Credit: Kurt Brownell
Text: At a recent lunch, the subject of venison came up, with one friend saying how awful he always finds it. Another friend and I defended it, saying we'd had delicious venison many times. It got me wondering about how best to deal with deer meat, and so I asked a couple of hunter friends about it.
"I get about 90 percent of my family's red meat out of three deer," Dave Sluberski told me. That's part of the draw of hunting, but when you add up the costs -- equipment, licenses, butchering -- it isn't extremely economical. What many hunters talk about is family tradition and the draw of being out in the woods.
Those of us who don't do it might imagine hunting to be one big rush of blood-lust testosterone, but a hunter may spend as much as 100 hours in the woods in order to kill a single deer, and might not get one at all. If the time alone with nature doesn't appeal, you won't stick with it.
If you do, and you can manage to bag a 200-pound buck (that's big, folks), you'll end up with about 50 pounds of venison. When you kill a deer, the first step is to "field dress" it, which means taking out the guts. Jim Barbero explained the process to me, stressing the importance of opening the body cavity so that it cools down more quickly, meaning the meat won't start to spoil.
Lots can go wrong at this point. Sluberski said one reason he prefers bow hunting is that an arrow does so much less damage to the meat than a shotgun does. Barbero pointed out that a broken bladder or too much bleeding can taint the meat, making it inedible. But let's say you do mange to get that carcass back home. Then what?
You have to either have it butchered, or do it yourself. Sluberski used to hire a butcher, but that's become rather expensive (one butcher told me about $60 for a good-sized animal). He also knows enough about how his family uses the meat to want it cut and packaged a certain way. It takes him about eight hours to fully butcher a deer. Both guys completely debone their venison, and Sluberski says it's especially important to get all the fat and "silver skin" off as soon as possible. "A lot of what people call the 'gamy' taste of the venison is because of that," he explained, "and I defy anyone to taste that in my meat."
This is an interesting difference between venison and steak. In the latter, fat provides flavor and tenderizes the meat during cooking. Venison, because it is so lean, needs to be cooked as little as possible to keep it from drying out and becoming tough. All hunters rave about deer tenderloin (many like it raw). Barbero likes to cook it quickly over a very smoky fire. Sluberski likes his steaks marinated four hours in Montreal Steak Seasoning, then cooked fast and hot.
Sluberski also raved about his wife Lisa's venison tips Marsala. I still remember how good his venison chili was from 12 years ago when we worked together. ("Everybody makes chili," he said.) He also makes sausage, although he uses only about 10 percent venison mixed with pork butt (all venison would be too dry).
Both Sluberski and Barbero admit that some venison cuts are fairly tough. Some of that will become hamburger or sausage. Stewing for a long time is one way to make it more tender. Another popular approach is to make jerky. Some jerky recipes call for marinating, others just use a salt and spice rub. Either way, you'll want strips cut with the grain, between 1/8- and 1/4-inch thick. You can dry jerky in an oven, smoker, or dehydrator. Whichever you use, it's a long, slow process at very low heat (between 120 and 160 degrees).
Barbero started hunting when he was 16, and Sluberski also started that young, learning from his father. Both have two sons, and intend to pass on the tradition. Sluberski's boys are eight and 11, and he has them doing target practice with bows. When his eldest turns 12, he'll buy him a shotgun. He also made the investment of buying lifetime licenses for both boys before they were five. At that age, you're not sure they'll use them, but if they do, it will have been a bargain at $250. The boys are interested now, but even had they not been, Sluberski says he would have felt fine about supporting the state's program and conservation efforts.
The hunting season goes through much of the fall and some of the winter, but is complicated, with different seasons based on area of the state, game, and weapons. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has a web site with all the information (www.dec.state.ny.us/website/dfwmr/worhunt.html).
In the Southern Zone, which includes most of upstate except for the Adirondack region, this year's season for deer begins with bow hunting from October 15 to November 17, then regular (shotgun) hunting from November 18 to December 10, and finally another five days of bow hunting after that.