Backstraps, loins, chops, or venison ribeye…whatever you call it, this is the money cut on a deer. The part we all bring out to celebrate the hunt. Other than the sacred tenderloin, normally eaten by only the hunters and those they love most, the backstrap is the tenderest part of the whole deer. Except when it isn’t.
If you’ve eaten venison for any length of time, you’ve bitten into a medallion of seemingly lovely backstrap only to find it, well, chewy—sometimes really chewy. That’s a sad moment.
Mind you, I’m not talking about overcooked meat here. I’m talking about nicely cooked meat that’s still damn tough.
There are a few reasons why this happens. It isn’t always easy to predict whether a piece of venison is tough or not, but there are a few tips and tricks to cook any piece of backstrap successfully.
Tenderness starts with the animal. Obviously, younger animals will be more tender. That’s a given. Then factor in the animal’s life. Did this deer scratch out a living on an arid mountainside in coastal California or living on an all-alfalfa diet in Iowa? This matters. We all know that the harder the life of the animal, the tougher the meat.
Once the animal is down, game care affects tenderness, too. Hanging your deer is a good thing. Aging meat relaxes it and gives a particular set of enzymes time to break down the proteins in the muscle. It also dries the meat slowly, which concentrates flavor. If you can keep the temperature between 33° F and 40° F, you can hang your deer for days to weeks. Even if you don’t have those conditions, let your roasts and steaks hang out in the fridge for a few days before freezing. This is important, as the enzymes die when frozen.
How to butcher your backstrap? Style is a factor here, as some people like chops, some a boneless backstrap. I choose the boneless route because, frankly, it’s a hell of a lot easier to process myself. No saw needed. Chops are a valid option, but I like them only if they are more than an inch thick. Why? Thin chops are very hard to cook properly. A better choice is to take a cue from lamb butchers and section the chops into foot-long pieces so you can cook the whole section at once and then slice the chops off when you serve.
Bone-in or boneless, backstraps of small deer should always be portioned into large serving pieces, which are much easier to cook rare to medium. Little medallions, which most people cut, have too much surface area exposed to the fire and tend to get overcooked very quickly. Better to sear the big piece and then slice off medallions when you serve.
Old animals should be treated the same way, but for different reasons. Backstraps from an old deer, elk, or moose should be thought of more like a leg roast. There’s a good chance they will be tough, and once cooked you can combat this by slicing it thin like roast beef instead of thick like steaks. Always slice tough meat thin and against the grain.
Remember to remove the chain, a thin strip of the backstrap running alongside the main muscle. I can’t tell you how often I see people slice steaks with a white line of sinew running through part of it. That means the chain was not removed. Unless it was a yearling, the connective tissue separating the chain from the main backstrap will get stuck in your teeth when you eat it. Silverskin is your enemy. Remove it all. Be relentless, and you will be rewarded with the best backstrap you’ve ever had.
But what about a nice venison steak? I love them as much as the next guy, but a great venison ribeye really needs to come from a larger animal—ideally a big, fat, young buck shot over a grain field, a moose, or an elk fattened on forage. Larger steaks from the backstrap, cut at least an inch thick (two inches is better), can be cooked just like a beef steak. Oh, and should you be lucky enough to get such an animal, keep the fat. Not all venison fat is bad, and it adds to the whole ribeye experience.
Finally, if you forget everything else in this article, remember to never, ever, ever cook your backstrap past medium. Anywhere from rare to medium is fine, but once it passes that mark, find the dog.