops, since much of the venison on the market is farm or ranch raised. “Venison” can be meat from deer, elk, moose, caribou or antelope, but most typically refers to deer. The name of the specific animal must be specified on the package label when the meat is sold. According to the USDA, farm raised deer live in a somewhat confined outdoor area and can be fed grains such as wheat, alfalfa, or corn. Ranch raised deer are allowed to roam over hundreds of acres and forage in a fairly natural setting. Some ranch-raised deer are also harvested in the field, rather than rounded up and butchered in a processing plant. Short of hunting your own deer meat, ranch-raised game is the next best option.
If the gamey flavor in venison is overpowering and unpleasant, it’s likely that what you’re tasting isn’t the natural flavor of the meat, but the side affects of improper handling. As an experienced hunter will tell you, once a deer is shot the meat should be cleaned and butchered as quickly and efficiently as possible. Fat is never left on deer meat because it spoils quickly and can give the meat a rancid flavor. The age of the deer also plays a role – the younger the animal, the more mild and tender its meat is.
Venison roasts are best slow cooked, but most other smaller cuts can be pan seared or grilled. We cooked our venison chops much like we cook our beef steaks, seared in a hot pan then finished in the oven. Marinating venison will help tenderize the lean meat and enhance the taste without masking the meat’s true flavor. Our red wine marinade, spiced with peppercorns, bay leaves, allspice and cumin, gives the meat a little more complexity, a hint of spice and the mellow flavor of wine.
The wild and gamey flavor of venison, less refined than beef and so much bolder than pork, is exactly what we like about it. Eating venison makes us feel closer to nature and after a few bites we always begin to imagine we are hunters living off the land rather than city folk who drove through traffic to buy our venison at a butcher shop. Maybe one day we will have the chance to hunt for our dinner… but until then we have these tasty venison chops to tide us over.
2 pounds of venison chops
1/2 cup red wine
1/4 cup olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon allspice
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon salt
In a bowl or sealable plastic bag, combine wine, oil, garlic, peppercorns, cumin, allspice and bay leaves. Add venison and marinate for 4-6 hours, periodically rotating meat so all sides are exposed to the marinade.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pat chops dry and season with 1 teaspoon of salt.
Heat a skillet over medium-high heat and add chops, searing 2-3 minutes on each side.
Move the chops into the oven and cook 4-8 minutes (depending on thickness of the meat) until meat is rare to medium-rare and a thermometer registers 125-130 degrees. Venison cooked beyond medium-rare is likely to be tough.