Juniper Berries Are The Chef-Approved Ingredient For Less Gamey Venison

Venison is a tricky meat to prepare; many cuts lack fat, making the meat a little tougher. There's a specific time of year when venison tastes the best and, when overcooked, the gamey flavor of the meat is emphasized. However, when prepared properly, venison is completely worth it. We spoke to a chef about the best ingredient to get great results with venison.

Game meat isn't inherently bad — alligator meat has a delicately fishy taste, and wild duck is known to be quite flavorful. With venison, however, the little fat it has can be bitter. To curtail that, Executive Chef Sean Thompson from Porter House Bar and Grill has a trick for getting the most out of venison. "I do prefer a marinade [on venison steak]," he says. "In the marinade, I add juniper berries to help cut the gaminess."

In general, marinades work best to impart flavor to meat. A marinade seeps below the surface, whereas a dry rub mainly forms a crust on the outside of the meat. Marinades are also incredible tenderizers, which is perfect for sinewy meat like venison. As for the gamey taste, juniper berries' dimension is the easy fix for that. The berries have a fruity, citrus-like flavor that's heightened with an herbaceous, spicy nuance that mirrors the taste of pine needles. They have an earthiness that fits venison with a bright flavor that rids the meat of its bitterness.

What flavors pair well with juniper berries?

The citrus in juniper berries lightens venison's strong flavor, but they're not actually sweet. To bring that element in, a splash of fresh orange juice or zest will do the trick. The citrus has a mild, pleasant tartness with a sweetness that will consume venison's bitterness. You can also use other sweet, tart fruits like apricots or peaches for a bright, flavorful cut of venison. For herbs, citrus-like ones with a woodsy flavor complement juniper berries: Think thyme, rosemary, and marjoram.

Black pepper, cumin, coriander, and allspice are earthy additions that play into juniper berries' aromatic pepperiness. For a pure, fiery flavor, use grated ginger. Round the marinade out with a sweet, crisp flavor from onions, shallots, and garlic. For bonus points, roast the garlic to lend the venison a nutty, caramelized flavor. When making the marinade, it's best to limit the amount of juniper berries you use. The fruit can be extremely pungent and overwhelming, so stick to around four to six berries. Crush the berries with a mortar and pestle or meat hammer, then combine them with your marinade ingredients.

You can marinate the venison for around two hours or simply add the crushed berries to a pot of simmering venison. The berries bring a woodsy spice to venison chili and venison stew with Guinness alike. For tender venison, braise it with red wine or milk with crushed juniper berries.