Wilder Wednesday – Venison

Wilder Wednesday posts are inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie book series.

Pa had shot the deer the day before and Laura had been asleep when he brought them home at night and hung them high in the trees so the wolves could not get the meat.
That day Pa and Ma and Laura and Mary had fresh venison for dinner. It was so good that Laura wished they could eat it all. But most of the meat must be salted and smoked and packed away to be eaten in the winter.
~Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods

Little House in the Big Woods

from Little House in the Big Woods

I don’t think I’ve met anyone who read the Little House books that didn’t remember all the food. With the exception of Farmer Boy (which is more like a food orgy), it was often in short supply, but even then life revolved around it. Growing it, hunting it, canning or drying it or otherwise preserving it, cooking or baking it, and eating it: these occupations took up much of the Ingalls family’s time.

The very first food mentioned in the books is venison (above). I grew up on venison, and love it. But I’ve found that if someone is not familiar with cooking it, it often turns out tough and/or gamey; then, that someone decides that venison is nasty. And, sadly, what they cooked was.

When properly prepared, venison is tender and tasty. It has about one third the fat, cholesterol, and calories of beef, equivalent protein, and higher vitamin content.

So how should you prepare venison so that it is as good as Laura said? As with beef—or any other meat, for that matter—it depends on the cut.

The best cut of venison is the backstrap. That’s the muscle that runs down each side of the spine. It should be sliced cross-grain into pieces about a centimeter thick (a little less than half an inch). Place the slices in a shallow pan and cover with buttermilk (whole milk will also work). Refrigerate at least 4 hours, up to overnight. The fat in the milk absorbs the gamey odors, and the lactic acid and calcium both act as tenderizers by breaking down the proteins and softening the collagen.

Some people marinate venison & other meats in vinegar. I do not like this for two reasons. One is that vinegar is a different and stronger type of acid, which oxidizes the myoglobin in the meat. Oxidation is unhealthy (which is why we all try to take antioxidants). It can also cause oxidation in the fat (although there’s not much fat in venison), which turns it rancid. And two, the flavor of venison soaked in milk is much nicer than venison in vinegar, since it’s less gamey.

Some people also season the milk, but personally I find that unnecessary.

So, you’ve sliced and soaked the venison. Now give the slices a quick rinse and lay them on paper towels. Cover with another paper towel and let it sit out for about an hour. This is because cold meat doesn’t sear as well. Throw the milk out, of course.

Now sprinkle the venison slices with seasoned flour (salt & pepper only!) and pan fry in a bit of oil.

That’s all there is to it. Fried backstrap with fried eggs & potatoes and fresh homegrown tomatoes. Yum! That’s my all-time favorite meal in the world.
Of course, we often had it with vegetables for dinner, too. Sometimes, Mom would batter it like chicken before frying. That was really good also, especially with gravy.

My second favorite way to have venison is smoked. Laura describes how her family cut the meat into strips, seasoned them, and hung them in a “smokehouse”(hollow tree onto which Pa had built a roof). We did the same thing when I was growing up. Once, the smokehouse caught on fire. That was a terrible year: we had no jerky or dried sausage.

Little House in the Big Woods

from Little House in the Big Woods

We also had roasted venison, ground venison, and venison sausage (made with the addition of pork, since venison is too lean on its own).

Now I’m really hungry.

Barbara Walker’s The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories discusses venison, and all the other wonderful foods of the Little House books.

Have you ever had venison? How do you prepare it?


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