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How to Properly Grill Venison Steak

by Hank Shaw   |  July 24th, 2013 0

Photo by Holly A. Heyser.

A thick venison steak, grilled to a turn and flavored only with fire and salt, is quite possibly the finest way there is to eat this kingly meat. But here’s the rub—perfection takes practice, a little skill and the understanding that not all venison steaks are created equal. Here are a few tips and guidelines for grilling the perfect venison steak.

Pick Your Cut
Obviously, the best deer steaks are the backstrap and tenderloin. These are the equivalent of ribeye and filet mignon in beef. Like most venison meat, these cuts are lean. Unlike a lot of other venison cuts, however, they are tender and mostly free of sinew. Your best bet is to cook these whole, then slice into medallions afterwards. The exception is the backstrap on large animals like elk and moose, which are excellent when cut into individual steaks.

Almost all other steaks will come from the hind legs of the animal. In my opinion, these are lesser cuts because they’re made from several muscle groups, which means there will be some serious sinew and connective tissue in the steak. This is manageable if you separate the muscles into smaller steaks, or if the steak has been cut nice and thick. Ask your butcher to cut your steaks at least 1 inch thick, though 1 1/2 inches is better. If your steaks are sliced too thin, you’ll have to do some special things to it to make it tender. More on that in a bit.

One more tip on leg steaks: The connective tissue that surrounds each part of the steak tends to contract faster than the meat when you grill it, which will make the steak curl or bow. To prevent this, slip a thin, sharp blade beneath the outer layer of connective tissue to cut it in a few places. This will keep your steak flat.

Pick Your Grill
Each grill has its champions. Most sane people would agree that a hardwood fire will give you the most unforgettably wonderful steak because it’s essentially grilled and smoked at the same time. But wood fires are hard to set and maintain, and cleanup is an issue. For most of us, wood fires are for special occasions, not just any day of the week.

Next in quality comes charcoal, which is easier to light, burns clean and hot, and still gives you a little of that special something you can only get from burning wood. I prefer a little tabletop charcoal grill for weeknight grilling because it’s easy to get going without a lot of charcoal. If you are feeding a crowd, however, a simple Weber or something like it is all you really need.

Finally, there is the sometimes controversial propane or gas grill. I’ve used one for years, and the main benefit is ease of use—especially when you are rushed for time. You get pinpoint heat control and very little cleanup. The downside is there’s no woodsy aroma to flavor your meat. However, you can give yourself a little smoke by buying wood chips, soaking them in water and nesting them in a double layer of foil set right on one of the burners. The chips will smolder and you’ll get a flavor closer to that of a “real” grill.

To Marinade or Not to Marinade
There really are pros and cons to using brines or marinades with your steaks. A truly great piece of venison needs no brine or marinade. Backstrap or tenderloin from an elk or moose—or a deer that ate a lot of alfalfa or corn—should be a showstopper without adding any extraneous flavors. If the meat had been properly handled from the moment the animal hit the ground, this is by far the best of venison steak.

I reserve marinades and brines—a marinade is based on an acid like vinegar, while a brine is based on salt—for leg steaks, older animals, bucks killed in the rut and those animals you were not able to cool down and process as fast as you’d like. On most days of the week I’d also put antelope into this category.

Whether you marinate or not, it makes little difference in how you actually grill the steak.

Temperature Before Grilling
The rule of thumb is to start with a thick steak—1 inch or more thick—that needs to come to room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes before grilling. If you skip this step, you’ll get the dreaded “black and blue” steak, in which the outside of the steak looks great but remains cold in the center. This isn’t dangerous to eat, but it isn’t enjoyable for most people.

Thin steaks should come straight from the fridge to the grill, because in this case you actually want the cold center. For a thin steak, having a cold center prevents the steak from overcooking and drying out too fast.

Temperature While Grilling
Grilling is by nature high, direct heat. You want a really hot fire to get those great grill marks and crust on your steak. With most steaks this is all you need. With steaks 2 inches or thicker, you will also need a cooler part of the grill to put the steaks where they can finish cooking to your liking. To create a cooler spot on your grill, just leave one burner off or clear a space where there are no coals or burning wood underneath.

Patience, Daniel-San
Do you like having those grill marks on your steak? So do I. To get them, the trick is not to mess with your steak. Simply flip it one time and then leave it be until it’s done cooking. Here’s a restaurant trick I learned awhile back: Get those great grill marks on one side only, then flip and cook the rest of the steak to order. No one is going to look at the underside of his steak to check for grill marks—trust me.

Are We There Yet?
How do you know when a steak is done? The best way is to use your fingers. Try to avoid piercing your steak with a thermometer because it opens it up and lets all those heavenly juices run out. That’s no bueno. Instead, use your finger to check the steak for doneness. Here’s how you do it: Simply touch your forefinger to your thumb and poke the base of your thumb with your other forefinger. Feel that? That’s what rare meat feels like. Now touch your middle finger to your thumb—that’s what medium feels like. Now move to your ring finger—that’s what a ruined steak feels like. Easy enough, right?

Let it Rest
If you learn nothing else from this little primer, remember to rest your steaks for at least 5 minutes after grilling. If you don’t, all the glorious juices will flow out of the meat like a river, leaving your plate wet and your steak dry. Resting allows everything that’s going on within the steak to calm down. You can rest a steak for as long as 15 minutes if it’s really thick, but in general 5 to 10 minutes is best. You will thank me later.

Putting it All Together
Let’s say you have some nice leg steaks from a whitetail deer, and let’s also say they’re an inch thick. Starting from here, this is how you grill them for a family of four:

  • 4 venison steaks, about 2-3 pounds total
  • Salt
  • Vegetable oil
  • Black pepper
  • Lemon juice (optional)

Step 1: Bring the venison out of the fridge and salt it lightly. Let it come to room temperature for at least 15 minutes, or up to 1 hour. Use this time to get your grill ready.

Step 2: When your grill is hot, use a grill brush to scrape down the grates. Soak a paper towel with some vegetable oil and, using tongs, wipe down the grates.

Step 3: Pat the steaks dry with paper towels and coat them with a thin film of vegetable oil. Lay them down on the grill. Do not disturb for 2 minutes. Use tongs to pick the steaks up and move them 90 degrees on the grill—this will give you the cross-hatch grill marks. Grill another 2 minutes.

Step 4: Flip the steak and grill until done, using the finger test for doneness (outlined above). Move the steak to a cutting board and grind black pepper over it. Let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving, with a squeeze of lemon juice if you’d like.

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