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Venison Meat Cuts and How to Cook Them

Venison Meat Cuts and How to Cook Them

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Use this guide to learn how to properly break down and serve venison

There’s nothing much more gratifying than the moment after walking up on an animal that you’ve harvested and recognizing your place in the natural world. Even more satisfying is knowing, confidently, that you’re about to produce a year’s worth of delicious dinners with little more than a knife, some heat, and a pan.

In the most general terms, there are two types of meat: that which is cooked quickly and that which contains tenacious connective tissues and requires a slower preparation. Of course, this is a gross oversimplification; the reality is that each cut that a hunter pulls from a deer or elk falls somewhere on a spectrum between these two extremes.

Developing the ability to know exactly how to treat each cut can take years without the knowledge of those who’ve gone before, but there are some simple rules I can help you decide whether to break out the crockpot, cast-iron skillet, or grill.

Before you get cooking, you’ll be best served if you make a few considerations. First, the secret to all cooking is time and temperature. All meat cooks at the same temperature and an internal temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit will produce the same level of muscle protein denaturation in a skirt steak as it will a shank, but it is critical to recognize that rarely are muscle cells the factor. Collagenous connective tissues in the form of fascia, tendon, and the like denature at higher temperatures, but when they do, they bring a lot more to the party in terms of flavor, pleasing texture, and perceived moisture. And while their presence may make for an unbearably chewy bite when cooked to a low-relative internal temperature, they can be absolutely wonderful in a saucy braise. Conversely, those tender cuts when cooked beyond a certain temperature become utterly unrecognizable as meat.

As a side note: I’m a big fan of butchering and packaging whole muscles or “sub-primals” mostly because it’s easy to break down later. You can always continue the fine work after freezing, but you can’t uncut meat. Keeping muscles whole is also just plain convenient. Generally, it expedites butchery, which is so often welcome after a long and tiring hunt, but it also contributes to easier freezing and better preservation.

The different cuts of venison and how to cook them

Front quarters

The shoulder consists of three primary muscles, with remnants of several others. They can be rather difficult to distinguish from one another and, thus, create a bit of a departure from true whole-muscle butchery.

With smaller specimens, a whole shoulder, with or without the scapula, makes for an amazing braise or roast—a perennial favorite being barbacoa. Of the shoulder muscles, the largest is the infraspinatus or blade roast. On the other side of the scapular spine is the supraspinatus. Both of these are longer-grained muscles and contain enough connective tissue to be flavorful, but can also be tender enough if cooked correctly. Cubed, these also make for great stew meat.

Shoulder cuts are well-suited to slow-cooking, but a whole shoulder or blade roast rubbed and roasted on a pellet grill to about 145 degrees can make for a memorable meal that feels downright paleolithic. 

  • Cooking Temperature: Medium
  • Cooking Time: Medium
  • Hindquarters

    Hindquarters are made up of six large muscles, shanks notwithstanding. Despite the fact that these muscles are so close together, each one has unique traits that dictate different preparations for each.

    Sirloin Tip: The sirloin consists of two muscles that make up a large mass forward of the femur. This is analogous to quads for us bipeds. The sirloin is great to keep whole for roasting, but steaks cut from the sirloin tip can offer a pleasant departure from the tender cuts.

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    Kept whole, the sirloin tip bears a resemblance to a football, and you’ll often hear it called the football roast. Because of its tidy shape, it will roast beautifully without butchers’ twine on a pellet grill or in the oven.

    • Cooking Temperature: Medium-high
    • Cooking Time: Medium

    Top Round: The top round has a distinct grain and lovely, even texture. It is well suited for roasting much like the sirloin and bottom round, but its cleanliness lends to preparations that are just harder to pull off with those other roasts. From the wider side of this muscle, you can cut a few thick steaks, which on, in terms of beef cuts, would be considered London broil, and the thinner point is perfect for tartare. Again, the even texture is perfectly suited to experience raw as there should be no offensive bits of gristle or sinew.

