Venison Marinades

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“What venison marinade do you use?” is perhaps the most common question I get when people ask me about cooking deer or elk.

Truth is, I don’t always use a marinade – a really good piece of backstrap needs little more than fire, salt and maybe some black pepper. But there is most definitely a place for a venison marinade here and there. You just need to know when to break out your favorite marinade, and when it’s better just to make it a sauce you serve at the end.

A variety of venison marinades on a tabletop
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Why Marinate?

Marinades are acid-based (or occasionally enzyme-based) liquids or loose pastes that are used to infuse meat (or veggies) with flavor, while at the same time tenderizing them. At least that’s the theory.

Bathing venison or any other meat in an acidic sauce (or with certain fruit juices like those from papaya or pineapple) will indeed break down some of the muscle tissues on the outer surface of the meat. The acid or fruit enzymes denature the proteins, making them actually a bit mushy, but we register this as tenderness when we eat it. What’s more, you should know that marinades cannot penetrate meats the same way salt-based brines do. According to most food scientists, a marinade cannot penetrate much deeper than 1/8 inch into a piece of meat, even after several days.

The bottom line is that acidic marinades don’t tenderize meat, and those with raw ginger, pineapple or papaya juices just make the meat mushy. I can hear you saying, “But when I marinate venison roasts, they are absolutely more tender than when I don’t!” And you are right, but it’s not the marinade that is making your roast more tender.

According to the great French food scientist Hervé This, long marinades do have an effect: “The meat is more tender,” This told the Washington Post. “But it is not the marinade that makes it tender: It is time. If you use an acidic marinade, it will protect the surface from spoilage while the rest of the meat matures. And you know when meat matures, it becomes tender.” This is the secret behind the long marinades in German sauerbraten, which can marinate for a week in the fridge.

And a venison marinade will impart flavor onto the meat’s surface. Even a few minutes’ worth of marinating time will give you some added flavor in the finished dish because the flavorful liquid soaks into any crevices and cuts in a piece of meat.

Most importantly, marinating meat in an acidic sauce for at least 40 minutes has been shown by the American Cancer Society to reduce by up to 99 percent the amount of cancer-causing heterocyclic amines created when meat is cooked by a direct, open flame, i.e., grilling. This means a marinade not only improves flavor, but can also make that char-grilled piece of venison healthier.

Venison sauerbraten marinating on a platter
Photo by courtesy of Shutterstock

Which cuts?

Because marinades can only penetrate a few millimeters into a piece of meat (at best), you’ll want to use cuts of venison that aren’t too thick. This means backstrap medallions from large deer, elk or moose, all leg steaks, flank steak, cubes for kebabs and so on.

Or, go the sauerbraten route and marinate a large roast for a week or more. Just remember the acid in the marinade (don’t do this with the enzyme-based marinades!), usually red wine, is just protecting the meat from spoilage, not actually tenderizing it. It’s the wet-aging of the meat for a week that does the trick.

One thing a venison marinade will not do? Tenderize silverskin and connective tissue. You absolutely need to trim all this off before marinating because not only will it not tenderize, the silverskin will actually block the penetration of a marinade.

How to do it?

You will want to marinate your venison in a sealable plastic bag, or in a covered, non-reactive container such as glass or plastic. Or you can vacuum seal it. Do this in the fridge to slow the growth of any bacteria.

A tip: If you like stir fries and fajitas, marinate the venison slices before you stir-fry them. You’ll get more flavor that way.

When you are ready to cook, take the meat out of the marinade and pat the meat dry with paper towels. Wet meat won’t brown.

If you want to use your marinade as a sauce, you can do one of two things: Boil your marinade for 5 minutes before using it, or, if this will destroy your marinade (like chimichurri, which relies on raw, fresh herbs) make more than you need for the marinade and use the extra as the sauce. Do not just reuse the marinade you soaked the venison in raw: There is a chance, albeit small, that you might get food poisoning.

