How to think (and cook) like a venison scavenger

The chest freezer in my garage is chock-full of venison. But I didn’t harvest a single deer this season.

How is that possible? Well, it’s actually quite simple. In lean seasons, I’ve learned to replenish my yearly supply of deer meat meat by perfecting the art of cooking parts of the deer most of my hunting companions don’t want or have never considered cooking themselves.

While that may sound less than appetizing, I can promise you that some of the lesser-known portions of meat can be turned into downright delicious table fare.

Last year, during a Netflix binge, I got hooked on the show “MeatEater.” While the subject matter of the hunting adventures is enthralling, I was most taken with host’s desire to utilize every last piece of meat on the animals he harvested.

Taking a life is a big deal. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that getting the most out of each kill was simply the responsible thing to do. So I started scouring the internet for recipes in advance of the deer season.

Thankfully for me, many of my friends enjoyed a deer season that was much more successful than my own and they didn’t mind parting ways with the “extras.” Admittedly, I encountered very little competition when requesting some of these pieces of meat. But, with the success I found in the kitchen, I think that may be about to change. Here are a few of my go-tos and some ideas about how you can start using them too:

Ribs

Like, many hunters, I never invested the time to take the ribs out of my deer. While I have long been curious about what they would taste like, it seemed likely they would be tough. And, frankly, the amount of meat didn’t seem worth the effort.

This changed after I saw Steven Rinella prepare a rack of venison ribs on MeatEater. In fact, I even used his recipe during my first venture.

The key is cooking them low and slow. Braising is an ideal method for yielding the most tender results. If you give these ribs the time they deserve, you will be pleased with the outcome.

Though not the same as beef or pork, these venison ribs are surprisingly tender. The dry rub provides a classic barbecue taste.

Though you can eat them the traditional way, I suggest taking the meat off the bone to simplify things.

Leftovers can be covered in barbecue sauce and served on a quality bun with some coleslaw. It’s a cool play on a pulled venison sandwich.

Heart

This one takes a little courage. But trust me, once you’ve had properly-prepared venison heart, you’ll never leave the ticker in your gut pile ever again.

On the suggestion of Rinella, I used this recipe for my initial voyage into deer heart territory.

Allowing ample time for the marinade to take effect is crucial. It’s well worth the wait.

The strips of meat chew more like beef than venison. In fact, I’d say it tastes more like a skirt steak than a venison product.

I decided to pan-fry the strips, rather than grilling them. In hindsight, I would also recommend using a meat tenderizer to get an even softer mouth feel.

Now, I’ll admit, it takes a minute to get over exactly what you are eating. But the flavors are wonderful.

You can serve as directed in the recipe or put them into warm tortillas with cheese and more vegetables to create some awesome fajitas.

Liver

This may be my European heritage showing itself, but I love liver pâté. But, for whatever reason, it never occurred to me to make a batch with deer liver.

Finding a good recipe was pretty easy.

My first batch had me instantly regretting every liver I have ever left in the woods. The full-bodied flavor provided by the onions, bourbon, and the natural taste of the venison makes for a powerful spread.

I strongly suggest letting your pâté sit in the fridge for at least a day before you dive-in.

While the end results aren’t much to look at, they are wonderful on crackers or toast.

If you want to go really old-school, there are plenty of awesome recipes for straight up venison liver and onions (like this one).

Neck

Venison neck roasts are a lot like the ribs.

For starters, many hunters don’t take the time to collect the meat. But that’s also because many hunters just don’t know how to prepare it.

Adding the neck meat to your scrap pile just doesn’t do it justice.

Instead, just go low and slow. With the proper time and preparation, venison neck roast can be fall-apart tender. You need to try it for yourself.

My 2020 outdoor adventures by the numbers

Though math isn’t my strong suit, I am very much a numbers person.

But, for whatever reason, I have struggled to keep a complete hunting and fishing journal over the course of a calendar year. In 2020, I finally accomplished that feat.

