Brining a deer ham before cooking it helps you avoid ending up with a dried-out, tough hunk of meat. Because deer get a lot more exercise than farm-raised cows and pigs, their meat is leaner. That may be a good thing from a health perspective, but it doesn't do the taste, texture and juiciness of your meal any favors. That's where brining comes in. Soaking the deer ham in a salty liquid transfers extra moisture and flavor into the meat, helping you turn out something surprisingly succulent.
Pick a Liquid, Any Liquid
Brining is a process of soaking meat, so it requires enough liquid to submerge your deer ham. Water works fine on its own, but it doesn't impart flavor; for more flavor, combine water or fully replace it with another suitable fluid. For example, broths, stocks, wines, beers, liquors, vinegars, teas, fruit juices and ciders work. Choose something to complement the other seasonings you're using in the brine or in the recipe you're preparing.
Make It Salty
Along with a liquid, salt is the only other necessary ingredient for a brine. Iodized table salt isn't optimal; instead, use kosher, coarse kosher or non-iodized table salt. Sea salt works, but it isn't a cost-effective option. The amount needed depends on the weight by volume of the type of grain used. To brine a whole deer ham, you'll need at least 1 gallon of liquid. Stir in 2 cups of coarse kosher salt, 1 1/2 cups of kosher salt or 1 cup of non-iodized table salt per gallon of liquid until it fully dissolves.
Sweeten the Deal
A sweetening agent isn't chemically necessary for a brine, but it enhances flavor and offsets saltiness imparted by the solution. Sugar and brown sugar are easy options, but honey, molasses, maple syrup or other sweeteners work, too. Use up to as much sweetener as salt, depending on personal preference; go lighter if you used a sweet liquid. Then, add complementary herbs, spices and aromatics, if you'd like. Garlic, onion, leeks, scallion, citrus zest, rosemary, thyme, sage, tarragon, basil, marjoram, parsley, bay leaves, juniper berries, black pepper, chili pepper, celery seed, dry mustard and cumin are all possible inclusions for a deer ham.
Down to the Details
Brine your deer ham in a large food-grade, nonreactive container. Stainless steel, plastic, glass and ceramic all qualify. You need the meat fully submerged. Keep it in the refrigerator to prevent dangerous bacterial growth. Even a brief soak of about an hour is better than not brining at all, but that isn't enough time for significant results with a large cut like a deer ham. For the best results, brine it for 12 to 24 hours. Don't go longer, though, or you may end up with an unpleasantly salty meal. Dump the brine afterwards, as it's been contaminated by raw meat and it's too salty to sterilize for use as a sauce.
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Eric Mohrman is a food and drink, travel, and lifestyle writer living in Orlando, Florida. He has professional experience to complement his love of cooking and eating, having worked for 10 years both front- and back-of-house in casual and fine dining restaurants. He has written print and web pieces on food and drink topics for Visit Florida, Orlando Style Magazine, CrushBrew Magazine, Agent Magazine, Dollar Stretcher Magazine, The 863 Magazine and other publications.