Here’s a quick primer on food safety with marinades.

Sample Venison Marinades

Here are a few worth using. I’ll start with some that need no recipe.

  • Italian dressing. Yep. The classic. Any sort of oil and vinegar dressing works fine as a marinade.
  • Buttermilk. It’s acidic all by itself, and thick enough to use as the base to a batter or crust, the way you do with buttermilk fried rabbit.
  • Citrus. Like orange juice or lemon or lime juice. Pretty harsh stuff, but it works if you don’t marinate too long. A few hours should do it.
  • Soda. A Southern classic. Marinating in RC Cola or Dr Pepper or whatever is a thing. And it’s not terrible. Watch the sugar content, though, as it can burn on the surface of your venison if you are grilling over high heat.
  • Worcestershire Sauce. More of a Northern classic, I like this one a lot. It’s a sauce and a marinade all in one. Worcestershire is also a hallmark of western Kentucky BBQ.
  • Soy Sauce. More of a brine than a marinade, the salt level in soy sauce can be pretty severe, and it will darken your meat dramatically. Use only for an hour or so, or dilute it.

Here are a few venison marinades from around the world. All can be scaled up, and all are for about 1 to 2 pounds of meat.

Real Teriyaki

You can use store-bought teriyaki sauces, but I find them too sweet and too thick for a marinade. And if you make it yourself you can adjust the flavor to your liking. Just watch the sugar content, and don’t take it too much higher than what I have here, as too much will scorch. Mix together all the following ingredients before marinating.

  • 1/2 cup sake
  • 1/2 cup mirin, a Japanese sweet wine
  • 6 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 heaping tablespoon sugar

French Red

  • 2 cups red wine
  • 2 to 6 bay leaves
  • A dozen or so black peppercorns, cracked
  • A healthy pinch of salt
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds

Bring all this to a boil, then cool to room temperature before marinating.

Das Marinade, a German Marinade

  • 2 cups lager beer (dark or light)
  • 1/2 cup malt vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seed
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seed
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon celery seed
  • 2 tablespoons minced parsley

Bring all this to a boil, then cool to room temperature before marinating.

Greek style

This is a good summer marinade.

  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • Grated zest of 2 lemons
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 heaping tablespoon dried oregano

Mix it all together and coat your venison with it.

Yucatecan

  • 5 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup lime juice
  • 1/2 cup water

Buzz all this into a puree in a blender. Or you can mash it together in a mortar and pestle.

Korean Bulgogi

This might be my favorite marinade of them all. I grew up with this one; my mom marinated flank steak in a version of this sauce. It’s sweet, savory and sour all at the same time.

  • 4 green onions, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons grated ginger
  • 4 garlic cloves, mashed and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 hot chiles, minced
  • 1 tablespoon molasses or Asian plum sauce
  • 1/4 cup mirin, rice wine or lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce

Buzz them all together roughly in a food processor. You don’t want this smooth.

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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24 Comments

  1. Hi, Hank. I just learned about you and your cookbooks today. The best meal I ever had was in a restaurant in Salzburg, Austria 40 years ago. It was venison cooked (braised?) in a dark cherry sauce. Absolutely delicious! Do you know a similar recipe? If so, would you please email it to me? I want to share it with my new grandson who is an avid deer hunter. Thank you so very much!

  2. Hi,

    Browsing your site and I’m going to try your sweet italian sausage recipe.

    I noticed the marinade section and thought I would share this with you. I make two types of marinade for my deer tenderloins. A Teriyaki and a Mesquite (you can find them on bucktailoutdoors.com). I let the loins hang for up to a week and after trimming everything put about 1″ cuts in zip lock bags with the marinade and squeeze all the air out before putting in the freezer. I have found them to keep for more then two years like. Give it a whirl sometime.

