Tips to elevate your ground meat game
Backstraps get all the glory, followed closely by a set of fresh tenderloins. Round roasts and sirloin steaks receive their due as well. Me? I'm particularly partial to the tougher cuts, with shanks being a favorite. Of all the meat that makes up a deer, elk, or other big-game animal, it's these cuts hunters clamor for. They post trophy pics of them on social media — holding whole elk loins out for the camera and carefully plating bone-in chops, hoping to get all the "likes" on Instagram. Despite the glamour shots of game, the meat hunters actually eat the most is the grind: that not-so-pretty pile of trimmings that gets minced into bits and made into hamburger patties, tacos, meat loaf, and more.
Fact is, ground meat is the foundation of the family dinner, yet it gets little respect for feeding the masses. Many a parent has stretched the family budget by mixing mince (as it's known overseas) with pasta and serving it to the spouse and a passel of hungry children. Hamburger Helper exists for a reason. Looking back on my childhood, I remember countless meals of what we called goulash. Unrelated to the gulyÃ¡s of Hungary, with its thick chunks of meat and heavy dose of paprika, Mom's goulash was a simple blend of seasoned, browned burger; macaroni; and tomato paste, with some sweet ketchup to make it go down easier. I loved it then and still count it today as one of my comfort foods.
Maybe that's why ground meat, sometimes better known as burger, doesn't garner the respect it deserves. Like many comfort foods, it's too common. This abundance of burger is due to several factors, including the economics of scale and difficulty in cooking tougher cuts whole. A neck or shank turned into burger is much easier to deal with for the average home cook, and a package of burger makes for a quicker meal, than the hours of braising necessary to break down tough, sinewy cuts.
When it comes to what cuts make the best burger, you can use just about any meaty part of the animal. Ground meat is a great way to use the scraps from deer or elk shoulders, rump, neck, brisket, the strips between the ribs, and any of those tougher cuts. It may be sacrilege to suggest, but even parts of the backstrap can be fed into the grinder for an elevated take on the basic hamburger. Still, it's probably best to save most of the loins and the tenderloins for steaks, but anything else is fair game for the grinder.
Whatever cut you end up using, you will want to make sure the meat is trimmed of all sinew and silver skin, as well any areas surrounding the bullet entrance or exit hole that may be bloodshot or otherwise soiled. Remember, the quality of the final product is directly attributable to the quality of the ingredients that go into it, which includes everything from the meat to the cleanest fat.
One of the most important keys to grinding your own venison is keeping everything below 40 degrees. About 30 to 45 minutes before you start, put the meat in the freezer so it gets nice and cold. A commercial-grade grinder, such as those from Cabela's or The Sausage Maker, is powerful enough to grind even partially frozen meat, so the colder the better. If you have room, also put the grinder's blade, auger, and neck assembly in there as well. This will keep the meat cold, allowing the grinder to cut the meat cleanly, rather than smearing it. As the temperature rises, the protein and fat separate. In the butchering business, this is known as "breaking." Thankfully, it's easy to prevent by keeping everything ice cold throughout the process.
Your grinder probably came with at least two different grinding plates, or dies: a coarse die, with holes that measure about one-quarter of an inch, and a fine die, with one-eighth-inch holes. You may also have a medium grind die that falls in the middle between those two. Starting with the coarse grinding plate and then following with a second grind with the finer die helps break down tougher cuts of meat and slices through stringy sinew. Place the blade on your auger, put the plate over the top of it, and then secure the pieces down with the retaining ring. You want to make sure everything is nice and tight so the blade and plate can work in tandem to give you the best and cleanest grind possible.
Venison — whether it comes from a deer, elk, or moose — is extremely lean, resulting in a ground meat that is dry, crumbly, and lacking in flavor. Mixing in extra fat during the grinding process is an easy way to combat those three evils. There are several options when it comes to adding fat, and it really comes down to personal preference. I like pork butt, which, despite its name, actually comes from the pig's shoulder area. It's an inexpensive cut — you can often find it on sale for less than a couple dollars per pound — and it has the right amount of fattiness. Other good sources of fat for making ground game include beef tallow and even bacon ends and pieces, all of which should be available from the butcher at your local grocery store. The amount of fat you include with the meat is up to you, but remember: the more fat, the juicier the ground meat. A ratio of one-third to one-quarter part fat to each part of venison is a good starting point.
There are a few purists out there who feel adding fat from a domestic animal taints the all-natural attributes of wild game. I will concede that fact, but I prefer the flavor and texture such fat contributes to my ground venison. Getting a patty or loaf to stick together is tough without some kind of binder, so if you'd rather not add pork or beef, there are a few other options. Many people have good luck adding a bit of olive or coconut oil when making patties. Other binders include bread crumbs, steel-cut oats, shredded potato, or dry milk powder. Before going in whole hog with any these nonfat options, it's worth experimenting with small patties to see which you prefer.
As a daily go-to for an easy meal, the grind gets overlooked in the face of fancier fare. That's a shame. Fact is, I get more questions from hunters about what to do with their ground deer, elk, and other venison than any other part of the animal. Grilled burgers are great, and Mom's meat loaf recipe is always a favorite, but there are a host of other ways to use up the embarrassment of riches made up from pounds and pounds of ground meat. So, after week one when those loins are gone, reach for a bag of burger and celebrate the most common, yet underrated, cut of venison by cooking something other than your standard hamburger recipe.