To many, aging is a fancier word for letting meat rot, and it leaves them asking why anyone would do that to a good, clean kill. However, while aging is to let meat decompose slightly in a controlled setting, it can do two very wonderful things. Letting meat age breaks down the connective tissues naturally through enzymes already in the meat, which increases tenderness, and it dehydrates some of the moisture within giving a more concentrated meat flavor. If you have ever been to a steak house or enjoyed a venison steak made by someone who really knows what they are doing, that mind-blowing experience is due to how the meat is cooked and seasoned, but typically the key to creating a great tasting piece of meat can be attributed to proper aging.
How to Age Venison
Getting into aging your wild game can be a learning experience. For those new to it, it is best to start short and work your way up to longer hang times once you work out any potentially devastating kinks. Typically for the best balance of flavors, venison should age for between 18 to 21 days.
Provided you have the space, aging can be a very simple process. The key to dry aging is absolute temperature control. All that bad bacteria that actually rots meat and will result in food poisoning thrives in temperatures above 40 degrees, and anything below freezing is, well, freezing meat and not dry aging it. The ideal temperature in a space used for dry aging is between 34 and 37 degrees. This is the perfect environment for venison’s natural enzymes to begin to break down the tough tissue.
As for where to dry age, you can do it anywhere that you can control temperature and ensure a decent airflow. There are three methods primarily employed by hunters, but each has their benefits and their disadvantages.
- Open-Air Aging – This method is the simplest and used by most hunters that decide to age their meat. It is also the cheapest and easiest way. Essentially you just hang skinned carcasses or quarters of it in a shop, garage, or another cool place. Unfortunately, there are two problems with this method. It can be hard to control the temperature in early and late seasons where too high or too low of a temperature can be a problem, respectively. By hanging your meat in the open air, it also invites insects and other scavengers to have a snack, but this can be combatted by game bags, cheese cloth, or paper towel. You’ll rarely get more than a week of steady temperatures, so hang times will likely be cut short. 4-7 days of hanging is still beneficial, but if you don’t have the right temperatures or the means to get it into a cooler place, go ahead and butcher the deer immediately. Aging is not worth the sacrifice of potentially ruining your harvest.
- Refrigerator Aging – If you have an extra fridge or a particularly understanding spouse, dry-aging via the refrigerator is another valid option. It not only provides excellent temperature control, but great air circulation as well. Essentially you want to remove all the racks inside and just hang the meat in there. The more surfaces it touches, the more likely other bacteria can latch onto the meat. Unfortunately, if you have used the refrigerator for other things, your meat may be subject to absorbing those old odors as well.
- Walk-In Aging – Having a walk-in cooler to age your meat is the dream. It is how professional chefs age their beef, but the average hunter might not have access to such a set up. If you are really serious about aging meats, especially for an extended period, the supreme temperature control and air circulation are perfect, but pricey to install. For this method, it might be cheaper for the average hunter with a lot of meat to age to look into local meat locker rentals.
If you harvest a lot of deer or wild game, a walk-in cooler is the best way to age your meat in a controlled environment for long hang times.
Cooking Dry-Aged Venison
Unlike venison that has not been aged, you don’t need to marinate it to ensure moist meat. It sears better, locking in what moisture is left. This creates a tender, more flavor concentrated venison steak that browns excellently. What many home cooks fail to realize is that it is the brown bits on steaks where all that wonderful flavor lies.
However, depending on how long a piece of venison has been aged, it may need some prep work before being cooked. If you only did a short seven-day hang, you won’t need to do much other than cut it into good, steak-sized pieces. However, any longer, and you will need to trim away the outside of the meat. After long periods of aging, your venison will develop a hard cap of enzymes that isn’t so much fun to eat. About a fourth of an inch needs to be cut away on the outside of the carcass before it should be cooked. Don’t worry, that cap is also protective of the rest of the meat, so only trim away what you want to cook and leave the rest.