Smoking wild game is an age old tradition, either for preservation or to cook a feast. When it comes to smoking deer, whether it’s venison sausages or a nice shoulder or leg, the key is in the preparation and process. Using my own experience, and by asking the community, we’re going to break down the process from preparation to the pairing of the best wood flavors for smoking deer/venison.
This guide will give you the confidence and knowledge to truly make your masterpiece. Ready for the next feast.
Tips For Smoking Deer/Venison
Prepare The Meat
Be sure to only use the lean parts of the venison, and be sure to remove or cut around any large parts of gristle.
Know The Animal
If you’re about to do the honors of cooking your wild game, it’s best to understand a bit about the deer itself, as well what portions of the venison are the leanest and best to eat. If it’s a young buck it will naturally be a lot more tender than an older adult deer.
Don't Overcook It
Deer are extremely lean animals so it’s important to keep an eye on the internal temperature of the venison while you’re smoking it. This goes for saying for any meat, but venison has a tendency to get tough if it’s overcooked, rather than a juicier and fattier meat such as beef or pork.
Venison steaks are best served medium rare, internal temperature should end around 135°F/57°C after resting. For venison shoulder, it should be around 150°F/65°C, and for venison sausage, it should be 160°F/71°C.
Keep It Moist
Smoking meat naturally dries it out, drawing moisture from the surface area around the meat. Although this is the natural process of smoking, because of how lean venison it can very easily turn tough. Do everything in your power to keep it moist, like spritzing it every hour with your favourite mix until it’s time to wrap.
This doesn’t apply when smoking venison sausage, as it’s casing naturally keeps the juices in.
Best Woods For Smoking Deer
When it comes to wood flavors, like most things, there is an element of personal preference that comes into play. However, usually the preference is between strong smoking woods, and more subtle, and sweet fruit woods. When looking at the best woods for smoking deer, there are some clear woods that are much more popular and pair more naturally than others.
Strong Smoking Woods
Flavors: Strong, Smokey, Bacon-like Savouriness.
Hickory is arguably the most popular smoking wood overall. It’s known for its strong smokiness, but it also has a versatile flavor with notes of nutty, savoury, and balcony flavors. When you’re smoking venison, whether it’s in venison sausage, steaks, or shoulder, hickory leaves an oomph of smokiness that softens the gamey flavor well.
Smoking venison with hickory adds that rich barbecue flavor to the natural gamey and savoury flavor of the venison. It’s not only my go-to but it’s also one of the most popular picks for smoking deer. Amazing.
Hickory is also the best wood for smoking lamb. Or at least I think so!
Flavors: Strong & Savoury
Mesquite is a Texas barbecuers’ dream, made most popular by Texas brisket culture. I always keep a bag of mesquite pellets for my Traeger when I really feel like adding that little extra kick of smoke.
When it comes to smoking venison with mesquite, the smokiness really covers up much of the gamey flavor you would usually find. Some people actually like a bit of that savouriness, but still want the depth of mesquite wood smoke. If thats the case, you can always wrap your venison in foil or butcher paper a little earlier than you if you were smoking pork butt for example.
Oak is a staple in barbecue. Not quite as strong as hickory or mesquite, oak is really a blank smoky canvas, providing a solid smoke without adding notes of sweet, nutty, or savoury flavor. For this reason oak is one of the best woods to blend with, such as oak and apple, oak and cherry, etc.
Because of it’s well balanced smokiness, you can really let other flavors shine in the dish whilst still adding the classic barbecue flavor we live for. I’ve found oak works amazingly when smoking venison that has marinated, or with a solid rich rub.
Oak is also my favourite smoking wood for wings.
Sweet Smoking Woods
Flavors: Sweet & Nutty
Pecan is unique in that it actually provides a distinct nuttiness in it’s smoke. It’s quite mellow, with a bit of sweetness, and is often blended with stronger smoking woods for a great balanced flavor.
Pecan is actually rather versatile too, and for those that love it they will use it for smoking chicken, turkey, spare ribs, brisket, the list goes on. Smoking wild game with pecan, such as deer, is a very different experience than smoking it with stronger smoking woods, and you tend to be able to build up more layers of flavor rather than it just being smoky.
If you haven’t tried pecan smoked venison, whether it’s in sausage or a whole shoulder, it’s definitely worth the experience.
Flavors: Subtle, Sweet, & Fruity
Apple is one of the most popular fruity smoking woods. It burns hot, and produces a good amount of smoke. If you prefer to have a more subtle, fruity, and sweet smokiness then using apple wood to smoke venison will be your barbecue wet-dream.
If you love that sweetness of apple smoke but are torn as you also love the strong oomph of stronger smoking woods then simply blend apple wood 50:50 with either mesquite, oak, or hickory for a glorious blend.
How To Smoke Deer/Venison
When smoking a venison shoulder, be sure to cut off any fat or connective tissue. Remove any silver skin, the thin membrane, as it gives the end product an unpleasant taste.
It’s essential to lather it up with a binder before applying your rub, such as yellow mustard or ketchup. This is because usually the fat would be able to act as a binder itself, but because of how lean venison is, it needs a bit more help.
Once you apply your favourite rub, it’s straight in the smoker, uncovered for 2-3 hours at 200-225°F depending on your smoker. Then covered for a further 2-4 hours depending on the size of your cut.
Treat this very similar to if you were smoking a pork butt, except you don’t have the luxury of it having a lot more fat keeping it much more moist!
Venison Backstrap And Tenderloin
Backstraps and tenderloins can be reverse seared, cooking them low and slow until they are almost cooked, then cranking up the heat to sear the outside. It’s a must to remove any silverskin otherwise you will have a very chewy, gamey and unpleasant lavor left on the meat.
Hands down one of the most popular ways to smoke venison in North America. Mainly because it’s one of the easiest, and one of the most delicious ways to cook venison. Just like in the olden days, the best smokers to use are those that allow you to hang the sausages for maximum smoking potential. You can place a drip tray or bowl underneath to catch the juices.
Smoke for roughly 2-3 hours at 225°F, or until they are dark reddish brown, and have an internal temperature of at least 160°F.
Check out the full guide for what wood to use for smoking brats/sausage.