Dad, guess what I traded my jerky for today at lunch?”
Most dads would cringe at the thought of their kids trading away jerky at the lunch table. But I know my kids get so much of the lean, healthy venison at home, that I love it when they bless their friends and share with them.
“What did you get, dude? Oreos? Goldfish crackers?”
“Nope, a dollar!” My 8-year-old answered excitedly.
Now we got a problem, I thought to myself. “Buddy, it’s actually illegal to sell deer jerky. Tomorrow, give your friend his dollar back.” “Ok, Dad.”
Feeding a family of six without going to the grocery store is certainly a challenge. I’ve yet to accomplish this task, but every year I give it my best shot. Lean, red meat is a huge part of my family’s diet, and I harvest all we need by hunting deer. From the venison I shoot, we not only make steaks and burgers, but we also create all sorts of other wonderful treats that not only will my kids eat, but they look forward to. Many butcher shops and deer processors also make these delicious snacks, but I like doing things on my own — and it’s a lot more cost-effective as well.
Between my dad, kids and myself, we butcher between six and eight deer every year. Because of the high volume of deer we take in, we have invested in everything we need to make our own butcher shop. We have a meat grinder, a meat slicer and a vacuum sealer. We also utilize a smoker, a dehydrator and a pressure cooker. We have a nice hanging gambrel and high-end cutlery that stays sharp. All of these things are a big investment up front, but certainly pay for themselves in the long run.
Jerky is the king of meat snacks, the oldest portable snack known to man, and by far my family’s favorite. In fact, last season, almost two entire deer went to just jerky. Most of that jerky went to snacks and school lunches, but a lot went to my older two son’s winter sports teams. My oldest is a wrestler and those boys who are watching their weight need high-energy, lightweight snacks — jerky fits the bill. My second son is a swimmer, and the amount of calories those boys and girls burn in a day is insane. They look forward to having their jerky snack to refuel at the end of every long, grueling practice. I’m proud of the fact that I could share God’s blessings with not only my children, but other kids in the community as well. If anything, the snacks we provide are healthy. If I have my way, I have just inspired two whole sports teams worth of young men and women to take up our sport of hunting.
We make jerky two ways. Most of the time, we take ground meat and mix it with a seasoning kit. When using ground meat, be sure to mix in the appropriate amount of cold water and let it sit in the refrigerator overnight. I then take the jerky gun or “jerky shooter,” pack the meat in the tube with a spoon and lay it down on my dehydrating sheets like I’m caulking a newly-installed window. If you don’t have a dehydrator, you can use a smoker, grill or simply put meat on a cookie cooling rack in an oven to dry out your jerky. The key is a low, dry heat. When using an oven, be sure to leave the door cracked so moisture can escape. Regardless of what I’m using, I try to run my jerky temps at between 200 and 225 degrees. Depending on how thick it is, it’s usually done in about four hours.
The other way my kids enjoy jerky is the traditional, whole muscle method. By taking roast or steaks and slicing them thin, I create nice, chewy strips of jerky. I use our meat slicer, but another method is simply cutting the meat when it’s half frozen with a regular knife. By cutting the meat while it is still half-frozen, it slices much more evenly and easily than if it were completely thawed. We then marinate these strips of meat in whatever mixture we feel like using at the time and also let it sit for 24 hours in the refrigerator. The same method is used to dry the sliced meat. I like my dehydrator, but once again, other people use smokers, grills or their oven. Heck, when I was in Africa, those guys made their Biltong by simply hanging it on a rack on the roof of their houses during the hot, windy season. That authentic Biltong was some of the best jerky I’ve ever had in my life! I wouldn’t recommend hanging meat to dry on your roof in Michigan, but my point is that people have been making jerky since the dawn of time — it’s not that hard to get the stuff to dry out.
