One of the big national outdoors magazines recently published the results of its backstrap competition. Not surprisingly, elk was rated best tasting, with moose finishing a close second.
Antelope, mule deer and whitetail rounded out the top five. Sheep and goat lagged at the bottom.
The authors admitted that a taste test shouldn’t be regarded as the definitive word on the matter. The backstraps all came from the freezers of magazine staffers, and in one case the meat had been butterflied before freezing. The review also lacked information about the animals sampled. For example, did the backstraps come from tough old trophy bucks, or tender youngsters?
Despite the variables, the results were about what you’d expect. Some might be surprised whitetail were so far from the top, considering how popular this “eastern” deer is with hunters. Outdoor television hosts are obsessed with the animal and it’s rare that you see another big game species featured, other than elk. An old friend in the outdoor writing business once told me that he had a hard time selling his mule deer photos and stories to the hunting rags. Editors wanted whitetail and complained they always lost circulation when they ran photos of mule deer on the cover.
I’m not sure how important backstraps are to those television whitetail hunters anyway. They seem focused on antlers almost exclusively. I get the impression that the head goes to the taxidermist, while the meat goes from the processor directly to the local food bank in many cases. Providing quality protein to the poor isn’t a bad outcome, but I’d feel better if these television hunters would at least occasionally comment on how excited they are to chow down on some whitetail backstraps.
Instead it’s all antlers, all the time.
I haven’t hunted big game in years, but when I did I can assure you the backstraps never made it to the freezer. I’ve killed two elk and both times those backstraps were filleted off the carcass before it went to the processor. While the rest of the animal was rendered into sausage and roasts, those backstraps went into the fridge where I aged them for a week before we butterflied the long, baguette shaped strips into steaks fit for a feast.
Backstraps are of course the choicest cut on any game animal. It’s the long muscle that runs along either side of the spine, the equivalent of the ribeye of strip steak from cattle. The muscle doesn’t get much work so it remains nice and tender, even on older animals. I’ll tell you the backstraps of the cow elk I killed were superior to those of the 6X6 bull I killed a few years later, but both were delicious.
I’ve adapted my favorite recipe for elk backstrap steaks from a recipe in Greg Patent’s fine cookbook, “New Cooking From the Old West.” Actually, the Montana author intended buffalo for the protein, but it works just fine for elk as well. The butterflied elk steaks are seared in my cast iron skillet (I always reach for the heavy metal when I’m searing any species of steak), then I deglaze the pan with a little bourbon and build a cream sauce. Patent’s recipe calls for dried sour cherries in the sauce, and it’s fine idea.
After the sauce is reduced, the rested steaks go back into the pool for a short soak, then head to the plate next to your choice of either mashed potatoes or, for the adventurous, some form of pureed root vegetable. Parsnips are never a bad idea.
Of course any wild game steak cooked beyond medium rare is burnt. The magazine authors noted this in their taste test. All the backstraps were cooked to medium rare, and all were also rated as delicious — even the sheep and goat— just not as delicious as the rest.
That’s the most important result of test. Treat your backstrap tenderly and you’ll be richly rewarded.