Smash burgers have really gained popularity in the past few years, although they’ve been under our noses for decades. Using venison is a great way to elevate the typical smash burger to world-class. In this article, I’ll give you all you need to bring something new to your venison burger game, including regular and “Oklahoma-style” venison smash burgers.
Many will say there’s a strict definition for a “smash” burger, likely having to do with the act of smashing it, but a thin patty that’s been cooked on a griddle counts for me. This could be sliders from your local diner or better-than-average fast burger joints. The common features are the patties are 3 ounces or less, no internal temperature is taken as they cook, and they are cooked on a flat-top griddle.
About Grinding and Fat
How you grind your venison plays a huge role in all this. For the venison smash burgers featured here, my friend Craig – who by the way is featured on the cover of the 2023 NDA Deer Report with his first buck – and I did a double-ground batch for a finer burger, which lends itself very well to smash burgers. So, double-grind your venison for smash burgers but grind only once for standard “grill burgers.” We did both. We were grinding right into our freezer bags so we handled the meat the least amount possible.
If you add fat to your ground venison, use 20% fat, or one pound of fat to four pounds of venison. The fat we used was locally raised, pork backfat from Mangalista heritage pigs. It’s a strong flavor, so the burgers do tasty quite “porky.” If you choose to use beef fat, they’ll taste more like beef. You could use bison if you wanted! I’m going to experiment with deer fat but I haven’t gotten there yet. Stay tuned!
Editor’s Note: Adding fat is not necessary to make burgers from ground venison. Follow Evan’s advice about minimal handling of the ground venison, and your burger patties will hold together fine.
When grinding, it’s no different than making sausage. Keep everything as cold as you can. Ground venison is so useful that at times we’ll grind the entire deer for burger (Except for the backstraps. We’re not savages!). Like fresh sausage, ground venison is something you can give away to people who have never eaten venison, and they’re familiar enough with burger that they’ll use it and enjoy it.
How to Make Venison Smash Burgers
Weigh out your ground meat into 2- to 3-oz. balls. For this application, you’ll want the meat cold. Lay them out on a cookie tray or plate to have them ready. You can do this ahead to save time later, but they’ll need to be covered or locked tight in a container.
There are tools available for smashing your burgers, but I use two spatulas. One is a strong, metal, off-set spatula (I use this to make contact with the meat) and the other I use to press, but you could use a different tool. It’s the spatula that’s in contact with the meat that matters. A large cast-iron pan is great for this, but it may limit how many you can make. If you prefer to use cast-iron, make sure it’s hot but bring it up to temp gradually. Start on medium heat and work your way up with time to medium-high.
I tend to make a lot at once, either because I’m doing smaller sliders or I’m feeding a small group of people. So for this, I use an electric griddle. Those of you with gas-powered griddles, you’re awesome and you should be making burgers with it all the time!
Once your cooking surface is heated, place the meat balls on it. I like to take this opportunity to season them with salt and pepper. Smash them within the first 30 seconds of hitting the cooking surface. You’ll want to give them a good smashing, creating a lot of meat-to-cooking surface contact. That’s what’s going to create the lovely, crunchy crust through the Maillard effect (drawing elements of the meat in contact with the surface and heat making a brown crust). If you smash and there are a few holes, that’s okay as long as the patty remains intact enough to flip it with one attempt. You’re going to cook the patty 80% of the way or more on one side because it’s thin, there’s a lot of surface contact and you’re waiting for that crust to develop.
Once the meat is releasing from the cooking surface without too much coaxing, you’re good to flip. I like to consolidate them at this point, making some room to toast the buns in some of the rendered fat. Cover with a thin slice of cheese if you choose (I like yellow or white American cheese for this). Once your buns are toasted, you’re there! Assemble!
Oklahoma-Style Venison Smash Burgers
There are regional differences in smash burgers, and I’ve recently become obsessed with Oklahoma-style. To make Oklahoma-style, do everything above but include some white or yellow onion sliced as thin as you can (I use a mandolin slicer for this).
Optional: soak the sliced onion in cold water. This crisps them up a bit and draws out some of the sting if you’re not sure how your audience will receive onions.
When you place your meat balls on the cooking surface, place the onion on the meat prior to smashing. Season, and then smash. The onion should embed itself into the meat when you smash. When you eventually flip, the onions will cook, steam and caramelize in the fat. I’ll take these a little longer on the second side to really get some crisp and color on the onions. Totally worth the extra effort all around!
Make venison burgers, but please take the time to make them excellent. It’s one of the most simple but rewarding applications of wild game. You’ve taken the time to harvest and process your wild game for excellent table fare, and now you’ve read this, so clearly you’re interested in seeing how good your burgers can be. I promise you’ll never look back.
Please keep in mind there are inherent food-safety risks when harvesting, handling, processing and cooking meat, whether wild game or meat that is regulated by the USDA. To find out more, there’s lots of information on the USDA website and dozens of articles specifically for wild game. I advise you seek out this information, especially if you’re at high risk of health-related issues.