For many hunters, their trophy returns from the meatcutter in the form of a few premium steaks and a disappointingly large quantity of anonymous ground venison. That's partly because the other muscles are tough and partly because they're too small to yield beef-sized cuts. That's not the situation with the elk, or wapiti, one of the largest animals in the deer family. These striking creatures produce beef-sized cuts, which are typically named -- and cooked -- just like their beef counterparts.
The Premium Cuts
As with beef, premium cuts of elk come from the rib and loin sections. The rib can be processed into large, tender rib roasts or cut up for rib or ribeye steaks, whichever you prefer. The long, flat loin muscles, or "backstraps," are the equivalent of the New York strip on a steer. Cut these into grilling steaks, as you would with beef, or leave a large piece intact as a premium roast for special occasions. The tenderloin, or fillet, can be found on the underside of the spine. Roast it whole or cut it into medallions for filet mignon. Alternatively, cut elk T-bones and porterhouses with both strip and tenderloin left on the bone. This whole section, with rib and loin cuts, is sometimes sold as a "saddle" of elk.
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The rump or hind leg is sometimes referred to as the "haunch" on a game animal, and cuts here vary in tenderness. The top sirloin, top round and tri-tip cuts are all tender enough to be grilled, and the tri-tip and most other cuts from the round make very good roasts. The muscles in this part of the elk are all relatively large and easy to trim of fat and connective tissue, so they're also very good for use as stewing meat.
The Shoulder and Belly
Shoulder cuts tend to be tougher than their counterparts at the hip. The largest pieces are generally cut and sold as chuck or blade roasts, or occasionally as chuck steaks. These cuts must be slow-cooked to break down their tough muscles and connective tissues, typically as a rich pot roast. The same holds true for brisket, cut from the animal's chest muscles, and the plate and flank cut from its abdomen. Flank steak, and a few other specialized cuts such as hanger steak, can be grilled or broiled whole and then sliced thinly to make a pleasantly chewy steak.
The elk's long neck and the shank portions of its legs contain a large quantity of tough, stringy meat that generally goes to the grinder. However, the neck can also be braised or slow-roasted until tender, and then extracted from its large bones for carving. Shanks produce an especially rich, hearty broth, if you'd like to keep elk broth on hand for soups and stews, or they can be crosscut into rounds and braised as elk "osso bucco." The tough, lean heart has a rich but not gamy flavor, and its dense texture is especially good when slow-cooked in stews. The liver, kidney and tongue are very similar to their beef counterparts, and are prepared in the same ways.
Elk and other forms of venison are much leaner than commercial beef, which means they require extra care in cooking. Fat is an insulator, so as a rule elk needs shorter cooking times and lower temperatures than beef. You can minimize the gameyness of your catch by trimming the cuts of all visible fat and connective tissue before cooking them, or by soaking the meat in buttermilk or a light brine beforehand. A tangy marinade or earthy, smoky spice rub will help moderate any remaining funkiness in the meat.