Most people who have cooked venison have at some point left their venison steak or chop on the heat too long, and ended up with a dry hockey puck that was barely edible. This is not necessarily an indictment of their cooking skills, but rather an example of just how fragile venison can be when cooking it.
The difference between meat cooked to 130 degrees and 165 degrees is only a matter of minutes. I have seen venison cooking recommendations that suggest that all venison be cooked to 165 degrees, and I would never discourage anyone from taking the safe road. If you choose, however, to live life on the edge because you prefer venison medium-rare (or, as I prefer it, rare), hitting that magical 125-130 degree temperature range can be difficult.
When cooking venison backstrap, for instance, cutting it into chops or medallions will reduces cook time to a matter of minutes. This is why I prefer to leave my backstraps in large, whole pieces so that I can maintain some control. When grilling a large piece, I leave it on the grill for about 4 minutes per side on the direct heat, then move it to the top rack for about 5 minutes to finish. This usually gets me pretty close to what I want, but there’s still a lot of room for error and overcooking.
A more controlled method is to sear the backstrap in a pan with butter, then move to a 350 degree oven for about 8 minutes. Again, this will get me close, but depending on the size of the backtrap there is still too much room for error. Sure, I could throw a thermometer in there and monitor the internal temp of the meat and that would tell me what I need to know and get me close to exact on my 125-130 degree preference. But you still run into the problem of taper: this is where the back strap is larger on one end than it is on the other and you don’t get and even cooking temp throughout the meat.
This is where fancy gadgets and good friends can be helpful. For my birthday this year my buddy Shawn Bergeth got me an Anova Precision cooker. It’s also called a sous vide, which is a French term meaning “under vacuum.” The basic gist is that you can vacuum seal what you want to cook—meat, fish, fowl, eggs, and vegetables—and then submerge it in a water bath set to an exact temperature. This is an old restaurant technique that has become very popular in the last few years.
For my first try with the precision cooker, I thought I would go right to the venison backstrap and attempt to produce a perfectly rare piece of meat. I seasoned the meat with salt and pepper and sealed it in a vacuum bag. I set the temperature to 122 degrees, dropped the meat into the water, and left for four hours. When I got home, I cut open the bag, seared the meat in a cast-iron pan for about 90 seconds on each side, and then let it rest for 5 minutes. (The searing raised the temp a few degrees, which is why I set the water bath at 122 degrees.) What I ended up with was a rare piece of venison that hit 128 degrees and was as tender as any piece of meat I have ever had. I served it up with a little bourbon cream sauce and some roasted potatoes.
I think it worked wonderfully, especially considering that was my first time using the gadget. The really nice thing is that if you wanted it to be more toward medium, you could set the temp at 130 degrees and then sear, and that would get you up around 135. You could also follow the recommended food guidelines and cook it to 145 degrees, but that is just a bit overdone for my tastes. I am really looking forward to giving this thing a try on other cuts and a variety of fish and game.