For many hunters, venison backstrap is the ultimate prize, but I believe that the tenderloins are actually the most tender and delicious part of a deer or elk. A tenderloin steak seared in a hot skillet and bathed in garlic butter practically melts in your mouth; there’s no denying that it lives up to its name.
To make the best of this special cut, ensure you know how to properly handle the tenderloins every step of the way—from the field to the frying pan.
How To Remove Tenderloins From A Deer or Elk
The tenderloins, the pair of narrow muscles attached to the inside of the spine near the hips, can easily be missed if you’ve never been taught how to find and properly remove them. Because they’re tucked inside of the body cavity, it’s imperative that care is taken.
You’ll need to get the tenderloins out as clean as possible while field dressing. You can do this the traditional way where you remove the digestive system and internal organs first. However, if you’re not careful, this method can create a bit of a mess and increase the risk of accidentally puncturing the intestines (and therefore tainting the meat). Additionally, when opening up the diaphragm, blood can splash on the meat and give it a more iron-like flavor. If that happens, just give the tenderloins a rinse under cold water as soon as possible, pat or let air dry, and transfer into an ice-cold cooler as soon as you can.
In backcountry situations, I sometimes like to remove the tenderloins using the “gutless” processing method. To do so, you’ll remove the top side of the hide and cut the backstrap off first. Then, reach underneath the spine and find where the tenderloins attach. Use your hand to push the intestines away and carefully make an incision with a pocket knife to cut the tendon that connects it to the bone and pull it out. After removing, keep the muscle clean from dirt and debris and chill as quickly as possible as you work to finish field dressing your deer.
Unfortunately, if you gut-shoot a deer, the tenderloins will be tainted with intestinal fluid. Sometimes if you pull it out and clean it quick enough, you can salvage this meat. However, keep in mind that this can introduce unwanted bacteria, so you’ll need to practice food safety when handling the meat and clean your knife often.
How to Prepare Venison Tenderloins
Now that you’ve got the tenderloins from the field to the fridge, it’s time to think about the best way to prep them. There is a small piece of silverskin exposed on the outside that will need to be trimmed, but it’s relatively easy to do with a sharp processing knife.
Compared to the backstrap, the tenderloins are relatively small and best cooked whole—don’t cut them into medallions or butterfly them open. But what tenderloins lack in size, they make up for in tenderness. In fact, even on the toughest, oldest deer we’ve ever shot, the tenderloins were still buttery tender! There’s no need to soak it in buttermilk or pound it out with a meat mallet—just keep it as it is. Less is more when it comes to delicate meat like the tenderloins.
Seasonings, Marinades, and Compound Butter
When thinking of recipes and ways to cook tenderloin, I like to keep it relatively simple with tried-and-true steak flavors. Most times, plain coarse sea salt and fresh cracked pepper are all you need. Venison should have a clean, meaty flavor and smell (never “gamey”) if it is handled in the field properly.
If grilling, I’ll marinate tenderloins in a zesty, garlic-herb marinade infused with lemon that tastes like pure sunshine. It’s perfect on a beautiful summer day, and its bold flavors can help mask the taste of tainted meat if you have a “whoopsies” in the field.
During the fall, I lean towards richer flavors, like the garlic-rosemary compound butter in the recipe below. When making it, I like to melt the butter, garlic, and herbs over low heat first. This helps to mellow out the pungency of the garlic and infuse the flavors into the butter more evenly. A splash of red wine vinegar is added which balances the taste and makes it pop! The mixture is then chilled and stirred to re-emulsify so that you can use like regular butter. Add a dollop into the skillet right at the end of cooking, and use a spoon to baste the melted compound butter on top of the tenderloins.
Tenderloin Cooking Methods
Deer and elk tenderloins make for amazing steaks that are best cooked hot and fast, either in a skillet, stovetop, or on a smokin’ hot grill. And because they’re small and low in fat, they won’t take long to cook.
How to Achieve Perfect Doneness
Throughout cooking I like to periodically check for doneness using tongs to feel the density. Compare it to the way the fleshy part of your palm right at the base of your thumb feels when your thumb and middle finger are pressed together. If that’s beyond your area of comfort, never be afraid to use a meat thermometer! In my opinion, medium-rare is best, about 130℉, so that the meat says juicy. To avoid a dry and tough tenderloin, don’t overcook it! It should still be pink in the middle.
Because the tenderloins are such a cherished cut, it’s typically reserved for special occasions and you might be thinking to yourself “I don’t wanna screw this up!” This seared tenderloin with garlic compound butter recipe is an easy and delicious way to prepare such a beautiful piece of meat. I like to serve it with silky mashed potatoes and roasted asparagus, sauteed green beans, or a simple salad.
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