The stats aren’t out for 2014 yet, but in 2013 about 662,000 Michigan hunters spent 9.2 million field hours harvesting 385,000 deer, according a Michigan Department of Natural Resources survey.
If each deer weighed a modest 130 pounds — white-tailed deer average 125 to 225 pounds, says the DNR — then Michigan hunters brought home about 20 million pounds of meat, since take-home meat weight is about 40 percent of the total weight of the animal, according to a Field and Stream estimate.
In short, that’s a whole lot of venison to be eaten.
There are many perks to deer hunting, from saving money to eating a leaner meat, says local hunter Ben Browneye. One deer lasts him a year, he says, and costs only about $100 for the license and processing. And venison has 4 grams of fat to beef’s 9 grams per 4-ounce serving, he adds.
“You also have a good sense of what you’re eating,” Browneye says. “When I’m eating what I hunt, I know I’m not eating something pumped full of antibiotics and hormones since it was born. It fed on its own.”
There are some challenges to a freezer full of deer meat, though, as Browneye’s wife, Ellie, knows.
“I don’t really love the taste,” she admits. “I know, I’m a bad hunter’s wife, but it tastes kind of bland compared to beef, because of the low fat content. I can’t really eat venison steak on its own. It’s too venison-y for me. That’s for the hard-core hunters.”
Allegan chef and hunter’s wife Renae Briggs agrees.
“One challenge is making sure the venison doesn’t taste gamy,” says the dietary aide at Allegan General Hospital. “Sometimes the taste of the deer depends on what it ate or its size, but you can really tell the difference between Omaha grain-fed beef and venison.”
Briggs and her husband, Chris, have been cooking venison together for a little more than a decade, and she has a culinary background, having studied the culinary arts at Grand Rapids Community College.
Ellie and Ben Browneye have been cooking deer meat together for about two years, though Ben has been cooking and eating venison for more than five.
The couples offer the following helpful tips and tricks for anyone who has 40 pounds of frozen deer meat but doesn’t know how to make it into a delectable meal:
To decrease some of the acidity of the meat, Briggs suggests letting the meat soak in milk for 24 hours to decrease its acidity. “Also experiment with different types of mustards while cooking,” she adds. “They do a lot to mask the gamy flavor of the venison.”
Cook with added fats
Whether making sausage out of the meat, cooking it as a steak, or substituting it for meat in recipes not designed for venison, adding fats to the mix is important for flavor and to avoiding drying. Mix pork sausage meat in with venison sausage meat for tastier sausage; add butter or meat fat while cooking as well. “Don’t forget to cook it low and slow too,” says Briggs. “And if you’re cooking a roast in a crock pot be sure to add broth or water to avoid the meat drying out.”
Use in place of ground beef
One sure-fire way to mask the taste of venison while creating new dishes is to substitute ground venison in recipes calling for ground beef. “We do a lot of Sloppy Joes, stews, stuffed peppers, spaghetti, tacos and chili,” says Ellie Browneye. “There’s liquid in the recipe, and the other ingredients mask the flavor.”
Experiment with new recipes
It might be easy to fall into a rut when cooking venison, but how does Briggs’ Parmesan-crusted venison loin sound? “It sounds really good,” says Ellie Browneye. “I want her to be my friend and teach me how to make that.” Briggs says new recipes are just a Google search away, and books like Smoke and Spice, by Cheryl and Bill Jamison, are great places to find delicious recipes like this.
Donate unwanted meat
If year after year, you’re finding it hard to use all the meat you’ve gotten from hunting, consider donating some of it after it’s processed in the fall. “There’s a lot of good done by hunters donating meat to soup kitchens, and a lot of good causes to look out for in the fall,” says Ben Browneye. Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, Ministry With Community, the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, Galesburg Meat Co. and Russell Farm all have programs available for meat donation, but call ahead to be sure they’re still accepting donations.