If you are passionate about the outdoors, I strongly recommend you make time for keeping a journal or log. I’ll even help you get started.

Before turning the page to 2021, I wanted to share some of the more interesting numbers that came out of my record keeping.

166 – Outdoors trips

In total, I spent 346 hours partaking in outdoor activities this year. Fishing was, more often than not, my activity of choice, encompassing 133 of my 166 trips. I ventured out on 26 hunting trips and seven dip netting outings.

502 – Fish caught

Averaging just under four fish per trip, I was able to catch more than half a thousand water-dwelling critters this year. I pulled in 17 different species from 12 different bodies of water across four counties here in Wisconsin.

Fish No. 500 came on Nov. 10. If you so wish, you can read the story behind that trip here.

Smallmouth bass made up the lion’s share of my total, 357 of my fish this year were smallies. Rock bass were the second-most popular fish to end up on my hook. I hauled in 37 during the open water season.

A complete breakdown of my 2020 catches, by species, is below.

SpeciesNo. Caught
Smallmouth Bass357
Rock Bass37
Bluegill31
Bullhead19
Northern Pike16
Carp11
Sucker6
Largemouth Bass5
Perch4
Rainbow Trout4
Creek Chub2
King Salmon2
Shiner2
Walleye2
Whitefish2
Lake Trout1
Sunfish1

24 – Ducks our group shot on my best hunt of the year

A four-person limit in just over two hours is, by far, the most productive waterfowl hunt I have ever been on. As I have mentioned many times and in many places, being able to share this adventure with two first-time duck hunters made it even more special.

10(th) – Highest finish in a bass fishing tournament

I tried my hand at tournament bass fishing for the first time in 2020. I fished my first online event through Lucky Go Fishing in mid-September.

During the one-day event, I landed 35 fish, including 26 smallmouth bass. I placed 10th out of 30 anglers in my region with the combined length of my top-5 bass measuring out at 51.25 inches.

15 – Suckers caught dip netting

With all of the craziness going on in the world, I was late to the dip netting game this season. The sucker run was nearly over when I went out for the first time in mid-to-late April, but I still managed to find a few fish well into May.

Fifteen is certainly not an impressive number. On your steady nights, you can manage that in a few pulls. But I’m just thrilled I was even able to go this year and I wanted something in this recap to reflect that.

67.5 – Best combined length, in inches, of my top-5 bass in a tournament

A couple of weeks after my first online bass tournament, I fished a weekend-long event with Lucky Go Fishing.

Over the course of the three days, I caught 216 fish (all from shore). My top-five bass scored out at 67.5 inches, 16.25 inches longer than my top-five from the first tournament. I finished 73rd out of 180 anglers in my region.

4 – Deer harvested in 24 hours of our group’s annual deer drive

The last weekend of each gun deer season is reserved for a series of deer drives with my friends that has since been named “The Big Push.”

We generally enjoy success during these outings but this year brought one of the best harvests I can recall. In roughly 24 hours, we put for does on the ground and everyone went home with some venison.

98.6 – Percent of fish I caught that were released

I’m certainly not here to shame anyone who wants to bring home their legal allotment of fish. But I am very proud of the fact that nearly 99 of every 100 fish I catch go right back into the waters they came from.

I kept seven fish for the table this year, three rainbow trout, king salmon, a lake trout, and two walleye.

19 – Length, in inches, of the biggest smallmouth bass I caught this year

This fish (pictured above) was one of the highlights of my year. In fact, there’s a complete chapter about it in my upcoming book (shameless self-promotion).

It was early September and I was fishing one of my most consistent spots on the Sheboygan River. I hooked into, what I thought was, a carp. It ended up being the longest smallmouth bass of my life.

I have caught hundreds of smallies in this spot throughout the years, but nothing that ever would have led me to believe something of this stature was swimming around.

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