Once the jerky is made and I’m ready to try some more things, I move on to sausage. Sausage is a mystery to a lot of people, but I have found it to be really quite easy to make. Basically, it is seasoned ground meat in a casing. Some people heat it and dry it, like in a salami, and others leave it uncooked, like in a brat. I also buy seasoning kits to make the sausage process as simple as possible. I’ll take 20 pounds of ground venison and mix it with 5 pounds of pork fat. I simply grind the fat in my meat grinders, as well. I then mix the two together, and it becomes very thick and pasty. I know the mixture is right when the color changes from a bright red meat to a lightish pink. At this point, I decide what sort of sausages I want to make. My family really likes the big, fat summer sausages, brats, snack sticks and smoked dried brats that I call “slicing sausage.” I personally do not own a sausage stuffer yet, but I do have an attachment on my meat grinder. The problem I’ve had with stuffing sausages through my meat grinder is that it generally tends to get bogged down with the mixture being sort of pasty and the auger can’t push out any meat. So, I tend to improvise now, and I just use my jerky squirter gun with a round tube nozzle and I fill my sausage casings that way. When filling a big, 3-pound summer sausage casing, I squirt in as much meat as I can and then squeeze it down to the end. Then I start the process over again and again until the casing is full. Lastly, I’ll tie the open end off with a string and it’s good to go.
Brat and snack stick casings are much narrower than summer sausage and a bit trickier to work with. When crafting brats or snack sticks, I take the casings and slide them up over the nozzle of my jerky gun and fill them that way. When filling narrow sausages with a stuffer or jerky gun, it’s important to grease the nozzle with a little bit of cooking oil to get the casing to slide on easily.
Once the sausages are stuffed, you can throw them right on the smoker, pinch them into bun links and twist them for brats or let them sit in the refrigerator to cure a bit more overnight. I throw them on the smoker. When smoking the meats, I try to reach an internal temperature of 156 degrees for any of my sausages. When making summer sausage, I immediately pull them off the smoker and give them a cold water bath. This tends to draw the fats to the surface, lubricating the casing, which makes it easier to peel off. The summer sausage is the only casing that I don’t eat. Brat casings are natural intestines and snack stick casings are made from a vegetable collagen. Both are totally safe to eat. In fact, with these edible casings, I don’t even notice that they’re there.
My dad is famous for his corned venison. There are all sorts of recipes online for how to do this, but he takes a good, hind-end roast and trims it liberally. He then brines it for a while before rinsing it off and boiling it. The whole process may take a week or so, but it is absolutely worth the time. There’s not a lot better than a homemade, venison Reuben sandwich.
Another thing that not many people do is can their venison in a pressure cooker. We’ve experimented with a variety of ways, and I have found the simplest is literally just filling a jar to within an inch of headspace with clean cubes of venison, filling the jar with water and canning it. Always reference a professional guide to see how long to can meat, but I know it doesn’t take more than a few hours. By simply adding water, the venison cooks down and creates its own natural gravy. I also like adding an onion slice, some jalapenos or even a peppery broth to continue to enhance the flavors. On a busy school night with several sports activities, a quart jar of venison dumped over some potatoes is a wonderful, home-cooked meal and takes only minutes to prepare.
Not only do I enjoy smoking meats, but I also love grilling. One of my favorite things to do on the grill is to take a venison loin, wrap it with bacon and grill it slow and low for quite a while. When the bacon is crispy, I can almost always be sure the venison on the inside is done. Thinly slicing these wrapped loins makes medallions of amazing flavor.
I also like to take a big roast or a thick steak and cut it in the shape of a “Z” from the side where I can unfold it into three separate joined pieces. I then pound that out with a meat tenderizing hammer and make a big, thin, venison patty, similar to a pizza crust or flatbread. Next, I’ll spread cream cheese, peppers, mushrooms, onions or whatever I feel like and roll it back up into a round log. Sometimes, I’ll grill that straight, other times I’ll wrap it, too, in bacon. I really like serving gourmet venison off the grill to guests or people who aren’t accustomed to wild game meat.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s always a goal of mine to not go to the grocery store. I take a lot of pride in feeding my family naturally but also know the benefit of having a variety of foods. Kids are picky eaters, and even though something is healthy, it doesn’t mean they’re going to want to eat a lot of it. In fact, when something is considered healthy, it generally doesn’t taste all that great. The cool thing about venison is that it doesn’t take much to make it taste great! So, if you’re lucky enough to get a deer or two this fall, experiment with meat snacks. Both your family and wallet will thank you!