[ SKILLS ]
How to Age Venison
We hung a grizzled old deer in camp last fall that – in terms of its meat – was in
less-than-ideal condition. He was sort of randy smelling in general – all rutted
up and glandular. That a shot hit him low in the body cavity didn’t help the odor,
nor did 10 hours of dragging him in weather that was too warm for rifle season,
nor the 22 hours afterward before we could get the meat into a refrigerator.
If 20-year-old me had seen and smelled the deer as we were butchering
him, I would have been sure that he was going to be tough with age and
gamey-tasting from the heat. But 40-year-old me has learned a few things
about putting up venison that I’ll share for those of you who might be new to
hunting or butchering. I have no formal training in this area, but I have been
experimenting with this sort of thing for two decades now.
To trick an old cut of venison into tasting good you’ve got to break the
rules, and step one is knowing what the rules are to begin with. In a perfect
world, you’d kill a deer when it’s between 35 and 40 degrees out, process it
in a sterile environment, hang the carcass in a place with a steady 38-degree
temperature and a relative humidity of 75 percent for two or three weeks, then
make your cuts and enjoy.
You’ve probably never seen such consistent weather, and you probably don’t
own a meat locker, so the goal is to stick to these conditions as closely as you
can. Meat taints from the guts out, so remove the entrails immediately. If it’s
a warm day, cut out the trachea and the hemal nodes (those little dots around
the trachea) as they can spoil the neck meat. Get the deer as open as possible
so the body heat can dissipate.
Barring freak heat, you shouldn’t have much to worry about in northern New
England in November on the day of the harvest, since it takes a while for the
animal heat to leave the body. By then, it’s usually nighttime and conditions
are appropriately cool. It’s the sun and warmth of the next day that you have to
watch out for. If it’s above 40 degrees, ice the deer as quickly as possible if you
can’t process it immediately. Don’t drive around needlessly with the buck in the
back of your truck, but don’t be scared if it’s warmish and it takes you a day
or two – the carcass can take more than you think. (Be aware that bears are
much different from deer on account of all their winter fat. A bear carcass can
handle less time and temperature than you’d think – treat it like a hog, which
is to say the hide and fat should be removed as soon as possible and the meat
processed quickly. Aging a bear like a beef or venison is not advised.)
Once the deer is home, skin it and make your primal cuts. The dangerous
bacteria in the animal are in the body cavity with the guts and the feces, so
I use one knife for skinning and cavity work and a separate knife for cutting
meat. If there’s any question, I wash the blade. I bone out most of my venison,
leaving only the ribs and shanks bone-in. I chine the base of the ribs, removing
the face of the bone and any bacteria that was on it.
The next step is deciding whether you want to wet-age or dry-age the meat.
Either will improve the quality of any venison, but aging is especially important
with tough, old deer. Both methods work as a means of tenderizing, though
dry-aging has a more pronounced effect on the meat’s flavor. It’s a little trickier,
but to my palate, it’s worth it.
To wet-age, simply proceed with cutting up the meat. Vacuum-seal your
packages, then put them in the refrigerator and keep them at around 38
degrees for a few weeks. You can do this before you freeze the meat or
after you take it out of the freezer. I should mention here that the USDA Food
Safety and Inspection Service states that raw venison should be kept in the
refrigerator for no more than three to five days, so be aware you’re breaking
someone’s rule. On the flip side, there’s a long culinary tradition that stretches
back thousands of years related to aged meat – in nineteenth-century Europe,
it was all the rage among gastronomes to let beef literally rot on the outside
before it was eaten – so there you have your two extremes.
To dry-age, I use an old refrigerator that I keep on hand for the task. I plug
it in, disinfect it, get it to temperature, then add the primal cuts and a fan that
keeps the air circulating. This helps dry the meat’s surface and promotes more
even cooling and humidity.
Cut size and airflow seem key. In my years of experimenting, my biggest
mistakes have all involved either fat-on-fat festering or small cuts of meat.
Once, I left two bacons stacked on top of each other, and overnight the fat went
green and rancid. I’ve tried dry-ageing steak-sized cuts and had them quickly
go south. The lesson I took from this is that you want to age the meat in big
cuts, and you want good air-circulation on all sides.
The other trick is learning to use your nose and eyes. Aged meat smells,
but it’s more of an earthy cheese-smell than a rotten odor. The meat changes
color, but always on the red or purple parts of the spectrum, not brown or
gray – which indicates rot. The crust on aged meat smells a little like jerky.
Sometimes white, wispy mold does form, but I’ve never had a problem just
brushing or cutting it off. I wouldn’t encourage the mold – it probably means
you’re playing with the edge – but I wouldn’t fear small amounts. A primal cut
is dense like cheese, so below the surface, things are usually fine. Plus, after
trimming and cooking, any residual surface funk will be killed.
So why go to all this trouble? Flavor and tenderness. According to Harold
Mcgee’s On Food and Cooking, when an animal dies, the control systems in
its cells stop functioning, and enzymes begin attacking and turning flavorless
molecules into smaller, flavorful fragments. They break proteins into delicious
amino acids, glycogen into sweet glucose, adenosine triphosphate into savory
inosine monophosphate. The meat takes on a concentrated, almost nutty flavor.
At the same time, the enzymes are weakening the collagen in the connective
tissue, which causes it to dissolve into gelatin during cooking. This makes the
meat tenderer; it also reduces the pressure that the connective tissue exerts
during heating, which means the meat loses less moisture as you cook it.
As you butcher the aged meat, the tenderness will be obvious. The meat will
be slumping away from the bone. You’ll be able to hand-pull the fat and mem-
brane off the bottom of the backstraps. You’ll be able to run muscly leg meat
through a weak grinder and not have the blade bind up every two minutes with
Eighteen days was long enough for this old buck’s meat – the crust was
starting to get hard. We butterflied a steak and layered high-end prosciutto,
fresh basil, and crumbly cheddar and Parmesan onto one half, then closed
the meat like a book and tied it up with twine. Grilled to medium rare over
hardwood coals. Let it rest for ten minutes or so before cutting into it. Italian-
style medallions of meat on a plate, now, served with squash and sweet corn
from last summer’s garden. Pride and a sense of ownership of everything on
the table. Prayers of thanks, and hunting stories about the noble animals we
pursue. These are moments when everything seems right with the world.
Dave Mance III