    The top round is also one of the best cuts to make jerky from, as the uniform grain structure allows you to modulate the toughness of the end product based on the thickness and angle at which you slice it.

    • Cooking Temperature: Raw to medium
    • Cooking Time: Medium

    Bottom round: The bottom round is the standard for pot roast. Tie it round for even cooking and salt well in advance of putting it to heat.

    • Cooking Temperature: Medium to long
    • Cooking Time: Medium

    Eye round: The eye of round resembles a loin hidden between the top and bottom round. It’s fibers are longer, and the meat is lean. Its homogenous grain structure makes for a great roast, but in a pinch, you can sear or grill this and cut it into medallions that are reminiscent of a backstrap, especially if you baste it with a good deal of butter.

    • Cooking Temperature: Hot to medium
    • Cooking Time: Short to medium

    Backstraps and tenderloins

    Backstraps and tenderloins are the trophy cuts for a reason. They’re tender, beautiful, easy to cook, and hard to screw up as long as you’re paying attention.

    They are also lean. Ideal temperatures are easier to achieve when you leave tender cuts in larger chunks rather than steaking them out or butterflying them. It is my belief that both tenderloin and backstrap should be cooked as near to whole as possible, over high heat, and to rare or medium-rare. Grills and cast-iron skillets are perfect tools for the task, and, if you’re into kitchen gadgetry, these are the perfect candidate for a little sous-vide experimentation. 

    • Cooking Temperature: Hot
    • Cooking Time: Short

    Shanks

    Shanks, it seems, have become the talk of the town; and for good reason. They’re a trove of rich connective tissue enveloping little packages of meat. Whether they are kept whole, on or off the bone, or cut into rounds for a traditional osso buco, you can anticipate a truly impressive dish.

    First, sear them to lock in a little moisture and, of course, to provide that all-important Maillard crust, then braise shanks for fork-tender meat that is moist beyond belief. Just give yourself plenty of time when cooking shanks, because they require a lot of it.

    • Cooking Temperature: Low to medium
    • Cooking Time: Long

    Neck

    I cringe every time I see even an ounce of neck meat left on a carcass, because, like shank, it’s full of luscious, collagen-rich connective tissue. Unlike shanks, however, they can be huge. I had a friend shoot an acorn-fed mule-deer buck in Utah whose rut-swollen neck alone fed him for weeks.

    Braise or roast neck meat low and slow for velvety-smooth ragus or barbacoa. It is amazing. Note: if you live in a state where CWD has been confirmed, it would be prudent to have your deer checked and leave the bone out of the preparation.

    • Cooking Temperature: Low to Medium
    • Cooking Time: Long

    Skirts and flanks

    Skirts and flanks are often an afterthought with game animals. They can range in size from miniscule to massive, and, unless you’ve been fortunate enough to take a bison, they often amount to a single meal. Even for the itinerant home butcher, it can be difficult to remove enough of the superficial fascia to make these tender and as such you’d be forgiven for chucking the small ones on the burger pile, but if you’re determined to cook them, then hot and fast is the only way to go.

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    Take special note of the grain or the orientation of the muscle fibers before putting a skirt to the coals, because they shrink up quickly. Further, it is paramount that you serve this sliced thin and against the grain. Thinly sliced, these can make for wonderful—if a little bouncy—tacos. Marinating and even wet-aging can help to further tenderize tenacious cuts like this, but they’re worth experiencing to be sure.

    • Cooking Temperature: Very Hot
    • Cooking Time: Very Short

    Ribs

    Ribs can go one of any number of ways. The many laminations of meat and sinewy membrane require longer cook times. On elk and larger deer, a rib-roll bound in butcher’s twine can be a suitable stand-in for a shank or hunk of neck meat in your favorite braise.

    The other option is to keep them whole. It’s fair to admit that some factors can limit the practicality of this, but if your pack-out permits it, it’s hard to beat bone-on deer ribs braised to tender in a crock-pot or pressure cooker, then charred quickly over a flame.

    • Cooking Temperature: Medium-low
    • Cooking Time: Medium-long
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