Why does some venison taste better than other venison?
You grind it, smoke it, smother it with barbecue sauce and wrap it bacon. Or maybe you do all of those at the same time. No matter how you try to camouflage the flavor of deer meat, though, your wife, kids and pretty much everyone else you foist it upon refuses to eat it. You always seem to end up with a freezer full of venison as the next season approaches.
There’s no getting around it: Venison is not beef. If you expect deer steak to taste like a rib eye, you will continue to dread each meal of deer meat. You might as well hang up your gun.
The good news is your venison doesn’t have to taste like week-old roadkill. In fact, it’s pretty tasty if you follow a few basic steps as soon as you pull the trigger. What you do before you pull the trigger can also affect the flavor of venison.
THE STRESS FACTOR
It’s well known in the meat science industry that high levels of stress leading up the animal’s death will affect flavor. Texas A&M Associate Professor of meat science Dr. Chris Kerth says meat producers do everything possible to reduce an animal’s stress level leading up to slaughter. He said physical exertion releases adrenaline, which increases the pH level in the muscle tissue. It can also lead to faster spoilage.
“You will end up with what we call dark cutting meat,” Kerth said. “Basically, the meat is much darker and considerably tougher and stronger in flavor than the meat from animals that were unstressed when they were killed. It is very undesirable in the meat industry and can reduce the flavor quality dramatically.”
Inevitably, deer that have been running will have a generally lower flavor quality than those that were entirely unaware of any potential danger before they were killed. Their body temperature goes up and Kerth says stressed animals or those that have undergone physical exertion also experience rigor mortis faster than unstressed animals. (Rigor mortis is the stiffening of an animal’s muscle tissue after death.) That’s not good.
“The longer it takes for rigor mortis to set in, the more tender the meat will be in the end,” Kerth said.
What deer eat also can affect the flavor of the meat. However, unless the deer you shoot are in an enclosed pen with a tightly restricted diet, it’s virtually impossible to do anything about it. Kerth says beef cattle typically spend up to 180 days in a feed lot where they are fed a specific, regulated diet aimed at maximizing meat quality.
“A cow’s food choices make a huge difference in the flavor of the meat,” he said. “If they’ve been eating legumes like clover or alfalfa, it will show up in the meat. It takes a minimum of 60 to 80 days to change the flavor profile of meat by changing an animal’s diet. That’s why cows spend so much time in a feed lot.”
ONE-SHOT KILLS MATTER
The good news is that there are a number of factors you can control. Shot placement is among the most critical. Sounds obvious, but a good shot doesn’t necessarily equate to a great-tasting deer. Of course, that depends on your definition of a good shot. Domestic animals are usually stunned when they enter a slaughterhouse, but they aren’t killed immediately.
“They are bled,” says Colorado State University animal science professor Dr. Daryl Tatum. “They basically bleed to death. High levels of blood in the tissue can leave sort of a metallic taste in the meat, and it can lead to faster spoilage.”
That’s why neck- or head-shot deer aren’t necessarily going to have the best flavor. An immediate death from a neck or head shot instantly stops the heart from beating. That means blood loss stops. Whitetails that are shot in a vital organ but live for a minute will lose a high volume of blood. That’s a good thing.
Shooting one through the paunch? Not good. Not only will that result in a high stress level, it might also lead to an animal that won’t be recovered for hours. On top of that, acids, bacteria and contents of the stomach or intestines will spill into the body cavity and taint any meat it contacts. It doesn’t take long for the sour taste of stomach to leech into all the surrounding tissue.
That’s why it’s critical to find your animal as fast as possible. Of course, it’s never a good idea to push an animal after a bad shot, but time is of the essence if you want to salvage the meat. Just don’t expect the best flavor if it goes unrecovered for several hours or more, even if the weather is cold.
GUT IT, CHILL IT
Kerth and Tatum, who is an avid hunter, agree that one of the most critical factors in meat quality is how quickly the carcass cools. Recovering it quickly is one thing. What you do next will play a role in the flavor, too.
“You want to remove the organs as quickly as possible and then get it cool right away,” Tatum said. “Don’t ride around with it in the back of your truck if it’s warm out. Domestic animals are often rinsed and then put into a chilling room for up to 24 hours immediately after they are skinned and eviscerated and before they are moved into a hanging room. Cooling the carcass quickly is an important part of the flavor.”
Be careful as you dress the animal, though. Punching even a tiny hole in the stomach, intestines or bladder could result in spillage inside the body cavity. It doesn’t take much to taint the meat. It happens even to the most experienced hunters, though, so don’t fret if you do it. Just keep a bottle of clean water handy and rinse the carcass immediately after you gut it.
It’s also critical to avoid touching the tarsal glands, which are located on the inside of the back legs. Contrary to what some hunters believe, they do not need to be cut off during the field-dressing process. In fact, it’s better to leave them alone. If you do touch them and then touch the meat, you can rub bacteria on the meat. Whitetails urinate on the glands as a way to communicate with each other. The urine/bacteria combination has a strong odor that can transfer to the meat.
If it’s hot, work fast. Skin the deer and then cut it into pieces and put it into a cooler with ice as soon as you are legally allowed to do so. The longer the meat stays warm, the poorer the quality it will be.
Domestic animals, particularly larger ones, are skinned right away to help the cooling process. Because they are somewhat smaller, deer don’t have to be skinned immediately if they are put into a cooler soon after they are killed. However, skinning a deer carcass quickly is never a bad idea.
“That allows you to trim off bloody meat around the wound channel and it allows you to trim off any fat, which can turn rancid and impart a bad flavor in the meat,” notes Kerth. “It also allows you to rinse off the carcass inside and out. Remove any dirt, dried blood or anything else that may have gotten on the meat during the field-dressing process.”
If you have access to a refrigerated room, or if it’s cold enough outside, allow the deer to hang for up to 14 days. That’s part of the aging process and one that plays a significant factor in meat quality. Kerth says meat freezes at 28 degrees, so it’s okay to hang it at temperatures at or even a little below freezing.
“Anything below 40 degrees is adequate,” he adds.
Aging the meat is essentially a controlled rot. The enzymes in the muscle break down the proteins in the tissue, making it more tender than meat that is not allowed to age. In fact, aging is arguably the most important step to quality venison.
“I actually let my game hang overnight in a cooler or a room that stays below 40 degrees and then I will skin it and cut it up the next day. Then I age it,” says Tatum. “It’s not a bad idea to cut the meat off the bones relatively quickly because the bones can actually influence the flavor, as well.”
In other words, the animal doesn’t have to hang as a carcass in order to properly age. What’s more important is that its allowed to age, even if it is cut into steaks and roasts first. In fact, Tatum will butcher his game animals and then place individual cuts into vacuum-sealed bags. Then he puts them in the refrigerator for eight to ten days before the meat goes into the freezer. That not only allows the meat to age, it keeps it from drying out, which can also influence the taste.
You don’t have to cut up your own deer to have high-quality venison. In fact, professional butchers have temperature-controlled coolers and lots of experience in proper meat handling. Just make sure you take care of it before you drop it off at your local processor. If you do, you’ll never wrap another piece of venison in bacon again.
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This article was published in the September 2015 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.