Dry Aging Venison

deer tenderloinThere is no shortage of opinions when it comes to the amount of time to “let a deer hang.”  Talk to enough people and you’ll hear a myriad of half truths and outright falsehoods.  Some people don’t age venison at all (which is a giant mistake) and some people do it completely incorrectly.  Here is what dry aging is, what it does, and how I did it.

Dry aging is a process commonly used in beef production to yield a more tender, flavorful end product.  Meat is stored in a temperature and humidity controlled environment for a period of time to allow the enzymes in the muscle tissue to break down the collagen between the muscle fibers.  Arranged in a way to allow good air flow, up to 30% of the moisture by weight is driven off, thus concentrating the flavor of the aged meat.  In a nutshell, that’s it.  No mold or bacteria is doing this job, it is just the collagenase enzymes already present in the muscle.

High end steak houses have been doing this for years and their product is superior to beef available in the grocery store that has either been wet aged or aged for a short period.  It is also one reason why a steak at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse is way more expensive (and tastier) than one from Applebees.  The added cost of refrigeration and loss of product due to dehydration is what makes the base price of dry aged beef higher.  The added quality completes the price hike.

So what does this have to do with deer meat?  A lot of deer get butchered as soon as they’re brought home or taken to the processor.  Here is where the problems begin.  When an animal expires, the muscles go through rigor mortis which is that stiffness that occurs shortly after death.  Ever tried to take a picture with a dead deer and have to wrestle its stiff neck into position?  That’s rigor mortis.  If an animal is butchered within the 24 hour window in which it was killed, a process called shortening occurs where the muscle fibers shorten and the resulting cuts of meat become tough.  The collagen between the muscle fibers are also at full strength adding to the toughness.

Here is an experiment I did on some deer tenderloin last month that yielded great results.  Using guidelines for dry aged beef, I dry aged two tenderloins from a mature buck for 8 days.  The temperature has to be between 39 to 32 degrees F with a humidity between 80% to 85%.   Below is a simple table from the U.S. Meat Export Federation that covers the three basic criteria of dry aging beef that I followed.

Via usmef.org

Via usmef.org

My garage is uninsulated block and using a small weather station, I could monitor the conditions. The garage stayed within the accepted values for temperature and humidity so I placed two whole loins on a wire rack meat side up for two days.  After a crust had started to form, I flipped the meat over and left it undisturbed for another six days.  When it was over, I got some of the best venison I’ve ever had.

venison loinHere is the finished product prior to trimming.  It’s considerably shorter and smaller in diameter than it was when fresh and it is pretty hard.  Not quite poker stiff, but it’s stiff.  In hindsight, I should have trimmed that big fat pad off when I removed it from the animal.  More on that later.

venison loin 3Here was the part I kind of got nervous about.  Splitting the loin in the middle to make it easier to work with, I was about to find out if this project worked or was a miserable failure.  Success!   Good looking red meat all the way through with minimal trimming to be done.

deer loin 2Now it’s time to unwrap this thing.  Using a sharp knife, I skinned back the hard crust and revealed one hell of a nice piece of venison.  It smelled amazing.  Rich and nutty would be the best thing I could put it to or maybe I’ve watched too much Food Network.  The bottom line is that it smelled good.  The hard outer crust that formed made removing it very easy.  That fat pad I left intact did leave the facia or silver skin a bit soft and tough to get a knife under but it wasn’t that big of a deal.  Next time though, it will be gone upon breaking the animal down.  A little bit more trimming to remove anything other than good red muscle and it was finished.

venison loin 4Here’s the finished product.  One trimmed venison loin ready for the grill.  I ended up shaving off that dark spot on the bottom loin just for good measure.  There was nothing wrong with it, I was just going for uniformity.

So what is the take away from this whole thing?  Dry aged red meat is amazing.  I tasted this venison side by side with another loin that not aged.  The difference in taste and tenderness was huge and undeniable.  It doesn’t have to be aged for eight days either.  Two or three days is sufficient but I was going for something remarkable.  The biggest thing to remember is that you will lose a lot of your final yield to evaporation and shrinkage.  You can also ruin your venison by letting the temperature and humidity go outside the accepted range or denying it proper air flow.  You’re walking a fine line, so take care.