We love deer and elk steaks, but you can only get so many off an animal. That means lots of wild game meat is ground into burger, but there are other options that make tasty meals and snacks.
Many hunters have their big game animals processed by professional butchers. If thatís the case, chances are good you will end up with lots of ground meat. Donít worry, you can still use that meat for nearly everything below.
If you do your own butchering, you have more options. And a quick note about processing the meat before itís ground. Deer or elk burger has a reputation for having ďgameyĒ flavor, which is usually not a compliment, but it can be just as tasty as steaks if you process it with a few things in mind.
Trim, then trim some more
You want as much lean, red meat as possible. Trim as much membrane as you can, which is the white or silvery tissue that connects muscle.
Trim the fat, too. Without going into great detail, deer or elk fat is different than fat in beef or pork. Usually deer and elk fat tastes bad. That isnít a universally held opinion, and some people say it tastes fine. The flavor of fat is partially dependent on what the animal was eating, but you will rarely have better tasting meat if you donít trim the fat. The goal is to get as close as you can to pure, red meat going into the grinder or slow cooker.
Meat you plan to grind can be almost any size as long as it fits into your grinder, but chunks about an inch or two in diameter, or smaller, tend to grind more easily.
After you have your meat trimmed, you get to decide what to do with it.
If youíre going to make jerky, you want to thinly slice the larger chunks of meat into strips. The process then involves soaking slices in a brine and smoking or drying them. Drying can be done in a food dehydrator, smoker, or even your oven at its lowest setting with the door open ajar.
There are many jerky recipes available in cook books and on the internet. Remember when making jerky the pieces should be dry, but still supple. Too dry and it will be brittle and crunchy, which is overcooked. Although the process of making jerky is a method of preserving, itís still best to store it in the refrigerator or freezer.
This is a good way to prepare a large batch of meat that you can freeze and use for future meals, such as tacos, burritos, casseroles and others.
Itís also good for extra-tough cuts of meat, such as shanks (the lower leg muscles). Cut the meat into roughly even-sized chunks so they will take about the same duration to cook.
This meat also works well for stew, chili and soups and other slow-cook recipes.
If you have lots of ground meat from your butcher, making patty sausage is still an option, and itís simple to do. All you have to do is thaw the meat and mix in seasoning. You also may want to add ground pork to increase the fat content, which will hold it together for cooking and make it juicier.
You can make breakfast sausage or Italian-style sausage that tastes great when mixed with spaghetti sauce and other dishes, depending on what spices and seasoning you use.
If youíre grinding sausage from scratch, plan to add between 10 percent to 50 percent pork to your venison, depending on your taste. Use inexpensive cuts of pork, which gives it a milder flavor, and also gives you more sausage.
This sausage is a little trickier because you have to stuff the meat into sausage casings, but you can also form the meat into logs by wrapping them in plastic wrap, twisting the ends tight and smoothing out the log before slowly unwrapping to keep the shape even.
After grinding a mixture of venison and pork and stuffing the casing or making logs, you smoke the sausages or logs at low temperature for several hours. These make fantastic appetizers, and you can freeze them for later use.
These are tasty and great pocket snacks for your next hunting or fishing trip. Theyíre a little more work because making them requires mixing the spices and also stuffing them into long, narrow casings, but itís nothing you canít handle. You can find the casings at specialty stores, sporting goods stores or online, as well as whole kits for making pepperoni sticks. If itís too much of a hassle, many meat processors will make it for you.
More tips for processing game meat
Pay attention to sanitary guidelines and cooking temperatures. Use a meat thermometer to ensure meat has reached the proper temperature when smoking or drying.
You know what flavors you like and dislike, so learn the basics of a recipe and adjust to suit your tastes. Donít be afraid to experiment.
If itís your first attempt with a new recipe, start with a small batch. If it doesnít turn out how you like, you can change it for your next batch.
If youíre making patty sausage, cook some as soon as itís done. Put a small, thin patty in an oiled frying pan, cook it a few minutes and taste it, then add more seasoning if needed.
When freezing, donít put too much meat into one package. Aim for each package to hold enough for one meal.
Take advantage of prepackaged seasoning mixes. They take a lot of the hassle out of figuring out which spices to use and how much, and many are created for wild game, not domestic meats.
Get a kitchen scale that will weigh about 10 pounds of meat. It will ensure you get the right ratio of game meat to pork, pork fat or beef fat.
Use a vacuum sealer if you plan to freeze summer sausages, jerky or pepperoni for later use. It will prevent freezer burn or drying.
Create a personal cookbook. Set up a folder on your computerís desktop and put notes and recipes in there. Itís easy to forget what recipes, seasoning or game-meat/fat ratios you used, especially if you take recipes off the internet, and you may not find them next time you look.
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Roger Phillips is employed with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.