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My whole life one creature has reigned supreme in the diet of my family, the Mule Deer. I have consumed more mule deer meat than any other wild game animal, by a long shot. Taco meat, hamburgers, meat loaf, stuffed peppers – all using venison. Don’t forget the steaks, the roasts and stews. Mule deer is a very known quantity in my house.
As such I fantasize about other deer meat, mostly elk. But it has been told to me, over the years, that whitetail deer meat is the bee’s knees. Yet, I somehow have escaped eating whitetail for my whole life, not to my knowledge has whitetail meat ever passed over my lips. I have this belief that eating it will somehow make me a convert and I will never mule deer hunt again for meat. It scares me. I am not against sitting in tree stands looking down but I like spot and stalk hunting too much!
But in the fall of 2012 I was given, as Dr. James Swan puts it in his famous book In Defense of Hunting, the sacrament of wild game meat. My buddy, Leon Reams, handed me a back-strap from a button buck whitetail he had taken in northern Idaho. He exalted the qualities of the meat to me, the tenderness, the flavor, ect. I argued that a young mule deer would taste just as good. We did not see eye to eye on the topic.
I decided, then and there, that I needed to settle this whitetail vs mule deer edibility discussion. As a chef that does frequent product demonstrations I have developed the ability to blind “cut” products against each other with relative ease.
However, to properly compare the meats I needed a similar piece of mule deer back strap. Cutting a button buck whitetail against an old and sage brush fed mule deer was a not fair comparison. Conveniently, I tagged out on a spike mule deer that was living in my uncles corn field.
Full disclosure time, I was actually duck hunting when my buck jumped up at about 4 yards from me, my son and my dog. He did not make it past 5 yards. Size two steel at that range is lethal to just about anything. This buck is known around the house as “the duck buck.”
With my battling back straps in the freezer I needed to set up a panel of judges to compare the meat. I figured the panel should be a diverse group of individuals. Hunters, non-hunters, foodies ect.
First on my list is a friend and fellow writer Guy Hand. Guy is the former food critic for the Idaho Statesman, a radio show host for a program called “Edible Idaho” and is now the editor for Edible Idaho South Magazine. The second person on my panel was Ryan McDaniel; a fellow hunter and best man in my wedding. Third was Bowhunter Sean Cook, a backcountry bull buster. Fourth was Karin Raffo a wild game novice but huge foodie. Fifth was Kelly Grindstaff the Executive Chef of Red Fish Lake Lodge.
Each team member was given a sheet with a grading scale from 1-10 on the following areas – appearance, color, smell, texture, taste, “game” flavor and overall impression. A notes section was also provided.
The comparison was blind, none of the participants knew if the meat was whitetail or if it was mule deer until the tasting was finished (well, Sean knew the difference. A lifetime of eating both whitetail and mule deer gave it away. He kept quite about it, however.) The meat was pan roasted in canola oil and only seasoned with salt and pepper. Each loin was served at medium rare. The meat was served hot, side by side, allowing a direct comparison between the meats.
This all seamed quasi-scientific enough to settle the debate for me, for now.
The Results –
The long and short of it is the whitetail we ate was better tasting than the “Duck Buck” mule deer. My worst nightmare had come true. I could find a better meat but I would have to leave the high dessert that I often hunted. It is time to venture into the forest. Maybe even sit in a tree stand, but I am afraid of heights.
In almost every category the whitetail measured higher than the mule deer. The only time that the mule deer performed better than the whitetail was when overcooked. Below is a breakdown of the scoring for each animal.
Most notably was the comparison of textures of the whitetail meat vs the mule deer. It was common consensus that the whitetail had a much finer grain to the meat and that finer grain meant a tenderer chew. The mule deer had longer and tougher strands that Ryan McDaniel noted “are ideal for longer cook times, like braising or stews.”
Chef Grindstaff thought that the whitetail was definitely a better “introductory” deer meat than mule deer. He noted that whitetail was more like a meat he would want to serve in his restaurant and is better suited for medium rare cooking than the mule deer.
Across the board whitetail was considered better meat for the table. It really was the Bee’s Knees of small deer meat. Next cutting – elk vs moose. (Anyone have any moose meat I could cook?)
The Perfect Backstrap (Whitetail or Mule Deer)
1ea 12oz section of back strap
Fresh Cracked Pepper
1 T canola oil
1ea Digital or Probe Meat Thermometer
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
To get a tender and juicy backstrap I recommend that most home cooks stop cutting it into steaks. Cook it like a roast and then slice it into medallions. One whole chunk of meat will holds its moisture better even if it is slightly overcooked. A single steak that is over cooked basically becomes a hockey puck.
To increase the tenderness of a backstrap make sure to completely peel off any silver skin with a sharp tipped knife. Slid the knife directly under the silver skin and then turn the blade up at about a 20 degree angle, slide the knife under the sliver skin leaving meat behind. (See photo) Removing the silver will increase the tenderness and palatability.
After peeling a little salt and pepper might be all the meat will need before cooking. Rub salt liberally over the meat and then use fresh cracked pepper, not the fine ground stuff they sell in tins at the grocery store. Salt and pepper enhance flavor for most cuts of meat, use them liberally.
Heat a medium sized oven proof sauté pan on medium high for about 3 minutes. Add the canola oil, the oil should almost be smoking, and brown the backstrap on all sides. Place the pan and the backstrap into the oven.
Depending on the size of the deer killed the amount of cooking time will vary each time. That said the meat should be cooked to temperature and not time anyway. Heat the meat, via the oven, until it is 115 degrees F on the thickest part.
When it reaches that temperature remove the pan from the oven and transfer the meat to a plate. Let the meat “rest” for about 5 minutes before slicing. This will allow the juices to settle and gives much moister piece of meat. Resting the meat will also allow for what is called Carry Over Cooking. Meat does not stop cooking immediately when it comes out of the oven, on average it gains 17-22% more degrees. So a backstrap removed at a rare temperature, ie 115 F, will finish cooking itself after a few minutes out of the oven to about 125 F, a perfect medium rare.
Slice the backstrap into ½ inch medallions and serve with your favorite side dishes.