Venison butchering, knowing cuts in the kitchen
Jon Wipfli lived in Montana — Montana, for Pete's sake — for a period of time and never hunted while he was there.
He didn't hunt when he lived in Oregon either, or New York City.
He regrets it now.
But he's come back to his roots. The 34-year-old native Midwesterner grew up in a hunting family. He wandered the woods with them, if indifferently, as a teen.
When he moved back to Minnesota in the mid-2000s, he took up hunting again. Now, he's serious about it.
He's even taken to writing about it.
Wipfli — a classically trained chef — is author of a new cookbook, “Venison, the Slay to Gourmet Field to Kitchen Cookbook.”
Part one of the 90-page book is about hunting ethics and eating.
Don't expect too many secrets on how to kill a buck, though.
“Some guys are great hunters who write about cooking,” Wipfli said.
“The way I approached this book was from a chef's perspective first, a hunter's second, which is what I am. I'm not as efficient a hunter as I am a chef.”
That's not to say he doesn't kill his share of deer. He does OK.
But his real expertise is in the kitchen, as the rest of the book attests.
Part two describes how to butcher a deer and break it into parts. It's very detailed, featuring step-by-step instructions with photos.
He devotes a lot of space to that because it's so important to the end product, Wipfli said.
When cooking venison, it's important to know where on the deer a particular cut of meat came from.
“You kind of have to learn a little bit about what muscle groups you're working with,” Wipfli said.
Meat from the front shoulders of deer, for example, generally has more connective tissue, Wipfli said. It's among the most flavorful cuts.
“But they also take a little more finesse, a little more cooking to make tender,” he said.
Front shoulder meats, he said, are often best used in stews, sausages and Crock-Pot recipes.
The hindquarters of deer have less fat and less connective tissue. Such lean cuts can be turned into steaks that require shorter cooking times. Think eye of round steaks, he said.
The middles of deer, meanwhile, are a mix.
The loins and tenderloins are the most tender part of a deer, while the ribs need long, slow cooking.
It's part three of Venison, though, that really makes the book what it is. It offers recipes for all parts of a deer.
There's one recipe for liver and another for heart, Wipfli's favorite muscle. Many hunters leave those muscles in the woods, so most of the recipes focus on what hunters most often use.
That's not to say the recipes are overly simple.
None of the recipes are overly complicated, nor do they feature ingredients that aren't readily available everywhere, Wipfli said.
But some will test home cooks in terms of techniques.
That's the goal.
“When I was writing, I really wanted to find a way to blend my high-end kitchen experiences, for lack of a better term, with something more approachable,” Wipfli said.
No matter the recipe or cooking technique, though, there's one thing cooks need to remember about venison, Wipfli said.
“Venison by nature is a lean protein. So I think it's easy to overcook,” he said. “If you cook a venison steak medium well to well, you're going to have a much drier steak that you want.”
Given that, he often incorporates some kind of fat into his recipes.
That might mean putting fatty meat like pork into his grinds. If he's serving steak, he might pair it with something like mashed potatoes made with heavy cream and a chimichurri sauce with ginger oil.
The key is not to go overboard. Some people try to mask the taste of venison, thinking it's gamey. And he has recipes that incorporate things like jalapeno peppers.
But handled properly in the field, butchered correctly and cooked according to the cut of meat, venison can shine on its own, he said.
“It's all about balance with anything you cook. You don't want to overpower anything,” Wipfli said. “You want just enough of those other tastes to notice them.”
His recipes offer a start. But he encourages people not to get hemmed in either.
“Experiment in the kitchen,” Wipfli said. “It makes cooking a lot more fun.”
Get the book
“Venison, the Slay to Gourmet Field to Kitchen Cookbook” is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other retailers. The hardcover version is $25. Digital versions are available, too.