    Regards,

    Eric

  3. Hi Hank, How long do you marinade with the Korean Bulgogi recipes? I’m using it on black buck for grilling.

  4. I recently was gifted some backstrap by a neighbor in return for some homemade chicken noodle soup when they were sick. I have absolutely no idea what to do with it, there are so many different recipes, I don’t know which to try! I’ve never had backstrap before so I have no idea what the flavor profile is like.

    I am open to suggestions. Teach me your ways, o grandmaster sensei.

  5. I know the science and have read up on marinades and rarely if ever use them for venison. For some reason I never considered buttermilk as a marinade, but use it for fried pheasant breasts when I do your fried “rabbit” with pheasant. But if I leave the pheasant in for more than overnight it seems to turn the cutlets to complete mush. Seems weird if it’s not actually penetrating. I don’t know if that’s because I’m using smaller strips instead of the whole breast? Thoughts?

  6. David: Buy it here: https://www.amazon.com.au/Buck-Moose-Techniques-Antelope-Antlered/dp/099694480X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1546898203&sr=8-1&keywords=buck+buck+moose

    So I did, thanks mate!!

  7. Great information and tips, Hank. Thank you for the common-sense information about high sugar content and it’s effect on browning. Many people forget about this. And you’re right-on regarding the salt content in pre-made (bottled) marinades, too. Many would make a cardiologist cringe! Love your work!

  8. “Most importantly, marinating meat in an acidic sauce for at least 40 minutes has been shown by the American Cancer Society to reduce by up to 99 percent the amount of cancer-causing heterocyclic amines”

    Does this also apply to smoked meat, as in pork BBQ in the smoker? I’ve heard this chemical is present in BBQ.

    1. Mark: I don’t think so. What the ACS is referring to are nitrosamines, which are only created with high heat. Remember the admonition to never cook bacon over high heat? Same thing.

  9. Hi!

    Great article.

    I found this part particularly surprising and interesting:

    “Most importantly, marinating meat in an acidic sauce for at least 40 minutes has been shown by the American Cancer Society to reduce by up to 99 percent the amount of cancer-causing heterocyclic amines”

    Would you mind sharing the official source of this statement? I’d like to read the scientific basis for this interaction between acidic marinades and HCA formation during grilling.

    Thanks!
    Alex

  10. G’day Hank,
    Great list there, when do you think your book “Duck Duck Moose” will be available to purchase from Australia? We have many deer species plus rabbits and feral goats to hunt. Not to mention the buffalo and banteng up north.

  11. When I was a rookie sausage maker i made the mistake of making a batch of “Flying Hawaiian” Wild Boar sausage with fresh pineapple instead of pasteurized canned pineapple. Lets just say i had to discard an 8 pound batch of sausage. The enzymes broke down the ground meat so quick it turned it into a soupy uneatable mess.

  12. Good info, great recipes, touched on things I had forgotten. I love wild game, it just has to be handled correctly, and it helps to harvest quickly and cleanly to help improve quality, but once there everything we can do to improve it more is wonderful. Especially since we have soo much invested, and want to share it with our friends, we want it delicious!

  13. Thanks Hank.
    I agree about not needing to marinate. I like a granulated garlic, ground black pepper and salt in oil. Then on the grill simple and the best! I will try some of your marinades.
    Some I knew some not. My personal favorite recipe I have gotten from you was the German rabbit stew! Thank you Hank keep up the good work. If you ever need someone to go out hunting with let me know. I would be honored.
    Sincerely Bar B Q Bob

  14. Hi Hank,
    I just wanted to say thanks for your newsletter. Just yesterday I was watching a rerun of MeatEater when you and Rinella were hunting in California. You cooked up a jackrabbit. Great!
    I’m a whitetail hunter in Tallahassee Florida. I have your Buck Buck Moose cookbook and refer to it often. As much as I love hunting, I enjoy cooking the game. I always enjoy reading your email newsletter.
    Wishing you the best.
    Thanks much,
    Hugh Thomas