Enjoying venison at its finest begins the moment you squeeze the trigger and continues through field dressing, cleaning, aging, processing, packaging and ultimately, cooking. Indeed, in a certain sense, premium venison and readying the meat for the table begins even before you take a shot and experience the bittersweet moment inevitably associated with standing over a noble animal you have just killed.
The finest meat will come from a deer that is shot cleanly and dies quickly. That means paying your marksmanship dues in terms of spending the necessary time at a shooter’s bench or shooting range to make sure your gun or bow afford optimal performance. Those same sessions also provide the hunter intimate familiarity with his weapon of choice and the element of self-confidence that looms so large in effective shot placement.
The details of marksmanship belong in technical training manuals, not a cookbook, but a few general thoughts on shooting a deer as they relate to venison do seem to be in order. In areas where deer abound, limits are liberal and the seasons long, the ideal approach is to take a suitable number of does for the freezer. As a welcome by-product to such hunting, you make a small but significant contribution to quality deer management through helping maintain a sound buck-to-doe ratio. If you feel sufficiently confident in your shooting ability and the situation permits it, try to take mature does and shoot them in the head or neck. Such shots do two meaningful things when it comes to enjoying the products of your hunt. First, they mean a quick death, something that is infinitely preferable to a poor shot that leaves the animal wounded and perhaps involves a long tracking process and stress that negatively affects the meat. Secondly, you have minimal or no waste of venison.
Once your deer is down, no matter your shot placement, the time to get busy is at hand. At best, you have roughly two hours to remove the entrails before serious deterioration in the quality of the venison begins. In warm weather or with gut shot animals, that time becomes much shorter. Unless some pressing consideration such as means of disposing of the entrails prevents it, you should field dress your deer immediately. In truth, you can anticipate this by carrying some heavy-duty garbage bags in your daypack or small backpack to handle entrails. Double or triple bag the offal and you can then transport it to a suitable place for proper disposal.
When field dressing the animal, following a few basic steps makes the process a simple, straightforward one. Get the deer on its back where the ground is smooth and fairly level, trying if the terrain permits to get the head elevated a bit. This lets the entrails settle into the body cavity and makes the cut to open the deer a bit easier. Once the deer is in place, it is a good idea to put on a pair of plastic or rubber gloves (Hunters Specialties makes disposable ones perfect for the task) for the work that lies before you. Although many folks open a deer by starting at the rear, a preferred approach is to begin at the point where the ribs come together. You can get started here without fear of going too deep and penetrating the stomach (something to be avoided at all costs).
After making a small slit of two to three inches, the only way to open a deer is by cutting up (away from the entrails). A knife with a gut hook has the functional design to do this, but you can perform the function with any sharp, sturdy knife. Insert your fingers through the slit and then slip the knife between them. Use your fingers to hold the skin lifted and taut and ease the knife along, cutting upward from the body cavity. By doing this you avoid the chance of getting into the stomach and keep from cutting hair, something that dulls the knife’s edge and keeps hair from getting on the meat.
Once the body cavity has been opened from the rib cage to the genital area, remove the genitals from a buck (in some states, you must leave these attached until the animal has been checked in or reported to wildlife authorities). Next, cut the hide in a complete circle around the deer’s anal area, including the vagina when dressing a doe. This should extend inward underneath the arch of the pelvic bone. Work carefully, because you want to avoid cutting into the bladder or slicing the end of the intestine. Then tie off the intestine with a piece of string (or have a buddy pinch it if you have any help). This keeps “deer berries” where they belong as you ease the material away from the anal area. When everything is clear, cut the intestine just below where it has been tied off.
Now you are ready to remove the guts. Complete the cut all the way to the anal opening, then straddle the body of the deer or one of the hindquarters if it is a large animal. From the back of the deer reach underneath the entrails, working underneath the bladder, and pull everything toward the front where you began your original cut. As everything pulls loose, tip to the side a bit and allow the stomach to tip over the open flank. Once that is clear you can cut the stomach and entrails away from the esophagus. Now you have everything in the deer’s upper body to remove.
If you belong to the company of those who enjoy organ meats, and when you eat them there is at least the knowledge that they come from an animal that has eaten nothing but a natural diet, this is the time to set them aside. Both deer liver and heart are delicious, and you can also utilize the kidneys, which will still be attached along each side of the back, if desired. In the case of the liver, which is located tight against the diaphragm that separates the upper interior from the stomach, be sure not to confuse it with the much smaller spleen. The spleen looks a bit like a miniature liver and is somewhat grayish in color as opposed to the bright red of the liver. Unlike the rest of the edible portions of a whitetail, organ meats do not need any aging. The ideal approach is to carry a few large, strong Ziploc bags with you for storing organ meats. An alternative is to use muslin bags to carry the organs. They soak up most of the extra blood or moisture that invariably drains off after you separate the organs. Cut them away and place in these bags. Once the field dressing process has been completed and you have gotten your deer to a processor or hanging in a cooler, you can return to the organ meats. Just wash them clean and freeze or, if you plan to eat the meat in the next three or four days, put them in a cooler on ice or in a refrigerator.
