No wonder that deer or antelope’s tenderloin, called “backstrap,” sends hunters into a swoon: it’s the corresponding cut to filet mignon. These two long, lean cuts come from either side of the animal’s spine and are revered for their mild, sweet, tenderness. Backstrap can be a challenge to prepare, though, as it has no fat at all: Overcook one, and you’ll end up with boot leather—a deft, light touch is key.
Antelope is nutrient-dense. Compare antelope to beef, and you’ll find that antelope has 100 grams of protein per 1-pound uncooked backstrap while the same portion of beef tenderloin has 101 grams; OK, so far, so good. But antelope only has 510 calories per pound as compared to 717 calories in beef tenderloin. Plus, one pound of antelope backstrap provides 79 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance for iron and 340 mg of Omega-3 fatty acids while beef tenderloin delivers only 41 percent of the RDA for iron and a measly 72.6 mg of Omega-3 fatty acids, making it clearly a better choice.
The most expensive prime beef goes through an aging process, often for several weeks. Similarly, I find that dry-aging wild game—especially red meats such as venison, antelope, and wild ducks and geese—greatly enhances both taste and tenderness. As the proteins denature, the meat becomes more tender, the fats oxidize, and the umami flavors heighten. Plus, the air circulating around the meat forms a barrier that seals in all the delicate juices. As the water evaporates, the flavors become more concentrated.
If you live in a colder clime that I do here in Texas—or are fortunate enough to have a walk-in cooler where you can hang game—you’ll have better options than do I to age your wild game, but I’ve found that an open rack in the refrigerator works just fine.
This easy-to-follow backstrap recipe ensures you’ll attain show-stopping presentation and melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness…be it as the main course for business entertaining, an intimate dinner party with special friends, or a romantic supper for you and your favorite cowboy. (Hint: Slice any leftovers razor-thin, and pile onto toasted French bread with a crème fraîche horseradish sauce.)
Dry-Aged Antelope Backstrap with Board Dressing
“Board dressing” seems to be all the rage these days, but it’s just a clever new twist on the age-old Argentinian chimichurri sauce … made right on your cutting board. Since your active cooking time for the backstrap is less than 20 minutes, prep your board dressing ingredients before you start searing the backstrap. Once you pop the meat into the oven, mince the parsley, sage, oregano, rosemary, garlic, and lemon zest on your cutting board and drizzle with the olive oil and vinegar. When you take the backstrap out, place it on top of this mixture to rest, so that the warm meat juices drench the herbs and “marry” the flavors.
The herbaceous, savory notes of the board dressing add pungent umami notes, contrasting nicely with the fruity sweetness of the Cumberland sauce. Don’t hesitant to experiment with your board dressing, though; I sometimes add basil, jalapeños, chile pequins, and spicy foraged greens such as peppergrass, bittercress, and chickweed.
Dry-Aged Antelope Backstrap with Board Dressing Serves 6-8
1 (1- to 1 ½-pound) antelope (or venison) backstrap
¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
½ teaspoon sea salt
For the board dressing:
6 sprigs parsley
2 fresh sage leaves
2 sprigs fresh oregano
1 sprig rosemary
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
zest from 1 small lemon
Dry-age the backstrap by placing it on a rack over a drip pan in the refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours.
When you are ready to cook, place the backstrap in a narrow baking dish and add ¼ cup of the oil, the vinegar, thyme, and salt. Using tongs, turn the meat to coat evenly with the marinade. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 2 hours, turning the backstrap every 15 minutes so that all surfaces are evenly coated.
Preheat the oven to 400° F. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat, then add the backstrap and sear for 3 to 5 minutes, turning it with tongs every few minutes to sear evenly on all sides.
Place the backstrap on a rack over a baking sheet and cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes, or until the internal temperature in the center of the backstrap reaches 130° F. While the meat cooks, prepare your board dressing.
Remove from the oven, place it on top of the minced herbs on your cutting board, and tent loosely with foil. Let the meat rest for 5 minutes to allow the juices to reabsorb.
To serve, cut into 1/8-inch-thick medallions, serve with the board dressing, and drizzle with Cumberland sauce.
Wild Berry Cumberland Sauce
Cumberland Sauce, created in the late 19th century for Ernest Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland, ranks as the most revered of all game sauces. It’s easy to make and remarkably forgiving of many different-flavored wild berries, so experiment to find the flavors you like the best.
½ cup wild red jelly (such as American beautyberry, blackberry, dewberry, raspberry, currant, or prickly pear)
1 cup port
Grated zest and juice of 1 orange
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
¼ teaspoon dry mustard
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne
Combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and simmer for 30 minutes, until the sauce is reduced by half and thick enough to coat a spoon. Serve warm. Yields about ¾ cup.
Love filet mignon and hanker to “up your game” with an antelope backstrap? If you’re not a hunter yourself, and don’t know one who will part with a backstrap (and few will), consider ordering this delicacy online from Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram, Texas,