Q: We got an entire deer given to us, so my husband took the meat off the bones and I cut it up into tiny bite-size pieces and froze it to use in stews, etc. However (I think because of the low fat content) I find it's always somewhat tough. What marinade or cooking method should I use to tenderize this meat?
You are right, the lack of fat is a contributor to the toughness of the meat and a marinade may help. Typically, a marinade used to tenderize meat contains some acid, in the form of wine, vinegar, buttermilk or other ingredient, which helps to weaken muscle tissue somewhat. Because a marinade is slow to penetrate the meat, it may leave the outer portion over flavored. The choice of acid in the marinade should match the nature of the meat and the cooking method. A full-bodied red wine might suit stewed venison well, whereas a marinade using buttermilk would better suit chicken.
Other ingredients that might go in a marinade add flavor. They might include onions or shallots, garlic, herbs, Worcestershire sauce and so on. Some marinades also contain oil.
The easiest way to marinade your venison is to place it and the marinade ingredients into a heavy-duty zip-top bag, seal it and refrigerate overnight or up to 24 hours. Occasionally knead the bag to redistribute the meat and marinade to make sure that all of the meat is soaked. The amount of time that other meats are marinaded depends on their usual tenderness. Chicken may only need an hour or two, and seafood even less.
One specialized form of marinade is brining, which involves soaking the meat in a solution of 3% to 6% salt solution, by weight, about one cup of salt per gallon of cold water. The meat is immersed in the brine and kept refrigerated for as long as a couple of days. Brining uses the natural process of osmosis to carry salt and water into the meat. There the salt helps to dissolve some of the filaments that contract and toughen meat during cooking. At the same time, the water content of the meat can increase by as much as 10%, making the end result more moist and tender. Because brining can leave the meat tasting overly salty, some recipes also include sugar to offset the saltiness. Brining is typically used for meat or poultry that will be roasted or grilled.
You could also try tenderizing the meat mechanically by pounding it with the irregular side of a meat mallet, or piercing it repeatedly with a fork. If you do this before marinading, it may help a bit with absorption of the liquid.
Chemical meat tenderizers are generally not recommended, as they work only on the tissue with which they come into direct contact, and they are most effective only at temperatures in the range of 140°F (60°C). Tenderizers can leave the surface of the meat mushy while not affecting the interior at all.
Another thing you can do to tenderize deer meat starts almost soon as it is killed. If the animal is over about two years of age, it may benefit from being hung to age. The whole carcass is usually hung for a few days to as much as a week in a clean location, free from contaminants at a temperature of 31°F to 38°F (1°C to 3°C). Younger deer may benefit from hanging for one day. If it isn't convenient to hang the deer yourself, you could take it to a butcher to have it hung for you.
To cook the meat, use a long slow braise or stew. To start, remove the meat from the marinade, pat it dry with paper towels and brown it using a little oil in a frying pan over high heat. If necessary, brown the meat in batches, as doing too much at one time may lower the temperature of the pan. Overcrowding may cause the meat to lose a lot of moisture and steam rather than brown. Once it is browned, place the meat in a pot with a tight cover, add whatever liquid you are using, heat to a very low simmer and cook for 4 to six hours, until the meat is tender when a fork is inserted. Initially, the meat will toughen, but as time passes it will soften again.
Your choice of liquid may be water, stock or wine, or the marinade, if it is not too heavily flavored. Do not use brining water. The amount of liquid depends on if you are stewing or braising. Stewing is probably better for venison and tougher cuts of meat. Add other flavoring or ingredients as desired. To braise, use a small amount of liquid, enough to come up the meat about a quarter to a third of the way, for a stew use enough to just cover the meat. Check the liquid occasionally and top us as needed. Also stir the meat.
Thanks to Chef Steve Driver at Boffins Club in Innovation Place, Saskatoon, for this reminder – adding an acid to the stewing liquid, such as some wine or a tablespoon of tomato paste (or both), will continue to tenderize the meat as it cooks.
Cooking can be done on the stove-top at a very low simmer or in the oven at about 275°F (135°C). In either case, regulate the heat so that the liquid just barely simmers. You should only see the occasional bubble rise to the surface. If you are cooking on the stove-top and the heat is still to high at the lowest setting use a "flame tamer" to hold the pot off the heat.
If you wish you can add root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes for the last 40 minutes or so of cooking. Check to make sure they are done before serving. Just before serving, you can thicken the liquid by adding a a mixture of equal parts of flour and water and cooking it on the stove-top until it thickens. Start with a bit, cook that until it thickens, and add more to increase the thickness as desired. Cook a minute or two more to remove any taste of raw flour. Just remember that it will thicken more as it cools.
Even with all of this, venison can be a difficult meat to cook well so that it is tender and moist. Good luck.