The pinnacle of venison
Steak can be complex or simple, banal or luxurious. Too often overthought preparation of the finer cuts yield disappointing outcomes. This is even truer when it comes to venison. It is leaner than any commercially raised domestic animal protein and therefore must be approached differently than a well marbled ribeye. It reaches the desired doneness at a slightly lower temperature than beef and it will get to that temperature slightly faster. I have no empirical scientific evidence of this, but hundreds of venison meals have taught me this to be true. This perhaps does help us though; the quicker cook time will battle the tendency of venison drying out due to the extreme leanness of the meat.
When it comes to venison steaks, for the most part, for most people, it means backstrap. These are the long muscles that run along either side of the spine from the neck to the pelvis. On a cow this muscle would make portions of the ribeye, loin, sirloin, and as you reach the rear of the cow it would be the larger portion of a T-bone or porterhouse, the smaller being the tenderloin. It is an extremely coveted and fetishized piece of meat that is typically abused and not allowed to stand on its own, or gets hoarded away to the back of the freezer for special occasions only to be forgotten until next fall when its discovered in a freezer raid, frostbitten and freezer burned.
Now, a quick sidebar. STOP CHICKEN FRYING YOUR BACKSTRAPS! I know it’s delicious; it’s a tradition of sorts. I am Texan. I get it. I grew up doing it. But I promise you filleting, tenderizing, and pounding paper thin cutlets of already prime and tender backstrap is not its best application. The top and bottom round of the hind quarter are larger in diameter than most backstraps and perfectly grained for tenderizing and pounding into cutlets for frying. Rant over. You are forgiven.
When it comes to butchering backstraps into portions for future use, it is important to keep a few things in mind. After the basic clean up and trim up of the backstrap, cut it into three or four equally sized portions with the silver skin still attached. For an average whitetail or antelope sized animal this will be about three quarters to a little over a pound per piece. You will not be eating the backstrap all at once so keeping each individual portion whole will allow a wider range of choices later, as opposed to cutting the entirety of the backstrap into smaller steaks or medallions now and being forced into those smaller portions later. Keeping each portion whole and the silver skin on also reduces exposed surface area which helps prevent freezer burn.
This recipe is more of a forgotten method than it is anything fresh and new. Somewhere along America’s history, home cooked steaks became a backyard weekend event. I love the flavor that hardwood charcoal and a little smoke imparts to anything, but the time and effort required to get the pit ready for a weekday meal is not always practical. Using a cast iron skillet and a trick the most expensive steakhouses often use, you can have a five star meal from scratch, even on the busiest week night.
One last aside before we get to the recipe. Traditionally steaks are cut against the grain, and when cooked, the grain is perpendicular to the cooking surface. Outside of elk and moose size game, the average backstrap is about six inches at its widest and two to three inches at its thickest. The grain of the backstrap more or less runs the length of the muscle. The common thing to do is to cut small steaks out of the length of the backstrap an inch or so thick. This leaves you with a rather small and odd shaped piece of meat to call a steak. Smaller cuts of meat cook much quicker, making it difficult to judge desired doneness. So, with this in mind, go against your instincts and cook the portion of backstrap whole, the grain running parallel with the cooking surface, and slice at a forty five degree slant against the grain to serve.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 6-8 minutes
3/4 to 1 1/4 pound portion of backstrap, all fat, sinew, and silver skin removed
2 tablespoons of coarse kosher salt
1 tablespoon of corn starch
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary (optional)
1/2 tablespoon of coarse black pepper
2 tablespoons of high heat cooking oil ( I prefer a high heat avocado oil )
1 to 2 teaspoons of butter
blue cheese crumbles (optional)
Liberally salt the meat on all sides. Remove the stems from the rosemary and sprinkle the herbs on top of the meat, massaging the rosemary into the surface. Place in the refrigerator or a cool space for fifteen to twenty minutes per inch of thickness of meat. Once the salting time has passed, rinse the meat under cool water to remove all visible salt and rosemary from the surface.
Pat the meat dry with a paper towel or a sanitary kitchen towel. Slowly sprinkle the cornstarch over the entire surface of the backstrap. Apply it slowly and evenly so it does not cake or clump up but covers the meat evenly. Using cornstarch in this way is a trick to create an extremely dry surface area, allowing the steak to form a nicely seared crust without having to overcook meat. After applying the cornstarch, rub the meat with the coarse black pepper, apply as much or as little as your taste buds desire.
Heat the oil in a cast iron skillet just below its smoking point. Once the oil gets just above 400 degrees, place the meat in the skillet. Allow the backstrap to cook 3-4 minutes per side, flipping once. With tongs, lift the backstrap on end and kiss each end of the meat against the bottom of the skillet to brown them, about 15-20 seconds. At this temperature, 3 minutes per side will be approximately medium rare, 4 minutes medium to medium well. Place the cooked meat on a cutting board and slice the butter on top allowing it to melt over the meat. Tent with foil and allow to rest for 6-8 minutes.
Once the meat is properly rested, slice at a 45 degree angle about a quarter inch thick, sprinkle meat with blue cheese and serve with oven roasted vegetables and fresh jalapeno. After trying this, I promise you will never fry your backstrap again, and the prep and cook time is much easier and more conducive to a weekday meal.
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