Evan Barrett of Michigan is a new hunter who killed his first deer at an NDA Field to Fork hunt in 2021. He’s also a professional chef and sommelier. He shared a photo of the grilled venison backstrap from his first deer on Instagram, and it looked so delicious we asked Evan to share his grilling technique with NDA members. Deer hunters with years of experience grilling backstrap will learn a few things from Evan, so what follows is his guide.
Pull the thawed backstrap out of the fridge at least one hour ahead of time to allow it to come to room temperature in the center, or close. You just don’t want to start with really cold meat, as you’ll risk charring the outside while trying to cook the interior. However, if it’s a smaller backstrap (less than 2 inches in diameter), go straight from the fridge to the grill. This will protect the interior from overcooking while you are trying to achieve a good sear on the outside.
I dry the meat off well with a paper towel, then apply a little olive oil or whatever cooking oil you have on hand to help the salt and pepper stick. Generously season with salt and pepper.
I prefer to use kosher salt or sea salt. A larger grain of salt helps me control my level of seasoning because it’s very visible when applied to meat. I use freshly ground black pepper – it really does make a difference. These simple tips will really elevate your cooking, and since these are the only two seasonings on the meat, it’s worth making them excellent!
Meanwhile, preheat the grill to high. Get it as hot as possible. I tend to oil the grill grates just before placing the meat. To do this, I use an old rag soaked in spent cooking oil, but you can use fresh oil too. I take clean, old kitchen towels or T-shirts, roll them up tight into about 2-inch by 4-inch-long cylinders, tie them with butchers’ twine and soak them in old oil I used for frying. It’s a good way to use spent fry oil. I oil the grill grates after I’ve brushed them clean. Be careful! Use long tongs, have good control, and swipe it across the grates quickly to a thin amount of oil. You don’t need much, and too much will flame up. Anytime you’re using oil/fat on a hot grill, there’s a chance of flame-ups or fire, so be sure to have the correct class of extinguisher handy.
Searing Venison Backstrap
Once the grill is hot, cleaned and oiled, I’m ready to sear the meat! I pick a side of the grill to start (not the center, I’ll explain why in a second) and I place the backstrap. I leave it be! There’s an inherent urge to poke, prod and move meat that’s grilling, but we must resist the urge. At this time, the meat is likely stuck to the grill grates, and moving it will only result in tearing. Just leave it be for 3 to 4 minutes, and as the sear sets in, the meat will release itself from the grates. Same goes for steaks, burgers, chicken or fish. Let the meat sear properly, and it will release on its own. If you must scratch the itch, gently try to lift the meat and see if it’s releasing. At this point, we’re focused on the sear, not really interior cooking.
“Do not cut into the meat to check to see if it’s done! Trust the thermometer.”
Once the meat allows, I place it on the other side of the grill (told you we’d get to that). Because this side of the grill has not yet had anything cooking on it, it should be just as hot as the original side. I give it a quick oil just before transferring the meat. I then sear the other side of the backstrap for 3 to 4 minutes. Depending on the time of year and outdoor conditions, I do this step with the cover opened (summer) or closed (winter). I’m not trying to roast just yet, but I want to maintain high heat for the sear. I may need the cover closed in winter, for example, or windy conditions.
Now that I’ve got both sides seared, I’m ready to start working on the interior cooking. I do this over direct or indirect heat. Depending on the grill and the condition of the sear, I’ll opt for one over the other. If I’ve got a deep, hard sear that I think will go too far over more direct heat, I’ll choose to take it the rest of the way using indirect heat. If I think I could use more sear, or the heat won’t have a negative impact (again, maybe the temperature outside is really cold and my grill is fighting it) I’ll finish over direct heat. When choosing to cook over direct heat, I’ll flip the meat back and forth every three to four minutes to help cook evenly. You can also use your oven to finish the meat.
I check the thickest portion of the backstrap with a digital thermometer. If you don’t have one, get one! I can’t stress enough how important they are, and even the less expensive ones work great. I’m targeting a final internal temperature of 125° to 130° F for medium rare, but there’s “carryover cooking” that will likely finish the last 5° for me in the resting phase, so we’re looking to pull the meat at 120°. Venison has no intermuscular fat like beef does, so this means it cooks very fast and is not forgiving. You’ve got to watch the internal temperature carefully.
I have no issue using a digital thermometer and checking the meat every three to four minutes if I’m closing in on the desired temp. Probing the meat repeatedly will not have a negative impact, and it sure beats overcooked backstrap.
Again, pull the meat once it’s 120° in the center of the thickest part. Place it on a platter or plate uncovered for at least 10 minutes, but you could go as long as 15 to 20 minutes. This resting will allow all the juices moving through the meat to slow down and settle. It will also distribute the remaining exterior heat that will carry the internal temperature right into the sweet spot. Do not cut into the meat to check to see if it’s done! Trust the thermometer. If you prematurely cut the meat, you’ll release the juices, causing an uneven internal cook and drying the meat.
I don’t place the meat on a room temperature plate or platter. I don’t exactly need it to be hot, but I take the chill out of it by placing it on top of the grill or quickly in the oven. The backstrap is roughly 130 degrees, and the average American home is set to about 70, which will suck the residual heat right out of the meat. Placing it on a platter that’s been warmed up will help the resting period and also will help ensure it’s still hot when it’s served.
After it rests, I’m ready to carve. If all the steps have been followed, I should have a nice, seared crust and even color throughout the interior. The juice will stay in the meat, not run all over the cutting board. I taste a piece and see if I feel it needs to be finished with a little more salt, or I like good quality olive oil and a splash of fresh lemon juice.
It will eat like beef tenderloin. You’ll be showcasing the harvest and impressing your guests! These same principles apply for all steaks and game meat.
As a professional sommelier, I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a beverage pairing with your perfectly grilled backstrap. I suggest a medium-bodied red wine, something like Chianti Classico, Rioja or Pinot Noir. If you’re more of a beer drinker, a classic brown ale.
I hope this helps you enjoy what the field provided for your fork!