FOR ONE REASON OR ANOTHER, this is the time of year when many people turn their attention to deer, whether to enjoy watching the beasts on the hoof in a snowy landscape or on a plate steaming alongside potatoes and red cabbage. Many localities throughout the Hudson Valley are seemingly overrun with deer—pastoral visions of Bambi aside, the growing populations of people and deer don’t seem to mix very well. Incursions by herds of deer can quickly cause thousands of dollars of damage to residential vegetation as well as innumerable traffic accidents. Peaceful coexistence and lots of insurance is one answer, though the other solution helps stock freezers around the region.
Though it’s illegal to sell wild shot venison for consumption, many people have the opportunity to share the harvest with hunter friends. Alternatively, farm-raised venison becomes available at retailers and on restaurant menus more frequently in the winter, usually red or fallow deer from Europe, or Sika deer from Asia, all of which are much smaller than our indigenous whitetail variety.
Europeans were farming deer more than 500 years ago, but it wasn’t until farmers in New Zealand refined the practice in the late 1960s that commercial deer farming began to flourish. The trend spread to America in 1979, when Peter Duekensbuehler opened the Robinia Hill Dear Farm in the Finger Lakes. New Zealand venison has the advantage of being slightly cheaper than domestic meat, and although the domestic market for venison grows 25 to 30 percent each year, according to the North American Deer Farmers Association, U.S. deer farmers supply only 20 percent of the U.S. market.
Part of the growth of the market may be due to consumers becoming aware of venison’s exceptional nutritional qualities. The meat scores high in all nutritional categories compared to other meats: Based on a 3-ounce cooked serving, venison contains 22 grams of protein (compared to 27 grams for beef, 25 grams for lamb and 26 grams for chicken), but only 5 grams of fat (compared to 12 for beef, 13 for pork and 8 for lamb) and 62 milligrams of cholesterol (compared to 84 for beef, 80 for lamb, 112 for veal, 82 for pork and 72 for chicken), according to the USDA. In addition, venison is rich in iron, zinc and many of the B vitamins.
Unlike commercial beef, pork or chicken, farm-raised deer generally are not given steroids or antibiotics, and there’s no need to use growth hormones—they only stimulate appetite, which is desirable in beef but not in venison. A diet of whole corn, grain pellets and hay helps to keep farmed venison clean tasting and rather mild, yet still possessing some of the well-rounded “game” characteristics.
Wild-killed venison has a reputation for being tough and sometimes very gamey tasting and gritty. This may largely be due to how it’s cooked, but at least some of the strong flavor and toughness of wild venison may be due to the effects of stress hormones released into the meat if the deer is not killed instantly. (It’s not uncommon for an injured wild deer to struggle, sometimes for hours, before dying.) Stress hormones are known to affect the quality of beef and lamb, for instance.
The traditional use of heavy marinades and seasoning is almost passé when cooking farm-raised venison. Marinades may be used on wild venison to break down muscle fiber and tenderize; on the other hand, most farm-raised venison, if cooked properly, is naturally tender and free from the gamey flavor that some think needs to be masked with an abundance of spices.
Which cut of venison to choose for a meal largely depends on the planned cooking method. The body of a deer is similar to that of a lamb, but the butcher’s cuts treat it more like beef. The most popular cut is the loin; other cuts are the leg and hindquarter, and the front quarters, containing the shoulder, neck and ribs (generally used for stews).
Most chefs agree there are really only two ways to cook venison: a little or a lot. High heat and short cooking time help preserve natural juices and the tenderness of an inherently lean cut (such as the loin). Use long, slow cooking for less-tender cuts, such as the shoulder. Sautéing or roasting to a maximum of medium rare (125 ̊F internal temperature) is a good rule of thumb.
Josh Kroner, chef/owner of Terrapin Restaurant in Rhinebeck, says venison is a popular dish on his winter menu. "People like venison up here," he says. "They associate being out in the country with deer, and deer hunting is popular." The success of this—or other venison dishes, for that matter—depends as much on the cooking method as it does the cut of meat, he confirms. "You want to start with a piece of meat that's long, with the grain (it should look like a pork tenderloin), so you can cut perpendicular to the grain to get perfect medallions. We use a cut from the top of the leg for the medallions—like a sirloin." For wine pairing, Kroner advises, "Go with a bigger wine." His choice with the venison? Tousey Cabernet Franc.