Venison, as a meat, carries with it a lot of culinary heritage, the vast majority of which is outdated to such a degree that it is not relevant to today.
Nearly all of the cooking styles and methods are borrowed from more familiar and popular meats, simply using venison as a substitute.
Having cooked with venison for many years, what is clear is that this meat does not behave or taste like any of the more familiar conventionally farmed meats. While there are certain similarities, no one option offers a direct comparison, so why treat venison in the same way?
Without going into detailed biology or specific physiology simply looking at the animal, how and where it lives are good places to start. Taking a broad objective look gives a great clue as to why venison deserves, and in fact requires, its own approach. Comparing beef for example, the differences between a cow and a deer are immense, like comparing a ballerina to a power lifter. While both are athletes, requiring muscular power and definition along with a tailored diet and so on, the general physiology of the bodies required to carry out both of these activities, and the activities themselves are, poles apart. The same is true of beef and venison, as it is with pork, chicken and lamb and venison.
Taking this comparison to a culinary perspective, there are broad brush strokes that popular cooking styles and methods use when thinking of the four main meats.
Firstly beef, regarded as a heavy and rich red meat. Very loosely speaking the demands on a cow’s physiology are rather extreme due to its size, relative sedentary nature and its very limited diet, which is reflected in its meat. Cooking beef is essentially all about managing texture and fat with many recipes calling for slower cooking with bold flavours.
Secondly pork, neither a typical red or white meat. The flavour is more delicate than beef, while its large mass and relative sedentary nature giving a texture similar to beef. Fat distribution is the distinguishing factor, pork has very little intermuscular fat with the vast majority stored in nearer the skin, potentially leading to a dry eating experience. Most recipes focus on cutting through the fat or melting it to give a succulent ‘fall apart’ experience.
Thirdly lamb, with a more active lifestyle and lighter frame the meat needs less attention, but again fat content plays a sizeable part when looking at recipes mainly due to its strong flavour. Balancing a rich fatty flavour takes bold seasoning and punchy methods of cooking.
Finally chicken, arguably the most popular and frequently consumed meat. This has given rise to a wide variety of farming styles to meet demand, it is hard to know what’s what with this meat. On the face of it, comparisons with venison lie thin on the ground. While this is certainly true of the physiology, cooking styles and methods are more suited to venison than with the other meats when considering fat content and texture of the meat, but this is where the comparison ends. The flavour is so far removed that very few seasonings or ingredient pairings are relevant.
The cooking of these more prevalent and popular meats is very tailored, having been crafted over time to highlight the strengths and enhance the eating experience. Venison deserved the same attention.
The biggest distinguishing factor when considering venison compared to these other meats is that this is a wild meat, not restricted in movement or diet by farming. From a culinary perspective this means very little fat and any fat that does build up will be in modest quantities and seasonal as an adaptation to environment. The consequences of this are far reaching when looking at recipes, as it influences both flavour and texture. Perhaps more importantly, fat also plays a part in how flavour, and to a lesser degree texture, is perceived in the mouth.
A wild active animal also gives rise to very well used muscles. This brings with it connective tissue, tendons or sinew, and deep coloured meat which is why on the face of it venison could be perceived as being a tough meat. However, removing the connective tissue in the butchery and separating the fibres with preparation or cooking is far quicker and easier to deal with than the lack of fat. The most popular way to tackle a cut of meat that is perceived as being tough, is to give it a slower cook at a lower temperature. The primary reason for this is not to make the meat itself tender, but to melt the connective tissue and fat within that particular cut allowing the muscle fibres to separate giving the perception of tenderness or that fall apart nature that is so desirable. This leads back to fat being the controlling factor when considering texture in relation to venison.
How to approach cooking venison is far easier bearing all of this in mind, giving a few pointers as to styles and methods that are more suited to the meat as well as flavour pairings and seasonings. When considering how to get the best out of venison, it is clear that a more tailored approach is needed to release the full potential of this stunning meat.
Heritage | Environment | Craft
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