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Ray Sasser: Don't settle for sausage! Venison can be a star dish

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Ray Sasser, Outdoor Writer

Deer season opened this weekend. That means more than a million pounds of venison will soon be brought home from the field, more than three million pounds by season's end. Venison is a sustainable meat source, untainted by steroids or preservatives, the original farm-to-market meat.

Unfortunately, many deer hunters have their game made into sausage, believing that's the only way to make "gamey" venison edible.

When Jon Wipfli hears venison described as "gamey" he immediately thinks the hunter doesn't know how to take care of the meat or doesn't know how to cook it. Wipfli, a Minnesota chef, has written a book called Venison, The Slay To Gourmet Field To Kitchen Cookbook.

It's exactly as advertised, well photographed by Matt Lien and particularly valuable to novices who want to process their own meat but don't know how. I was lucky enough to learn deer butchery from a veterinarian. He not only knew how to separate an animal's muscles into recognizable cuts of meat, he knew the technical names of each muscle.

Few people have that learning experience. Wipfli grew up in Wisconsin, hunting with his family. But he didn't take it seriously until his 20s. For as long as he can remember, he was interested in cooking.

He started cooking professionally at age 18, and trained as a chef all over the country during his 20s, graduating from the French Culinary Institute of America. Wipfli said he really learned to cook in New York restaurants.

"The level of execution in New York is as good as it gets, and you're forced to sink or swim," he said.

Wipfli thinks the majority of deer hunters view their quarry as high-quality protein. Like the chef, they would rather bring home a fat doe than a trophy buck, but they often don't know what to do with the meat.

"Overcooking and never trying anything new are the most common mistakes," he said. "Venison is a lean protein and doesn't take well to overcooking. Loins only need to be cooked to 125 degrees and then rested. Further cooking will just dry it out. I really want hunters to try some new recipes. Venison is versatile and should be treated as such.

"I developed the recipes after culinary school but realize the importance of making recipes accessible to everyone. It's about trying to find a balance between my higher-end cooking experiences and just making simple, delicious food."

Wipfli said his favorite recipe from the cookbook involves a piece of meat that most deer hunters leave for coyotes.

"I love the heart skewer recipe with ginger, garlic and chili oil," he said. "The heart is my favorite cut on a deer, and this recipe just hits the perfect spot. If you haven't eaten heart, I'd suggest this as a perfect starting spot. All those string flavors add up to a delicious snack."

This is not your chicken-fried, southern cookbook. Wipfli has concocted 33 venison recipes that would fit the menu of a gourmet restaurant. Maybe even a New York gourmet restaurant.

The cookbook, available for $25 from quartoknows.com, includes illustrated instructions on caring for a deer in the field and butchering the meat. There are also recipes for side dishes that complement venison. Side dishes improve the meal by adding flavors that benefit the meat, Wipfli said.

Venison heart skewers

Get your grill nice and hot while cleaning the heart of any fat or white veins.

Dice the heart in ½-inch cubes and place four or five cubes on each pre-soaked bamboo skewer.

In a sauce pan, combine 1/2 cup of grapeseed oil, five thinly sliced Thai chiles, 2-inch knob of fresh ginger, peeled and diced and 2 minced garlic cloves. Place the pan over medium heat. Slowly cook the aromatics until they start to brown, about six minutes, and immediately pull them off the heat.

Make sure your grill is clean, hot and wiped down with a thin layer of oil to prevent sticking.

Place the skewers on your grill and try to flip them only once while cooking to medium rare.

Pull the skewers off the grill to a plate, give them a solid brushing with the garlic, ginger and chili oil and serve immediately.

FEATURED PHOTO: Jon Wipfli is a trained chef and deer hunter whose new cookbook presents venison in a different light, blending a pure and sustainable wild meat resource with gourmet recipes.