Holly A. Heyser
There is an old adage in hunting that goes something like, "Once you pull the trigger, the fun part's over." Not for me. Although it is true that I am not overly fond of gutting a deer or pig, hauling it out of the bush, and later picking off whatever deer lice and ticks have migrated from the animal to me, all through this process my mind whirls. Look at the hams on that deer! Maybe I can cure a roast? How about corned venison? Sausages are a must, but which kind? Should I make some salami, too?
Such was the case last week after I'd shot that deer on Catalina Island. The weather was cool enough and the deer was close enough to the truck for me to save the heart, tongue, liver, and kidneys. And the spine shot that killed it only destroyed a six-inch section of backstrap. All in all, the deer was in pretty good shape.
As I drove home to Sacramento, I thought about my plans for it and about how venison charcuterie is, so to speak, a whole different animal compared with wild boar or domestic pork charcuterie.
For starters, venison is lean. Whitetails living around alfalfa fields in the Midwest can have a thick layer of fat, but I have never heard of a mule deer or California blacktail being anything other than svelte.
Fortunately, leanness is no problem when you are curing whole cuts—the effect is not much different from a lonzino, bresaola, or any other air-cured, solid piece of meat. Incidentally, although you could surely use my lonzino recipe for venison loin, I am not curing any part of this deer's backstrap—I'm saving it for the grill.
I've never tried curing a whole venison ham, but I have cured whole-muscle roasts. You pack the meat tightly with spices and curing salt and let it sit in the fridge for a while—how long depends on the thickness of the meat, but it can be upwards of 14 days. You drain off any liquid that comes out of the venison and repack the meat with new spices halfway through the cure.
You then truss the venison with kitchen twine and hang it in a cool, humid place for several weeks, or even months. The ideal temperature is about 55 degrees, and you want the humidity to start about 80 percent, and gradually get drier as the meat ages until you settle on somewhere about 60 percent. I do this by hanging my meat in an old fridge with a temperature regulator attached and a small personal humidifier set inside the fridge.
The result of this cure is essentially a French noix de jambon, the "nut of the ham." It is delicious—and is best cured simply, with only a few herbs or spices to bring out the venison flavor. In the Catalina deer's case, it would have to be a mix of California black and white sage, black pepper, and maybe some juniper.
Another option for large, whole pieces of venison is to corn them. I am very happy with my corned venison recipe and have two big roasts from my Catalina deer brining in the fridge as I write this. I love, love, love a corned venison sandwich, with some mustard or mayo (remember venison is lean, so you need some fat), a few sorrel leaves for tartness, and maybe a few slices of Swiss cheese. Corned venison hash is pretty damn good, too.
Jerky is another option, but I haven't settled on a jerky recipe I really like yet. I'll post it when I develop one. Anyone out there got a winner you'd like to share?
Venison's leanness does become a problem when you decide to make sausages. So far in my hunting career, I've only been able to make an all-venison sausage—with no added fat—once, from a morbidly obese whitetail doe I shot in an alfalfa field in Wyoming several years ago. It was pretty amazing stuff, and I was sad when the last link hit the grill.
No, for the most part you need to add either pork fat or beef fat to a venison sausage or salami. I vastly prefer pork fat, and here's why: it's softer than beef fat and far more neutral-tasting. Add beef fat to a venison sausage and it tastes like beef. Add pork fat to a venison sausage and it tastes like venison.
Good pork fat can be had in any decent supermarket and in all butcher shops. It's usually really cheap, too. Your first choice should be back fat, which is easier to cut and slightly harder than the fat in the shoulder, which is the next best thing. Pork bellies are okay, but there is enough meat in them to influence the flavor of your sausage—not necessarily a bad thing, but you should be aware of it before you toss some bellies into the grinder.
Fresh venison sausages are a joy to eat and to make. I have a whole selection of venison sausage recipes on my site, and I try to design a new one for each deer I shoot. For the Catalina deer, I made wild California black sage the main player; I killed the deer just yards from a huge patch of it. Playing a supporting role were juniper berries, black pepper, and just a little gin. We ate some of these tonight; one bite brought me back to the island, where the breeze is perfumed with all sorts of drying aromatic herbs.
Holly A. Heyser
Sausage is traditionally made with the random trim and wobbly bits of an animal. The idea of grinding up a nice roast or, God forbid, the backstrap of an animal would make an old-school butcher vomit. And while it is true that sausage-making with these luxury cuts is easier—you have far less silverskin and gristly parts to contend with—if you take your time and remove as much silverskin as you can by hand, you can make excellent sausages with the sketchier pieces of the critter.
One important tip when doing this, other than to trim all the silverskin you find, is to double-grind your meat. You will be faced again and again with the choice of either discarding some good chunk of meat that's loaded with connective tissue, or of putting it through the grinder anyway. Put it through the grinder. Start with the coarsest setting, and stop from time to time to clean the grinder. Silverskin will gunk it up, sometimes quickly. You'll know this is happening when the meat and fat that comes out of the grinder begins to smear together instead of coming out looking like meaty spaghetti.
Holly A. Heyser
But, as I learned with an ancient rooster a few years back, you can't stop there. The sausage will still be unpleasantly chewy if you don't grind the meat and fat again with a finer die. Just make sure your venison is really, really cold when you do this. Put it in the freezer for an hour or so between grindings to be sure. This helps prevent smear, where the fat breaks down and coats the meat. If this happens you will never get a good bind on the sausage, and it'll be crumbly, like bad cat food.
While you mix the meat, you still want to see individual little pieces of fat, like the marshmallows in Lucky Charms cereal.
Holly A. Heyser
You'll need hog or beef casings to make your sausages; I don't like synthetic casings. You can get hog casings at any butcher. Some large supermarkets can get them for you, or you can buy hog casings online. Thread the casings on your sausage stuffer (I use this vertical sausage stuffer, which can handle a 5-pound batch all at once) —and yes, I know. It looks like putting on a condom. Let the hilarity ensue.
Then make all your sausage at once. Don't try to make links until you have it all done.
After you have big coils, then link them. For fresh sausages, I just pinch off eight-inch links with my fingers, then roll them in opposite ways. First link rolls away from me, next link rolls toward me. That helps the links stay in their shape while you dry them.
Holly A. Heyser
Drying links helps them tighten up in the skins, which improves the texture. I use a wooden clothes rack for to hang my sausages, and it works like a charm.
Hang your links a couple hours at room temperature and then let them sit overnight in the fridge, surrounded by paper towels to soak up any stray moisture. Can you eat them the first day? You bet, but the the texture and flavor will improve the second day.
All of this work applies equally to salami, which are just dry-cured sausages. You do need to use a different curing salt, in this case Instacure No. 2, and it is best to get a bacterial starter culture from a place like Butcher & Packer. Why? You need these good bugs to properly ferment the salami—and yes, salami is a fermented meat product. That's why it's tangy; it's the lactic acid you're tasting.
For the Catalina deer I decided to make a German landjaeger. Think of landjaeger as the ultimate Slim Jim: a narrow, dry-cured salami with lots of tangy flavor that is small enough to keep in your pocket on a hike ... or in our case, in the duck blind.
Holly A. Heyser
Landjaeger is a little tricky to make. You need to get the ferment going at room temperature for two days, then you smoke the meat as cool as possible—you don't want to actually cook it if you can help it—and only then does it go into the drying box, i.e., my old fridge with the humidifier in it.
This batch looks grand: a beautiful rosy color.
You'll notice I tied off these links with string. That's because they need to stay that way through long curing, and I don't want them to come unraveled. The landjaeger dries for at least 14 days, and up to six weeks.
I can't wait to bite into one.