The Benison of Venison

venison
First, some olive oil, salt and pepper, and an hour or two of soaking, turning regularly. Three-quarters of an inch is a perfect thickness.

by Terry Wieland

A week or so ago, John Barsness contacted me to see what I could tell him about aoudad meat. Since few people in America know more about game meat than John and his wife, Eileen (www.riflesandrecipes.com), I was somewhat taken aback, but John had never hunted aoudad and he’d heard the usual tales about it being inedible.

I have only one aoudad to my name, shot in west Texas six years ago and, I’m embarrassed to admit, I did not taste the meat.  Since I was going to be in Texas another week with no way to preserve it, I gave it to my guide’s uncle who assured me his Hispanic spouse had a way of spicing, herbing, and stewing it into submission.

In retrospect, I wish I’d brought home at least a backstrap to try because, in my experience, the meat of almost any big-game animal can be made palatable.  And — also in my experience — if your guide goes on and on about how awful the meat is, how you wouldn’t want it, and so on, chances are it’s really, really good and he intends to take it home himself.  Don’t ask me how I know.  What follows is all drawn on personal experience, so I won’t keep adding that caveat.

Is pronghorn good to eat?  Absolutely; among the finest.  Don’t carry the corpse around in the back of a pickup all day, in the blazing sun, although, having had a guide do that once, it didn’t seem to hurt the meat at all.

Bucks that are stressed, or killed during the rut?  Some of the best venison I’v ever had was from a mule deer buck with a 24-doe harem and lots of competition, and he did not die the cleanest of deaths.  The meat?  You could not ask for better.  And that was the year I also brought home a load of Dall sheep mutton from Alaska, treated according to the book all the way, and when people tasted some of each, they invariably preferred the mule deer.

On high heat. High! When red droplets come through, turn it over.

People often complain of a “gamey” taste in everything from doves to Dalls, but if it exists at all, it seems to be a result of people cooking game until it is totally dried out.  At that point, the finest ribeye would not be very good.  Others, confronted with the sage scent of pronghorn, try to overcome the taste with various marinades, soaking in milk, and so on.  My advice?  Consider that your sage-eating pronghorn is already partly herbed, and simply add herbs and spices that complement sage, much as you would a Christmas turkey.  Oregano and thyme, fresh-ground pepper, and so on.  If you don’t love it, you can give it to me.

This is not to say that game cannot be tough, and I do mean tough.  Thirty years ago, I shot a Cape buffalo high on Mount Longido, in the Rift Valley.  Some Masai who lived up there appeared on the scene to help out, and one promptly built a fire while another carved off chunks of backstrap about the size of a baseball.  These were impaled on stakes over the fire for ten or fifteen minutes, then seized and eaten like an apple.  You might as well have been biting into India rubber, but then, my mouth was a little dry from adrenalin.  The Masai, however, gave every indication of enjoying it immensely.

Another example, and this one is weird:  The Indian blackbuck is extolled in song and story as the best-eating game to be found on the subcontinent, right up there with Thomson’s gazelles in Africa.  A few years ago, I shot a blackbuck in Texas, treated the meat like cut glass, brought it home, and my mouth was watering days ahead.  I found it to be, whether in steak or stew, about as tough as that old Cape buffalo.  The buck was not old, he was not stressed, he was killed instantly, cleaned immediately, refrigerated carefully, and butchered lovingly.  Yet, stewing for days — and I mean days — even his backstraps were like leather.  I have no explanation.

I will finish with the formula for perfect grilled venison, imparted to me in northern Quebec in 1986 by a caribou hunter from Montana.  The trick, he said, is having each steak cooked to perfection — not too much (it dries out) and not too little.  First, butcher your own meat to ensure you get steaks that are a half-inch to an inch thick.  No thicker, or the formula doesn’t work as well.

Done to perfection.

Before cooking, set them in some olive oil with pepper and salt — just enough oil to allow the meat to absorb some on each side.  This prevents the outer bit from over-cooking, and also keeps it from sticking.

Wait until the grill is at high heat, then gently lay each steak on it.  This will take only a few minutes, so don’t walk away and leave it.  When you see little red droplets appear on the surface, turn it over; wait until the droplets reappear on the top, take it off the heat, transfer to pre-heated plates, and eat immediately.

This method works on any game meat (Cape buffalo and blackbuck excepted) and is self-regulating.  Within the bounds mentioned, thickness doesn’t matter.  And be sure to turn only once.  This renders steak that is perfect medium rare.

PS:  If any of your guests object that they want their steak well done, seat them at another table and open them a can of sardines.

As healthy and delicious a meal as you’ll find. Real food never looks as good in photos as the staged stuff, preserved in place with spray varnish. This was Wieland’s dinner, photographed just before he wolfed it down.

Editor’s Note:  Kangaroo has a very similar sage-infused taste as pronghorn, which I happen to like. But if you don’t like sage, there’s no use trying to cover it up with other seasonings. Just don’t order the kangaroo.

I rather enjoyed my one experience with musk ox steak, but nobody else at the table seemed to like it very much.

I won’t be cooking rattlesnake again. Not because it wasn’t pretty good….I just didn’t particularly care for having something that had been dead for four hours constrict itself around my arm when I finally got around to cleaning it. That sort of ruined the whole experience for me.

For my money, you’d be hard pressed to beat a rare venison steak. Caribou and elk are also hard to beat. I hear mountain lion is delicious, but I’ve never had it.

Mike Floyd,

Editor, Gray’s Sporting Journal

Gray’s Shooting Editor Terry Wieland has not taken an animal to a game processor since 1985, when the meat came back minus the backstraps and tenderloins.  He is now plotting a trip to Texas for another aoudad, just to taste the meat.