Few spices are out of the running when it comes to seasoning venison. The meat reaches the table in a variety of styles, each calling for its own supporting flavors. Whether the deer is farmed or wild can affect the intensity of gamey flavors. Feel free to gove your spice rack a workout, confident that the meat will rise to the challenge.
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The customary pairing of venison with juniper berries is a curious one, as deer find the bush unpalatable in the wild. So this is not the case of guiding a meat’s flavor through the feed, such as with the nutty tones of acorn-fed Iberico ham. Nevertheless, the clean, pungent berry with a faint piney taste is the go-to favorite in areas where deer is an established recipe, such as Scandinavia and North America. The berries are usually dried and require crushing for use. Because venison is hardly a succulent meat, sear or pan-fry fillets, then lavish them with a juniper-based sauce.
Deer goulash, served throughout Hungary, imparts winter-busting heat with paprika, allspice and the ubiquitous juniper berry. Although the paprika powder will give the deer meat some welcome bite, the spice also lends a subtle sweetness to the stew. Allspice, on the other hand, brings several influences, as its name suggests, with the ground seeds releasing cinnamon, nutmeg and clove aromas. Venison can even be upgraded to a full curry, in the vein of goat or mutton, by searing strips in a temperature-raising sauce packed with toasted garam masala, cardamom, chili peppers and cayenne.
For a potent seasoning rub, call on paprika, cumin, ground peppercorns, yellow mustard seeds, cayenne pepper and salt. This is the standard dry rub for grilled meat dishes, including beef, pork and chicken, and capable of indulging venison’s heartier flavors and textures. Massage a loin of venison with a dry rub, then roast it in the oven. Carve the loin into juicy medallions with a salty, spicy crust. Venison can even be barbecued, perfect for breaking down the tougher bone-in cuts, such as haunch. Again, the dry rub adds a crust and can help seal in the all-important moisture, given venison’s noticeable absence of fat.
As with juniper seeds, venison responds to herby, aromatic spices. Fennel seeds give a pleasant aniseed tinge, as does ground anise. Coriander and cumin intensify the meat’s musky, gamy flavor, one of the reasons the latter is so often paired with lamb. For the best results, avoid prepackaged powders and grind your own seeds in a pestle and mortar. The oils in the seeds will release a potent concentration of aromas that is almost unrecognizable from the bland versions left by ground powders stored past their best. Use aromatic herbs when preparing venison burgers, where the lean meat needs all the help it can get to nurture flavor.