April 18, 2023
By Jack Hennessy
Amazing barbecue is an art form. In Kansas, it’s a religion. On both my log burner and Camp Chef Woodwind, I have smoked my share of beef brisket and pork shoulder. As a hunter, I wanted to try my hand at smoking venison.
The front shoulder of a hog, known as the pork “butt,” is where you traditionally get your pulled pork. In colonial New England, butchers packed inexpensive cuts of meat—like the pork shoulder—into large barrels called “butts.” Pork shoulders packed into these butts were called “pork butts,” and the name is still around today, though the cut has nothing to do with a hog’s rear end.
Obviously, the shoulder on a deer is far leaner and contains less meat overall as compared to a hog. Nevertheless, you can still smoke it, and I even opt to include the whole leg. Most folks think a finely smoked brisket or pork shoulder is so tender and moist due to fat, but that is not the case. Fat does help keep these cuts from drying out, but it’s the collagen breaking down that transforms these tough cuts into delicious, tender barbecue.
And guess what has a lot of collagen? You guessed it: wild game. Collagen is connective tissue in muscles and will harden before eventually, after many hours, turning into gelatin. More collagen is present in the harder-working cuts like the front quarter on a deer or on the legs and thighs on a wild turkey. Low and slow is key to turning these cuts tender. However, because venison is so lean (with nowhere near the amount of fat of a pork shoulder), you will want to add liquids to braise the meat after the initial smoke. Yes, you can solely smoke a venison front quarter, and eventually it’ll yield at an internal temperature of around 205 degrees Fahrenheit, but you’ll have a lot of exterior meat that is dried out if you don’t add moisture regularly.
So smoking a front quarter is the same as any other smoked barbecue for the first half of the cook—complete with a dry brine and spritzing with an equal mix of apple cider vinegar to apple juice—but there are some finer points toward the end. I will break it down and include a French Dip recipe for your pulled smoked venison.
Full disclosure: Smoking a venison leg properly takes a lot of time and likely means waking up early and staying up late. So plan ahead. To do it right, you’ll also need the following:
- Smoker or pellet grill
- Smoking wood or pellets: hickor, mesquite, or pecan, or a combination
- Kosher salt
- Freshly cracked black pepper
- A whole front venison quarter
- Meat probe (for monitoring the internal temp of meat)
- 50/50 mixture of apply cider vinegar and apple juice in a spray bottle
- Pink (peach) butcher paper
- Masking tape
- Six-pack of porter
- Two cartons of beef stock
- Large aluminum roasting tray (big enough to fit the vension quarter)
- Aluminum foil
- Heat-resistant BBQ gloves
Remove as much silver skin and fascia from the leg as possible. Liberally dust all sides with the kosher salt and the freshly cracked pepper. Place it in fridge from 24 to 48 hours prior to smoking.
On the day of the smoke, set the smoker to 200 degrees. Hickory, mesquite, and pecan are my personal favorite wood choices. Put the leg in the smoker and insert the meat probe into the thickest part of the shoulder, but do not make direct contact with bone. Every 30 minutes spritz the leg with the apple cider vinegar/apple juice mix to keep the meat moist.
Near the four-hour mark, the meat should reach an internal temperature somewhere between 145 and 155 degrees. At this point, wrap the leg in the pink butcher paper. Spritz the inside of the paper with the 50/50 mix and perhaps add a bit of porter beer before wrapping. Wrap tightly (tape if desired) and put the meat back on the smoker, inserting the meat probe into the exact same spot as earlier.
After eight hours total (4 hours unwrapped, 4 hours wrapped) at 200 degrees, the internal temperature should be near 165 degrees. Transfer the package to a very large aluminum roasting tray and open the butcher paper wrapping. If necessary to fit, cut to separate the shoulder from the lower leg. Pour an ample amount of porter beer and perhaps some beef stock over the venison, inside the butcher paper wrapping. Loosely wrap the venison with the butcher paper. Cover the tray with aluminum foil and place it either back on the smoker or in an oven and raise temp to 225 degrees.
Remove the foil and check every hour to make certain the venison is moist, using the porter and beef stock. Re-cover with aluminum foil. After 4 hours cooking at 225 degrees, try to tear apart the meat while wearing gloves to see if it’s starting to tenderize. I have found collagen starts to break down and venison begins to tenderize around an internal temp of 205 to 207 degrees. This could take anywhere from 6 to 10 hours after placing it in the aluminum tray with liquids ( for a total cooking time of anywhere between 14 to 18 hours).
SMOKED VENISON FRENCH DIP
- 24oz smoked venison
- 4 medium yellow onions, sliced and caramelized
- 4 poblanos, roasted
- 1 cup St. Elmo Steak House Creamy Horseradish
- 1 cup Huy Fong Sriracha Rooster Sauce
- 8 slices provolone cheese
- 4 6- to 8-inch baquettes or deli rolls
- 8 cups au jus
- Olive oil
- Cooking spray
- Kosher salt
- Ground black pepper
- In a large, heavy skillet, heat a very thin layer of olive oil on medium low and add the sliced onions. Lightly dust with kosher salt and black pepper. Stir often until caramelized, which will likely take 45 minutes to 1 hour.
- Prepare 8 cups or more of au jus according to instructions.
- Heat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly coat the poblano peppers with cooking spray. Add to oven and roast until slightly seared and the skin is loose. Remove and place in large bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and place in fridge to sweat peppers. After 30 minutes, remove and peel off loose skin and slice the peppers into strips.
- To prep sandwiches, heat 3 cups of au jus in a medium pan. Add shredded smoked venison and caramelized onions and cook on low. Allow to soak for 20 to 30 minutes.
- To make spicy sandwich sauce, mix 1 cup Creamy Horseradish and 1 cup Rooster Sauce in a bowl.
- Toast French baquettes and slice into sandwich loaves. Lightly drizzle au jus on the bottom inside and top underside of each loaf.
- In a separate skillet, add 6 ounces of shredded-venison-caramelized-onions per sandwich and top with roasted poblano strips and provolone. Once the cheese is melted, add that mound of meat, peppers, onions, and cheese to the bottom of a French baquette.
- Cover the meat and cheese with a slather of spicy sauce. Top with baguette. Cut in half and serve with a ramekin of au jus for dipping.
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