I did not grow up as a hunter. I began what’s now become a major part of my life at the age of 32. So when I shot my first deer, it never occurred to me to do anything with the animal’s shanks other than braise them slowly until the meat fell off the bone.
After all, this is what we did with lamb shanks back when I’d been a restaurant cook, and a venison shank isn’t all that much different.
A few years and a few deer later, I casually mentioned this to a fellow deer hunter. He looked at me like I was insane. I’ll never forget what he said: “You can’t eat those things. They’re tougher than an old shoe! Even my dog won’t eat ‘em.” I did a quick survey of my other deer hunting friends, and it turns out that a lot of hunters think you can’t do anything with the shanks of a deer.
I’ll go so far as to say that I almost prefer a nicely braised deer shank to the vaunted backstrap…almost. OK, now you’re looking at me like I’m insane. Here’s the thing: Cooked slow and low with some broth, the meat is incredibly flavorful and all that nasty sinew literally melts away, enriching and thickening the broth and making the meat almost silky. This happens because the muscles in a shank work as hard as any other muscle group on an animal, and the more work a muscle group does, the deeper in flavor it becomes.
When I talk with other deer hunters who actually eat their venison shanks, the most common use I hear is as ground meat. This is just not a good idea, folks. All that sinew will wreak havoc on your meat grinder. And even if you have a bad mamajamma of a grinder, all that connective tissue will make even ground meat unpleasantly chewy unless you grind multiple times. So let’s say you’re willing to walk with me on this one and cook your shanks whole. Now what?
Well, for starters, know that a typical whitetail deer shank is a perfect single serving. Mule deer shanks are a little larger, antelope a bit smaller. I like antelope shanks, but they’re daintier and are best for fancier meals, where there will be other courses.
The basic cooking procedure is always similar: Salt your shanks and brown them really well in some sort of fat or oil. My favorite fat is lard or duck fat, and for oil I go for grapeseed or safflower oil. Each has its advantages. Take your time and use tongs to make sure every part of the shank gets browned except for the side where the shinbone is exposed.
This is important: You want that side to only get gentle cooking because that’s where the connective tissue that holds the shank together is weakest. If you sear it, the sheath will break and the shank will fall apart. With cross cuts for osso buco, tie a length of twine around each section to keep it compact.
Once they’re browned, you can cook your shanks in a Dutch oven or a slow cooker. Cook them in chicken, beef, or, better yet, venison broth, with your favorite spices and some onions for at least an hour before you put in any other vegetables. Why? Because venison shanks can take up to four hours of slow cooking to get close to falling off the bone. If you added vegetables at the beginning, they’d disintegrate.
So, the next deer you drop, make your life easier by just removing the shanks whole, wrapping them in freezer paper, and braising them on the next cold winter’s night. And then make this delicious recipe. You will not be sorry.
Braised Venison Shanks with Garlic Recipe
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 venison shanks
4 heads of garlic, peeled
3/4 cup white wine
1/2 cup chicken stock
Zest of a lemon
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary, plus more for garnish
If you’ve ever had the classic dish “40 clove chicken,” this is a lot like it. It uses a lot of garlic, but the slow braising mellows it a lot, so no need to worry about garlic breath. It’s meant to be done with a smallish, young animal, ideally an antelope or a doe.
Preheat the oven to 300° F. Coat the shanks in a little vegetable oil and salt them well. Heat the vegetable oil in a Dutch oven and brown the shanks on every side except the one with the “shin,” where the bone shows clearly — if you brown this part, the shank is more likely to fall apart before you want it to. Remove the shanks as they brown and set aside.
While the shanks are browning, peel the garlic. This is the easiest way: Separate the cloves and put them in a metal bowl. Cover the bowl with one the same size and shake them vigorously for about 10 seconds. All the cloves will be peeled.
Put the garlic in the pot and cook until they begin to brown. Pour in the white wine and scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. Bring this to a boil and add the chicken stock, thyme, rosemary, and lemon zest. Bring to a simmer and add salt to taste. Put the shanks back in the pot and arrange “shin” side up with the garlic all around them. Cover and cook in the oven until the meat wants to fall off the bone, anywhere from an hour to 2½ hours.
To serve, pour some sauce over the shanks and garnish with the reserved garlic cloves and some rosemary. Serve this with mashed potatoes, polenta, or something else to soak up the sauce.