November 14, 2022
By Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley
When I first started cooking venison, I assumed that all presence of fat and silver skin was undesirable. I attributed these two tissues responsible for why venison might be gamy and tough, so I advised readers to remove them at all times.
Years later — as you can guess — a few light bulb moments have changed the way I cook and handle venison: deer fat isn’t always a bad thing, and connective tissues are must-have components in some recipes.
Good Deer Fat
I may be biased, but we have some of the best-tasting white-tailed deer in Nebraska. Fat on corn, soy beans and all the shoots, greens, nuts and acorns they can find, a wildlife biologist once told me that while deer in Nebraska can die from many things, starvation is never one of them. Shoot a deer in January and you may find fat an inch or thicker underneath all that hide. Yet for years, I’ve been told that deer fat is inedible.
At least that’s what I thought until one winter, when my husband shot a doe that was so fat, she seemingly had hints of marbling in her backstraps. White as snow, this fat also laced in and out of her neck muscles, making it impossible to remove. So, I trimmed off what I could, left what I couldn’t get to, and made a simple Irish-type braise. That deer neck recipe turned out to be one of the best-tasting venison stews I’ve ever made.
Since that winter, I’ve learned to incorporate a bit of fat in many of the venison dishes I make. Not only does the fat make my venison recipes a little richer, it also gives me a better appreciation for what the animal tastes like. I now have a better appreciation for the word “gamy” — not gamy in the negative sense that most people understand it, but gamy as in wild, flavorful, and individual.
Hank Shaw of Hunter Anger Gardener Cook confirmed my realization, writing that “fat is the primary carrier of individual flavor in animals, not lean meat.”
Bad Deer Fat
With all that said, don’t go chewing on the deer fat just yet. Not all deer have access to copious amounts of corn and soybeans, and not all deer live in the same habitat. In just my state of Nebraska, the meat of eastern whitetails is the clear winner over our western mulies, which must make its living in the harsher, more barren elements of the Sandhills.
Similar to other high-country or desert deer species, our western mule deer must feed on what is available to them, and that often includes pungent herbs and hardy vegetation. Those flavors – true to Shaw’s words – will reflect in that animal’s fat, and to most palates, may be undesirable.
To determine whether deer fat tastes is worth keeping, Shaw recommends that you “render some in a pan with a little water, and if it smells good it is good. Your nose doesn’t lie.” If not, trim off as much as you can, as “bad” fat will make your venison taste stronger.
Using Deer Fat
If the fat is palatable, you then have to decide how much you actually want to keep. I personally don’t recommend leaving on too much. The reason: stearic acid, the waxy, saturated fatty acid naturally found in both animal and vegetable fats is present — for unclear reasons — at high concentrations in deer fat. Eat too much and you might leave the table feeling like you just consumed a warm candle.
Deer fat also goes rancid more quickly than beef fat. If stored haphazardly or too long, what you put in the freezer months ago may not taste so good now.
With deer fat, a little goes a long way. Also, make sure to serve and eat it piping hot, as deer fat turns hard and waxy quickly.
The Uses of Silver Skin
Silver skin may be the bane of new wild game cooks everywhere. Virtually all land animals have silver skin — connective tissues that keep muscles together, and in wild animals, these tissues will be tougher and more abundant compared to that in beef or chicken. If poorly trimmed, the experience of dining on venison could be unpleasant. But left on the right cut for the right cooking method, these tough connective tissues turn into magic.
Get the Recipe: Venison Osso Buco
Two words: venison shank — a cut that was once thrown into the hamburger pile, hunters are finally figuring out that with enough time, moisture, and heat, all that sinew melts to a jelly-like consistency that rivals the taste and texture of fat. For long-time stew lovers, you know good stew meat isn’t good stew meat unless it has a bit of tendon and gristle.
For cuts that you plan to braise and stew, do not remove the silver skin and tendons. In my house, these cuts may include the shanks, shoulders, neck, flanks, ribs and sirloin tip. You need to be patient with these cuts. You can’t boil them for 30 minutes and expect to get the texture of pulled pork. It’ll get there. In the meantime, crack open a beer — perhaps several — or go run an errand. Remember that the older the animal, the longer the braise.
Also, always make sure to provide a moist environment; check your dish periodically to see if you need to add more water or stock. Too little moisture can create the opposite effect: dry, tough and perhaps burnt venison.
Compare a venison braise that has had all the silver skin removed to one with it still intact, you’ll see there’s no contest.