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Before you or the significant hunter in your life pull into the driveway with dinner on the roof rack, it's wise to have a long heart-to-heart about venison.
Despite white-tailed deer's wild game status, venison doesn't have to taste, well, gamey. The trick to taming the wildness starts as soon as the animal hits the ground. Keep in mind this hunting season -- Pennsylvania's antlered deer season runs through Dec. 8 -- that proper field dressing and processing are the keys to quality venison cooking.
So says Steve Loder, the Ellwood City coauthor (with his wife Gale Loder) of three "Quality Venison" cookbooks, who jokes that venison is "the other red meat." He's serious, however, about venison's health benefits.
Wild venison contains a quarter of the saturated fat of ham, salmon or lean roast beef. A 3 1/2- to 4-ounce portion has 40 percent of the calories of ham, salmon or roast beef; no antibiotics; and no synthetic growth hormones.
"It's better for you than a lot of things," says Mr. Loder, "if you prepare venison dishes with health in mind."
Venison is far leaner than beef, but its thin strings of fat contain the properties that give poorly prepared venison its gamey reputation. Deer fat spoils quickly, tarnishing the adjacent meat.
"Venison fat just tastes bad -- there's probably a couple of reasons," says Mr. Loder. "The fat is the first thing to spoil once a deer is harvested. So it went from tasting naturally bad to tasting really bad once it's spoiled."
Remedying that begins with field dressing of the carcass, which should be a brief, efficient and nearly surgical procedure. See Ben Moyer's story on field dressing, do-it-yourself deer processing and a venison boning chart.
As a routine precaution again disease, the Pennsylvania Game Commission advises hunters to wear latex gloves while field dressing any animal.
With a sharp knife, gently slice visible fat deposits from the cavity. Meat that contacts excess pooling blood or the contents of bladders and intestines will be tainted, and even touching meat with hands or a knife that have touched the scent glands will give it a bad flavor.
If possible, field dress in the shade. Many deer hunters bring a plastic bag for the heart and liver. Mr. Moyer recommends removing and bagging the choice tenderloins, too.
If there's snow, pack some into the cavity. In temperatures of 40 degrees and higher, the remaining fat will begin to spoil before the deer has been dragged to the car.
"When you take a deer, you need to cool the meat as soon as possible," says Mr. Loder, the son of a butcher and restaurateur and 40-year veteran of deer hunting and venison cooking. "If it's warm, prop the carcass open with a stick to let the heat out while you're dragging it. The hind quarter has fat on the top -- that will be the first part of the fat to spoil."
If the weather's warm and sunny, cover the carcass -- with your coat, a poncho, anything -- to protect it from exposure to the sun. Have a cooler of ice ready at the car. Pack the cavity and cover the carcass during the drive home or to a deer processor.
Remember, by the time the deer is out of the woods, the fats already have begun to break down. Parading the trophy on the roof top or truck bed to friends and family may be a point of pride, but you'll feed them all a better meal if you settle for a quick photo and get the prize processed as soon as possible.
Home processors should gently slice off all surface fat while skinning and quartering.
"If a butcher does your deer, he's probably not going to trim all the fat off the steaks unless you ask him to," says Mr. Loder. "If you're doing it yourself, remove as much [fat] as you can."
Like beef, venison is best when the meat is aged. Prime black angus beef has been aged for over a week at 38 to 42 degrees.
"If it's chilly outside, around 45 degrees, I lay the quarters on a tarp to age," says Mr. Loder. "If you think it's an older deer, which could be tougher, age it in cold temperatures for three or four days, less if it's a young deer. You absolutely do not want it to freeze -- if it's that cold, bring it inside and age it in a controlled temperature."
Slice off remaining fat while packaging and freeze it, and keep that venison fat out of ground meat mixtures. Mr. Loder mixes 50 to 60 percent venison and 40 to 50 percent ground chuck with "just enough beef fat in it [so it will] stay together when I make meatballs or hamburger."
As with beef, don't thaw venison in a microwave. Mr. Loder recommends slow thawing in the refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours. And there's no need to pound it -- cooking in a sauce or broth on medium heat and monitoring the cooking time will eliminate toughness.
"Because it's lean, venison cooks best when it's kept moist," says Mr. Loder. "Cook it in soy sauce, barbecue sauce, olive oil or something to keep it from drying. Venison is like the best beef -- it doesn't need to be cooked well done. It should be medium rare to medium using dry heat so it's still juicy in the middle."
Because it's lean, cooked venison quickly absorbs anything you pour over it.
"Once the meat is taken off the heat source, I like to add condiment sauces to keep it moist. Add them piping hot over steaks," says Mr. Loder. "Or with dipping sauces or herb sauces that [guests] can put on themselves. Ooooh, that's good."
The "Quality Venison" cookbooks are available at Barnes & Noble, Gander Mountain, Cabela's and Sportsman's Warehouse. Read more on venison cooking at www.qualityvenisoncook-books.com.
John Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1991. First Published November 29, 2007 5:00 AM