ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s hunting season is in full swing, and deer meat is finding its way onto many dining tables across the state.
In the 2013-2014 hunting season, which runs intermittently from September to February, Maryland hunters bagged nearly 96,000 deer, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
That’s a lot of venison to go around.
“You can barely tell it’s not beef when it’s cooked right,” said Rockville’s Peter Oristian.
Oristian, 50, has been hunting since he was 12 years old and serves venison as much as he can.
He said its leanness makes it cook faster than fattier meats like beef, and a medium-rare venison steak is the best way to serve it.
“No matter how rare you cook it, when it gets cold it gets hard,” he said. “I think it’s because it’s so lean it squeezes the juices out.”
Mrs. K’s Toll House Restaurant Executive Chef Maurisee Upshur said venison needs to be cooked quickly.
“If you go too long (cooking it), it gets tough,” she said.
Mrs. K’s, in Silver Spring, is putting venison on its customers’ plates this season.
“People have been asking about it,” Upshur said. “It goes quickly.”
Upshur is offering a venison osso bucco topped with garlic, parsley and lemon zest gremolata, with risotto and braised red cabbage on the side.
“It’s healthier, it’s leaner,” she said. “It’s very versatile.”
Upshur said this is the first year that Mrs. K’s has served venison osso bucco and she is curious to see how well it sells against her previous venison recipes. In the past she has served seared venison medallions with cranberry port reduction, and venison racks, which are similar to lamb chops.
Venison breakfast sausage is a family favorite, Oristian said.
“I take Penzeys venison spices, add brown sugar, a sage sprig and mix it all together.”
Oristian adds the spices to a mixture of 40 percent venison, 40 percent pork shoulder and 20 percent pork fat, and runs it through a grinder, which spreads out all the flavors evenly.
He then will either cook them on a skillet or freeze them. Frozen patties, he said, are thin enough to cook still frozen for a quick breakfast.
Oristian said he often cooks a whole venison roast and then cuts the meat into steaks.
“When I slice it after they look like New York strip steaks,” he said. “I don’t give them time to bleed.”
“People are losing the custom or tradition of hunting it seems,” Joe Austin said. “My business is doing fine but I think there’s fewer people each year.”
Austin is president of Delmarva Outdoor Adventure Outfitters Inc., a guided hunt business based in Mardela Springs.
“It’s not as many as it used to be,” Austin said of customers looking for semi-guided deer hunts. “I’d say 20 to 25 people a year.”
From the 2009-2010 hunting season, when 100,663 were killed, until 2012-2013, the number of deer harvested declined every year. In 2013-2014, 95,863 deer were harvested — nearly 10,000 more than the previous season.
Austin also puts his venison to good use in the kitchen.
Austin and his Venison Pepper Bacon Wrap recipe were featured on a cooking show with the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury.
Oristian said home-butchered venison cost about $2.50 per pound to process. That relatively low price is affordable for families who struggle to put food on the table in the winter months.
“I’m what I refer to as an ‘amatuer butcher,’” Orisitian said. He started prepping his kills when he was about 30 years old.
At the time, Oristian had two yearling deer — deer that are between 1 and 2 years old — and said having a butcher prep them would have cost anywhere from $140 to $180.
“I said, ‘That costs a lot, I’m gonna watch Dad and do it on my own,’” Oristian said.
His father, a surgeon, always cleaned his own deer.
Now, Oristian said, a part of the trimming and cleaning process that once took him 20 minutes now takes about one minute.
“After butchering your 20th deer, you know what to do,” he said.
Oristian said he and his family hope to provide cheap venison for needy families in years to come.
His two sons, ages 20 and 17, came to Oristian as he was working with the raw venison and wanted to help.
“It’s definitely a family thing,” he said. “Cooking is a big thing in our family.”
Maryland hunters can seek their kills during designated dates, depending on their weapon choice, type of deer, and region in which they plan to hunt.
The Department of Natural Resources offers an extensive hunting season calendar with all hunting date information.
Maryland residents ages 16 to 64 can obtain hunting licenses for $24.50. Junior licenses for kids younger than 16 cost $10.50 and senior licenses are $5 for age 65 and older; bowhunting and muzzleloader licenses cost more.