David Hughes’ wholesome sure-fire bet to feed the family and keep on hunting
Sometimes deer hunters are lucky, with the result being an embarrassment of venison descending upon their households. The increasing numbers of deer all over the country are contributing to this ‘good-quality problem’. After bagging a young sambar stag in alpine Victoria, hot on the heels of despatching five young fallow in Tasmania, I had the freezer choc-a-bloc. What to do?
Having claimed to my wife Di for years that the main justification for my hunting was to provide food for the family, I badly needed to see the freezer space emptying as quickly as it had been filled. From a practical as well as from a political standpoint, I had to find more avenues for using-up my stock of frozen venison.
Venison might be lean and tasty, but the recipes for its use are limited in comparison with other meats. The family was okay with venison schnitzel and with stir-fry. Venison could also be minced and used in quite a few dishes such as bolognaise sauce or lasagna, especially if blended with other minced meats. However, I needed more options. The hunter dreads the mealtime pause when the kids test a tiny mouthful of what has been offered, only to squeak: “This tastes funny. I don’t want it.”
Other than store-bought junk food, one of the least contentious forms of meat to challenge the diet of typical Aussie families would be sausages. Surely, the humble snag would have broader appeal than the other limited options of venison recipes? The more I thought about it, the faster I could see the freezer’s contents ebbing. Dreams of new hunting adventures seemed to depend upon rapid investment in advanced, high-throughput sausage production.
A quick check revealed that my hunting mate Zeke already had an electric household mincer with decent capacity. We also found a hand-cranked filler on the web that would give us more control over the filling speed than the fixed speed pick available on the mincer. Some internet searching readily revealed many venison sausage recipes. We arrived at a couple of our own experimental recipes by combining some of the commonly used ingredients.
All the snag recipes added some type of pork fat to the venison. Because venison is such a lean meat, it won’t make a palatable sausage on its own. We tried fatty pork shoulder in our first batch, but found the sausages were too dry. We then used pure pork fat and it was much better. It can be ordered from some butchers, but it can take a few days to accumulate a batch of 5-10kg because the fat is only a by-product of trimming pig carcasses for the regular butchery trade.
We also investigated the various sausage casings available. There were three main types – natural, synthetic collagen and fibrous (cellulose). The latter were ruled out because they are the inedible sort used for salamis. Synthetic collagen casings are a more modern invention and apparently, the best ones are difficult to tell from natural casings in terms of eating quality.
Since they are made from the reconstituted collagen from animal hides and other cartilaginous tissues, these casings are arguably ‘sort-of natural’, despite being called synthetic. They have better consistency in terms of wall thickness and strength and are therefore favoured by many large commercial sausage manufacturers. This type of casing is supplied as a long, dry tube threaded onto a stick, and is ready for use without soaking.
Natural casings are the cleaned-up intestine walls from sheep, pigs or cattle. They are the traditional type and still appear to be most favoured by D.I.Y makers. They are sold in a wet, salted form and can be stored refrigerated or frozen. We decided to use the natural casings, as they were readily available from a conveniently located retail smallgoods supplier. They were labelled ‘Salted Shorts Hog 20 metre 28/32’. We found that one of these packets was enough to generate about 10-12kg of sausage. Before being used, natural casings need to be rinsed well to remove the salt.
- Thaw the venison, then cut into large cubes.
- Cube the pork fat in the same fashion.
- Mince the venison and fat (we did them separately).
- Combine the spices in a bowl and mix with the cold water.
- On a clean kitchen bench, make a mound of the minced meat and fat.
- Form a crater in the middle of the mound.
- Pour the spice/water suspension into the crater, then mix thoroughly using your hands (this requires a fair bit of effort as the cold fat and meat are quite resilient).
- Load the filler chamber with the sausage mix.
- Thread the entire washed casing onto the filler spout; tie the free end.
- One person works the hand crank of the filler, while another supports the tube of newly filled sausage and monitors any problems, such as split casings or inconsistent filling.
- Coil up the long, single sausage for tying-off into individual units of the desired length (this takes a bit of practice – we looked up some YouTube videos to give us guidance).
The keeping quality of the finished product depends on just two factors – the temperature during manufacture and subsequent storage, and the extent of bacterial contamination during the process. Hence, it is important to keep the raw materials as cold as is practicable.
The meat and fat should be processed straight from the refrigerator and holding times at room temperature for the work-in-progress and finished snags held to a minimum. Temperature awareness is the reason that the recipes call for ice-cold water.
Bacterial contamination can come from the meat itself and from exposure to surfaces during the processing. Hygienic harvesting in the field is obviously a key starting point. Additionally, the mincer should be scrupulously cleaned prior to use.
It is preferable to use pre-sterilised disposable gloves through the process. However, even using the best hygienic practices, sausages are inherently more prone to bacterial spoilage. Mincing massively increases the surface area of meat, all of which is subject to environmental contamination. The finished product needs to be back into the refrigerator (preferably the freezer) immediately.
A small cryovac machine is invaluable for frozen storage. These machines and their rolls of bagging plastic are readily available in department stores. The cryovac sucks out the air from the bag then seals it with a heating bar. In the absence of air, the growth of bacteria and the oxidation of fats is inhibited, meaning that the sausage stays tasting fresher for longer.
After all this effort, it is important that the finished snags be cooked to perfection. I found that just chucking them on the barbecue was not the best. Too much heat may cause the natural casings to split, which spoils their appearance for the table. Additionally, in pursuit of a well-cooked sausage, it is easy to render out all the fat, leaving the shrunken result both dry and unappetizing.
Here is my sure-fire bet method for cooking the humble venison snag. Firstly, pop the sausages into a saucepan and just cover them with cold water. Turn on the stove to a medium to high heat and let the water come to simmering temperature, which should take six to eight minutes.
This will pretty much cook the snags right through. Take them out of the water and onto a hot barbecue plate to brown up the outside. After a brief searing, the snags are lovely and brown, yet much plumper than if cooked from scratch on the plate. Yum, ready for the table…
The saying goes that ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’, and happily it came to pass that our venison sausages were a big success when put to this test of the table. People who would knock back offers of venison would happily carry off a packet or two of the snags and try them. Now I had a way to deplete the freezer by many kilos every time I made a batch. In addition, and all importantly, space in the freezer meant ‘game on’ for another hunting trip.
Spicy venison sausage
Pork fat: 0.7kg
Red pepper flakes: 5.4g
Ground sage: 0.7g
Black pepper medium ground: 7.7g
Powdered garlic : 7.2g
Ice-cold water: 0.2 litres
= 1.9kg finished sausage
Mild venison sausage
Pork fat : 0.7kg
Ground sage: 0.5g
Powdered garlic : 4.8g
Ice-cold water: 0.2 litres
= 1.9kg finished sausage