Venison can be tasty if stored, cooked right


SOME THINGS, AMONG them wine and cheese, improve with age, but not venison in the freezer. So, it is time to consider cooking some of that deer taken by the hunter of the household in the recent seasons.

Too often, venison, waterfowl and fish are bypassed in household freezers -- considered something to cook "one of these days." Not infrequently, they are prepared so late they are bordering on freezer burn, rancidity or are otherwise past their prime. Sometimes they are kept so long they are tossed out without ever seeing a stove.

What a waste, much of it probably due to overconfidence in the quick freezing and preservation capabilities of the family freezer, or perhaps inadequate wrapping, or too much jostling of the packages in the freezer. They can all add up to a cut of venison that proves disappointing on the table, which discourages one from choosing another cut at a later date.

It's a vicious circle. The less desired, venison is stored longer, and when eventually prepared is even more disappointing. Chances are if the venison you have sampled doesn't live up to what was expected, there was a problem in packaging and/or freezing process, or perhaps it was cooked too soon after it was bagged, which is another story.

Venison should be aged to enhance flavor and tenderness for about a week after the deer has been taken. This prompts a breakdown of tissue, which incidentally is commonly done with other meats. Cut a slab of venison from a deer as soon as the venison cools, and chances are it will be tough and lacking in flavor.

Ideally, a deer should be hung with its hide on for from five to ten days in temperatures of from 35 to 40 degrees, but the weather is not always cooperative. Too cold, and the flesh freezes; too warm and there is the possibility of deterioration. When outdoor temperatures are not right, the deer should be taken to a commercial processor where it will be hung, or it can be butchered, wrapped, frozen and put in a freezer where it can age -- though some claim not quite as well as in cool outdoor temperatures.

Too often, venison is not home-packaged as air-tight as it should be. Plastic bags are the easiest to use, but metal foil or quality butcher wrap paper is more serviceable, especially if the cut is wrapped tightly in a thin clear plastic sheet. This combination guards against air penetration and loss of juices.

Regardless of how it is wrapped, if the venison is frozen and stored in a home combination refrigerator-freezer, it is best to eat it within a couple months for top quality. These kitchen units seldom offer the desired temperatures, ten to 20 degrees below zero, required for flash freezing. They are also inadequate for long term freezer stowage at zero degrees -- especially if filled with other items.

Regular freezer units sometimes can preserve venison at top quality for at least six months to a year. But, generally, the sooner the cooking, the better the venison.

So now it's time to cook, and, with a roast, the big question is to marinate or not. Under ideal conditions, it is not necessary, but a marinade won't hurt. I prefer it, and though through the years I have tried many marinades, I stay with this old time Vermont favorite for a marinated roast.

Venison Roast

1 large venison chunk

4 sticks celery

4 carrots sliced lengthwise

2 large onions, sliced

Cooking sherry or vinegar

12 whole clove leaves

1 tablespoon whole black pepper

6 bay leaves

Place venison in bowl and cover with equal parts water and sherry -- if vinegar is preferred, three parts water, one part spicy vinegar -- then add other ingredients. Keep refrigerated for one day, preferably two, turning several times to "pickle" evenly.

Remove venison, sear all sides in hot fat or oil in a cast iron pot. Then place rack under venison, add one to 1 1/2 cups of marinade, cover roast and cook slowly at about 325 degrees. I like to place a couple strips of bacon atop the roast to compensate for scarcity of natural fat in venison, though it is not necessary. Figure on 15 to 20 minutes to the pound. Add marinade when needed, and do not overcook. Roast is ready when tender and juicy -- slightly pink in the center.

Fresh vegetables can be added to the pot during the last hour or so of cooking, if desired. If cooking time is a consideration, kick the heat up 50 degrees, but check constantly to add liquid and insure roast is not drying out.

Make gravy of the drippings by adding a half dozen or more ginger snaps, the remainder of the marinade, stir well until smooth. If your venison was frozen and wrapped properly, I promise taste that can match pork or beef.

If you want venison steak, slice about one-inch thick, and heat cast iron frying pan to smoking temperature with a minimum of oil or fat. Allow one side to sear well, then the other. Cook both sides for about ten minutes for rare, 17 minutes for medium. Additional cooking will turn out something akin to shoe leather. Near the end of cooking, I add a few slices of onion and mushroom. That decision is yours.

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