“Wanna take home some deer meat?”
This question, asked by my excited deer-hunter father when my wife and I visited last Christmas, was an exciting and daunting proposition. Sure, I grew up eating plenty of deer meat as a farm kid in central Illinois—deer burgers, deer steak, deer roasts—but I was never the hugest fan. After I learned to cook myself, I grew wary of venison: gamey, overly lean, chewy. It’s Bambi’s mom! Do you want to eat Bambi’s mom?
As my palate and I grew into adulthood, I became more curious about the virtues of gamier meats. This Christmas gift of a dozen or so pounds of deer meat presented the ultimate challenge. I had nearly half a deer’s worth of ground venison (from the shoulders, loins, neck, and/or hind leg), deer steaks, roasts, and “catfish” loins, the small cuts of meat from the lower back that are the most tender part of the animal. How could I spruce up venison? And how could I make it palatable for my spouse, who’d never had it before?
Last weekend I finally put some of that meat, which had been sitting in my deep freezer all that time, to good use. And I couldn’t be happier with the results.
We’re not fancy folk; a decent pot of chili will tide us over for days on end, plus give me lunches for a week. (God help my poor gastrointestinal system.) Luckily, just a few scant weeks ago I’d cracked the code for smoky, stick-to-your-ribs chili: making my own homemade chili paste (thanks, Babish). So last weekend, I thought, What if I made deer chili? It’s a better, more flavorful solution for the ground venison than making, well, gamey hamburgers I’d have to gnaw my way through.
Here’s the thing about venison: You can’t just pretend it’s beef and get away with it. Much how a turkey burger will never taste like a hamburger no matter what you do with it, you need to accentuate venison’s unique qualities—its gamier texture, its innate leanness—rather than hiding them. And that’s how my chili would take on a kind of accidental genius.
I started with my usual chili base: onions, garlic, tomato, and chili pastes, and red and black beans. (Yes, I’m a bean guy. Deal with it.) I normally keep some Modelo beers around as a nice beer base for my chilis or other slow-braised meats. But when I opened the door to my fridge, I remembered that my Modelos were gone, thanks a friend who’d come over to do a podcast with me and subsequently drank my remaining supply.
But I noticed a small, dark bottle in the back of the fridge: some Metropolis cold brew coffee we’d bought for my sister-in-law when she stayed with us for a week. Would this work? I wondered. With all the confidence of a foolhardy chili chef, I poured in a small splash to deglaze the pot... then dumped in the rest. I added some chicken broth and the ground venison, and we were off to the slow-simmering races.
There’s a reason I wasn’t drinking the cold brews. I hate coffee. When it comes to my caffeine delivery systems, I’m more of a tea (and, shamefully, soda) guy. So when I took my first taste and got a mouthful of that coffee bitterness, I winced and panicked. My chili was going to taste terrible, and it wasn’t even because of the venison!
But further inspiration struck. I can save this, I thought. I wasn’t going to let some hastily added cold brew get the best of me. What if I took this chili in a mole direction? A tablespoon apiece of brown sugar and cocoa powder later, the chili took on a whole new dimension: chocolatey but spicy, bitter but rich. The coffee and chocolate flavors emphasized the earthy texture of the venison instead of masking it. I’d rescued my dad’s gift from the jaws of unpalatability!
This recipe won’t just reassure you that you can save dishes from tremendously shortsighted substitutions but will also give you a greater appreciation for venison as a flavorful, viable protein. As we become more thoughtful about the meat we consume, venison is becoming an increasingly ethical option for carnivores: deer are overabundant, and hunting is necessary to prevent overpopulation and keep forests alive. Try using deer in the next pot of chili you make—you won’t regret it.
Hell, even if you can’t find venison, I encourage you to try making this chili with beef or turkey, or vegetarian style. It’ll be worth it.
Use 12-15 pieces of some or all the following dried chile varities. Choose your mixture based on your preferred flavor and spice level:
- 2 lbs. ground venison
- 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil (or any other neutral oil with a high smoke point)
- 4-5 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 1 (12-oz.) bottle cold brew coffee
- 12 oz. low-sodium chicken stock
- 1 (15-oz.) can dark red kidney beans
- 1 (15-oz.) can black beans
- 1 Tbsp. brown sugar
- 1½ Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2-3 Tbsp. masa harina
- Salt, to taste
First, let’s make ourselves a nice little chili paste. (Once you try this technique, you’ll never go back to store-bought chili powder again.) Take your assortment of chiles and open them up, deseed them, and rip them into manageable pieces. Toast them in a dry saucepan over medium-low heat for about 2-3 minutes until they’re fragrant, but not smoking. Then add just enough water to cover the chilis, bring to a boil, cover the pot, turn off the heat, and let steep for about 10 minutes.
Dump the lot into your blender (I used an immersion blender because I’m lazy and blenders are heavy, okay?) and blitz it up until a dark red, sauce-like paste forms. This should produce a cup and a half of chili paste. We’ll use all of it in this chili recipe, but you should totally replicate this method for your regular weekend chili. It’ll change your life, I swear to the chili gods.
Now on to the chili itself. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large Dutch oven and throw in your venison. If your meat is frozen like mine was, you’ll have to defrost it, of course, then cook it for a few more minutes than normal to cook out the additional water that might have developed during its time in the freezer. But keep it going until you get some nice color on it.
Once the meat is browned, move it to a separate bowl. Add a bit more oil to the pan and bring it to medium heat. Add the onions and sweat for 4-5 minutes, then add the garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes until fragrant. Squeeze in the tomato paste, then cook for an additional minute to get the raw flavor out. Bring the venison back to the party, dump in the chili paste, and mix away.
Deglaze the pan with a splash of the cold brew and scrape that delicious doe fond off the bottom of the pot. Then pour in the rest of the cold brew. Add the beans, chicken stock, brown sugar, and cocoa powder, and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat and cook uncovered for 40-60 minutes.
Once your chili has reached a nice gloopy, soupy consistency, throw in the masa harina and stir to turn the brothy stew into a nice, thick chili. Season to taste with salt, and it’s good to go. Top with shredded cheddar, a dollop of sour cream or yogurt, finely chopped scallions, and a squeeze of lime.