Properly grilled venison tenderloin, or backstrap, is one of the great rewards of deer hunting, and it is one of the basic skills any deer hunter needs to know.
Grilling meats in general can be tricky, but this is especially true with venison, because it is so lean you have little leeway between perfect and overdone — and overcooked venison is gray, dry and livery. Blech.
By the way, everything I say here for this venison tenderloin recipe also works for elk or antelope, or a fillet mignon of beef, moose or bison.
You can grill any venison steak, but backstrap or loin is a better cut for fast grilling. And here’s your first tip: Keep the venison backstrap whole. Don’t cut it into medallions. Yes, you can grill venison medallions, but they are far harder to grill successfully without drying them out.
Besides, you would be grilling the cut sides of the medallion, leaving the sides pinkish. Not so pretty.
With a whole loin, you grill the sides and then, when you cut into it, you get to see that pink perfection.
So start with a piece of backstrap that’s at least 10 inches long, which is usually about 1 pound. Depending on how wide it is, that will feed 2 to 4 people, depending on how much else you have on the plate. Coat it in olive oil and salt it really well.
Grill over high heat, but with the grill cover open. This is important. You can grill-roast a venison loin, but it will overcook way faster — heat under the grill cover will cook the top of the loin almost as fast as the part that is closest to the fire. I rarely do this, preferring instead to take my time and let the fire do the cooking.
This also lets you baste the meat with your favorite sauce. I often skip this, but I do happen to like my Jack Daniels-based BBQ sauce when I am in the mood for BBQ sauce. A lot of times I will just let fire, salt and smoke flavor the venison, with maybe a splash of lemon at the table.
How do you know it’s done? Use the finger test, which gives you a good idea about the doneness of the center of a piece of meat by touching it with your finger. My friend Elise has a good breakdown of the finger test here.
Lastly, let your grilled venison rest, tented with foil, for at least 5 to 10 minutes before cutting into it. You can wait up to 15 minutes before losing too much heat if your backstrap is very thick. I cannot stress how important this is. Really. If you learn nothing else from this venison tenderloin recipe, remember to rest your meat!
You will thank me later.
Grilled Venison Loin or Backstrap
- 1 to 2 pounds venison loin, ideally in one piece
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Your favorite BBQ sauce
- Coat the venison backstrap in oil and salt well. Set aside for 20 minutes at room temperature.
- Get your grill hot, clean the grates and lay the venison on the grill. Paint with the BBQ sauce. Keep the grill cover open. Let this cook 5 to 8 minutes without moving, depending on how hot your grill is and how thick your venison loin is. You want a good sear, with good grill marks, on that side of the meat. Flip and repeat on the other side, painting that side with more BBQ sauce.
- Do the finger test to check for doneness. If the venison needs some more time, turn it to sides that have not had direct exposure to the grill and cook for 2 to 3 more minutes, checking all the way. Paint those sides with BBQ sauce, too.
- When the meat has been cooked to your liking, take it off the fire and let it rest, tented with foil, for 10 minutes. Serve with BBQ sauce on the side.