Its unfortunate that venison often gets a bad reputation for flavor when it is one of the best sources of protein available. When you compare venison to the other red meats such as commercial beef, you wonder why anyone would choose cattle over deer. Venison is a naturally lean meat, packed with protein, and absent of the growth hormones etc. fed to commercial beeves, yet most folks prefer the latter of the two when it comes to flavor. The statement “its just too gamey” is a common response I have heard when offering someone a deer dinner of any sort that they haven’t even tried yet. They are probably basing this idea from what they have heard or from a bad experience with a less properly prepared meat. I am going to offer a few tips to better understand the causes and preventions of the “gamey” flavor.
So what does it mean to have a “gamey” flavor? Well, I would say that this term encompasses adjectives such as mineral, sour, tangy, biting, earthy, and stronger. There are many things that can lead to a less desirable flavor in deer meat, and most can be prevented or minimized.
First, let’s address what we as hunters, have the least amount of control over and that is habitat, behavior and food sources. What makes beef so sweet is their lack of muscle use and the rich diet of grains etc. that they receive. The whitetail deer does not enjoy such comforts in most cases. Since deer are a free ranging animal, they travel, often for miles at a time, frequently to find food, water, cover, mates, etc. For example, animals located in the mountains of Virginia have a distinctly different flavor than those harvested in the farmlands of Maryland as they have a more strenuous commute. This exercise increases the amount of blood and decreases the amount of fat found within and around the muscles, resulting in a more mineral tasting, less sweet flavor.
The food sources also play an important role in the flavor of the meat. Deer living in the mountains tend to feed primarily on browse or mass crops such as acorns compared to the farmland deer feeding on agricultural fields of corn, soy bean, alfalfa, etc. These crops are higher in sugars and fats which translates directly into meat flavor. As hunters we have little control over whether or not a deer has to climb a mountain to gather its groceries but we do have some opportunities to provide the deer with a better selection. The addition of food plots on a property can supplement a deer’s natural diet and will not only attract more deer but make them taste a little better too.
Now for the factors which we have the most control over. This includes the harvest, recovery, processing, and storage of the deer. Harvesting a deer with a good hit to the vitals will minimize the amount of ground it can cover from time of impact to its expiration. This will in turn minimize the amount of lactic acid build up in the muscle tissue and provide a better flavor than that of a poorly hit deer that can take several hours or days to recover. A poorly hit animal also has a higher risk of having organs such as the stomach, intestines, bladder, etc. punctured and considering the extended recovery time, a tainted flavor.
Once the deer is down, the faster you can recover the animal, field dress it, and begin processing it the better. Be sure to be careful not to puncture anything below the diaphragm because most things will taint the flavor of the meat. When processing the deer, start by hanging the deer in a cool place (under 50 degrees) out of the sun and wind. Remove the hide and scent glands as soon as possible, and allow the body to hang for several days to remove the body heat. If external temperatures do not allow for such hang time, I prefer to quarter the animal and store in our refrigerator. Warm meat placed in the freezer tends to have a soured taste in my opinion.
When it comes to red meat, my wife and I rely almost solely on the deer that I am able to harvest. In many dishes we even prefer it over beef because of its flavor and lower fat content. Remember those folks who told me that “its too gamey”, well some of those same diners sang praises over venison meals that as far as they know were all beef. So if you follow a few of these tips from field to table, you’ll be eating better tasting venison too.