By Michael Cravens

July 9, 2020

For the Love of Shanks

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Igrew up in the Missouri Ozarks. This is where I harvested my first deer, a mature whitetail doe, over thirty years ago. It doesn’t seem that long ago to me, but when I look back and acknowledge everything that has changed since then, I have no choice but to accept that far too many years have passed by. With that said, I wouldn’t change a thing. Back then, we didn’t have YouTube tutorials, we didn’t have cookbooks that specialized in wild game. Hell, we barely had mentors. It was basically my buddy and I tromping around in the hills and river valleys figuring it out on our own. I attribute a lot of my abilities as an outdoorsman and a naturalist to this way of learning. I wasn’t afforded any shortcuts. Success in hunting was rare and hard earned. Because of this, when I was successful, it was all the sweeter and all the little details stuck with me. This form of learning was slow, but it gave me a rock-solid foundation in which to build on as I grew and was exposed to opportunities for more formal studies. 

There is one area in which I wish I had guidance as a kid, and that’s in the processing, care of, and cooking of wild game. I grew up in a broken home where my dad had headed west years before I purchased my first gun, a ten-dollar break action single barrel twelve gauge that was missing a trigger guard, from a friend of my older brother. My mom wasn’t much of a cook due to working nights as a nurse and having a necessary focus on keeping a roof over our heads. The one adult example I had that hunted was my buddy’s dad. I owe this man a debt of gratitude as he always included me on their hunting and fishing trips. When it came to cooking though, all I can recall of venison was in the form of butterflied backstraps, coated in flour, and fried in butter until well done. I do remember the occasional bowl of venison chili, too. But that’s where it ended.

As an adult, I am now living in the age of information. I am fortunate to have access to a wealth of knowledge from leading chefs and cooks like Hank Shaw, Jesse Griffiths, and Steven Rinella that we, as kids mucking around in the woods, or even my buddy’s dad, didn’t have. Sadly, a lot of choice cuts were simply discarded in the field because we didn’t know what to do with them, or even that they were edible. As it turns out, shanks are not only edible, but they are personally my favorite, as well as my family’s, venison cut.


There are a number of fancy preparations for shanks (such as the Italian dish Ossobuco that absolutely deserves your attention), but I wanted to showcase a dish that focused on only the cut of meat itself with no ingredients fancier than some salt and some bone stock. No matter how many times I do this, I am always shocked at just how delicious some simple shredded venison can be. 

Here’s your ingredient list:

2 deer shanks with heels attached

1 quart bone stock

Salt

Directions

I did serve this up atop some mashed potatoes and some roasted carrots, but you already know how to do that. Let's just focus on the shanks:

Start with a Dutch oven large enough to hold both shanks. Over medium heat, bring some lard or vegetable oil up to temperature.

Place well salted shanks in one at a time, taking your time and browning them on all sides. When done, set aside.

Pour enough of your stock in to cover the bottom of your Dutch oven to about a half inch. Then, take a flat ended wooden spoon, or just substitute with whatever tool you have on hand that will do the job, and scrape up all the fond on the bottom of the pot while the stock comes to a simmer.

Now, carefully place both shanks back into the Dutch oven and pour in the remaining stock.
Cover, set the heat to low, and leave to braise for around three hours.

Three hours might be all it takes but be prepared for up to five or six. Just check them occasionally by inserting a fork and testing for tenderness. Once the meat is easily pulled apart and is falling off the bone, remove the lid and simmer the stock down to a demi-glace. Be careful here and keep a close eye. You want to reduce the liquid to the point that it becomes a sauce but the space between sauce and burnt isn’t terribly large so, again, pay attention.

Finally, allow to cool enough so you can pull the meat from the bones, shred, mix in with the demi-glace, and serve any way you like. I like to serve it with mashed potatoes and peas or carrots in a down home comfort food style.

If you’ve never experienced shanks like this before, I promise you, you will be blown away at how delicious a pair, prepared in this ridiculously simple way, can be. The richness and the silky texture that is achieved with this commonly discarded cut will make you wonder how anyone could ever leave this exceptional cut of meat in the field. 

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