Deer diary: Jon Wipfli’s 'Venison' takes hunters from slay to gourmet

Oh, deer.

Oh, deer. Matt Lien

Jon Wipfli knows deer.

And if you’re among the 10 million people who hunt that animal, his new cookbook, Venison: The Slay to Gourmet Field to Kitchen Cookbook, will teach you how to butcher and prepare your quarry.

As owner of The Minnesota Spoon, a catering, cooking education, and personal chef business, Wipfli is uniquely qualified to dish out step-by-step instructions on gutting, skinning, and breaking down your kill. (Visual learner? Fret not; the cookbook’s full-color photos by Matt Lien leave nothing to the imagination.) Among the dozens of recipes, you’ll find all the comfort food classics -- meatloaf, sausage, burgers, steak, and even hot dish -- made new with venison.

Wipfli graduated from the French Culinary Institute of New York and spent a decade cooking in kitchens like the Bachelor Farmer. He answered our questions about venison ahead of his book signing at Filson this Saturday -- which will include free chili and beer!

CP: What are the common misconceptions about venison?

JW: I think it’s generally thought of as extremely gamey. Gamey is strong-flavored in a negative way. I think that’s what people think of venison. For me, that’s kind of like a challenge: You have this strong-flavored piece of meat that might be considered a little bit offensive by people. How do you turn that cut of meat into something that’s the exact opposite, and work with those strong flavors, and really bring out the good qualities?

John Wipfli with a soon-to-be meal

John Wipfli with a soon-to-be meal Matt Lien

The other one might be that it’s a dry meat, because it’s a little bit more lean than most of your meats coming from larger animals. And it is more lean, but that just comes down to good cooking technique and learning how to work with the animal itself.

CP: What are the different ways you can prepare various parts of a deer?

JW: All animals essentially work the same if you’re looking at four-legged, hoofed creatures: pigs, cows, deer, moose, whatever else. The rear legs are typically less stringy. You can cook steaks out of the back end. You can do schnitzel. You can do cured meats out of the hindquarters. You work into the middle -- loins, gut loins, and tenderloins -- that stuff always goes towards steaks or stir-fry or things along those lines, because none of that meat needs a long cooking time. You can basically eat it medium rare, and that’s ideal eating.

You work your way down to the belly meat or rib meat. Ribs you can smoke or long bake. Then you get up into the shoulders and you basically move into a muscle category that takes more finesse to work with. Sausage usually comes from the front shoulders because you want all that connective tissue and marbling because that’s what makes the sausage taste good. You get your slow roast and your smoking cuts out of there. If you’re doing a burger grind, you want to take it out of the front shoulder.

CP: Given the gamey-ness, what pairs well with venison as far as sides or spices are concerned?

JW: When I think about cooking a dish for venison, I think about balancing flavors. One of my favorite recipes in the book is venison heart on skewers. You make an oil consisting of chopped garlic, Thai chili peppers, and minced ginger, and you let all that stuff simmer together for five minutes in oil until it gets brown and nutty flavored. Then you grill the skewers and brush them with that oil and drizzle those flavors over it. You have a strong, irony, very lean heart muscle, and then it’s balanced by some nice, acidic, fresh but powerful ingredients.

Another one of my favorite recipes in the book comes with a creamy kale. So you do a venison schnitzel: You pound the venison so it’s nice and thin, and then you bread it and you fry it. By making it so thin, you’re not taking a huge bite of venison at one time. You’re getting a smaller portion of it. And then on the side of that, you have a creamy, slightly spicy side to go with it. You’re taking that strong flavor, you’re mellowing it down by how you treat the piece of meat, and then you’re also serving it with something that balances out that flavor, which is cream and spice and then something fresh, which would be the kale in that situation. 

CP: Do you believe in the ethical killing of animals? If so, what does that look like when you’re hunting deer?

JW: “The ethical killing of animals” -- that’s such a broad statement. “Ethics” to different people means different things. The food system across the United States is a very complex system. There are things that happen to animals that personally, if I had a farm, I wouldn’t raise animals like that, but the fact of the matter is, it’s just what needs to be done or is what’s being done in America and will be done for a long time in America for a variety of reasons. I understand how real those things are. But on the other side of things, I just consider clean, fair hunting an ethical way to procure meat. I think that sometimes hunters get a bad rap for that sort of thing, but if you make a clean kill in the woods and you take that life efficiently, and then you treat it well after the actual kill, I think it’s one of the most ethical ways you can kill an animal.

CP: What would you say to someone who was wary of hunting and processing their own meat? Is there something inherently fulfilling about doing that yourself?

JW: That’s all person to person. My mom used to hunt and she didn’t find enough satisfaction in that, so she quit. I don’t get satisfaction from the kill. I get satisfaction from going through the entire process of scouting an area to figure out how animals are moving, how they’re behaving, and then figuring out how to get into those areas and then figuring out how to take an animal. Then you have to get it out and you have to do all the work of processing. And then the final process is putting it onto a table in a way that’s respectful to the animal and makes a good meal for your guests. It is a lot of work, but it’s rewarding work and if you do it right, it’s pretty exciting stuff.

The other thing I’ve always said to people when they talk about getting into hunting and if they’re wary about it is: If you go into the woods for a day or two and you don’t get anything, you just spent a day or two in the woods and that’s pretty good, too. I’ve spent countless days not getting anything out of the woods -- many more than I have getting stuff out of the woods. I think it’s good to respect the process, understand the process, and then don’t be afraid to fail at it. You learn a lot in the failing process.

Jon Wipfli: Venison Book Signing
Where: Filson Minneapolis
228 Washington Ave. N., Minneapolis
When: 2-4 p.m., Saturday, October 21