Complete the removal of the lungs and esophagus and tilt the carcass, as necessary, to allow any blood to flow free. If you have killed the deer with a shot through the lungs or heart, you may also want to try to wipe away the offal left from the bullet’s passage. Should yours be the misfortune to have made a gut shot, that needs to be cleaned up as much as possible in the field dressing process. One way to do this is with a bunch of paper towels (pieces of these can do double duty as markers when you have to track a wounded animal), or an old, clean towel can be carried along for wiping everything up. You are now ready to get the deer to a cooler or, in colder climates, to hang it in a suitable place for aging. If the weather is particularly warm, cut a stick or two and use them to keep the body cavity open. This lets air circulate and enables the carcass to cool down more rapidly. One final thought – time is of the essence, no matter what the weather conditions. Your deer belongs in a cooler where the aging process can start, not in the bed of a truck or on a carrier where it is on prominent display. If you’ve got a bragging buck, there will be time enough for any buddies to admire it while it is hanging.
Once you have completed the field dressing process, it is time to start aging your deer. There are a number of options when it comes to just how this is done. Ideally, you want to hang the deer, with the hide still intact, for a minimum of five days in temperatures in the 38 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit range. Many commercial processors want no part of leaving the hide on or of “in cooler” times beyond two or three days. This is understandable, since theirs is a seasonal operation where time (and space) means money.
Should you have the luxury to do your own aging though, give it plenty of time and keep the hide on the animal. Time means tenderness when it comes to aging, and having the hide in place means that the flesh won’t dry out and that, when it comes time, working the meat up will be a bit easier when it comes to removing silver skin. In cold weather climates, it is often possible to hang a deer in a garage or storage room where you can keep the temperature low. However, temperatures below freezing do not help, for a frozen carcass has no opportunity to age or tenderize.
Yet another approach to aging, and it comes into play for money-conscious hunters in southern latitudes who want to do their own processing yet have no access to a cooler, is to age the meat after cutting up the deer. To do this, just skin the deer the way any processor will do it, using a gambrel and plenty of elbow grease or the golf ball method whereby you pull the hide away with help from a vehicle. Whatever your approach, take care to keep hair away from the carcass. Once you have the animal skinned, wash any vestiges of blood away and cut away any damaged or colored meat where the bullet entered and exited the deer. Then, depending on the size cooler(s) you have available, you can age the meat in a cooler. If necessary, bone it out first. Just place the meat above ice, keeping it from contact with a rack, platform or in some other fashion. You do not want the meat in direct contact with the ice. Check once a day or so, turning the meat if necessary to keep it evenly cooled. In a good cooler the air temperature will be just about what you want, and one advantage of this system is that it lets you age the meat for whatever period you deem suitable.
In general terms, the longer you can age a whitetail’s carcass, up to 10 days or so, the more tender the meat will become. For yearlings, and younger deer in general, the aging process doesn’t need to be as lengthy. When it comes to aging, don’t expect miracles. Old mossy horns will never become as tender as a Holstein that has been grain fed and finds it a struggle to walk across a quarter mile of pasture, but meat that is properly aged and suitably processed need not be so tough that your jaw muscles get an unwelcome workout every time you eat it.
When it comes to processing, you have a world of choices. They begin with a decision as to whether you will handle the processing yourself or have it done commercially. Sometimes it is possible to purchase cooler time and handle the processing in person, but in our experience at least most prefer to handle both the aging and processing as part of the whole package. Many will also gut the animal, but unless you can get the deer from the field to the abattoir in a period under an hour, field dressing is the way to go.
For those who process the deer in person, there are both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side of matters, you know that the meat is actually that from the deer you shot. All too often unethical processors just give you a “guesstimate” of the proper amount of meat and you don’t know what deer it came from. Furthermore, when you work the meat up in person, you will be able to take every care when it comes to removing silver skin, fat, damaged flesh and the like (such as the little glands found between the major muscle groups in the hind quarters). That translates to clean meat, no hair and complete confidence in the sanitary procedures followed in processing. Of course, if you pay a competent, conscientious processor, you will get comparable treatment.
On the negative side of matters, it takes an appreciable investment to get all of the equipment needed to turn a deer into the type of cuts and preparations many of us like. At a minimum you will need a good bone saw, suitable knives, a place to work up the meat, freezer bags and butcher’s wrapping paper. If you want much more than roasts, steaks and stew meat, you also need a means of preparing cubed steaks, burger, sausage and the like. It also helps, particularly when it comes to freezer shelf life, to have the capacity to vacuum seal the meat (we have a Tilia Professional II FoodSaver unit that does this quite nicely, although the storage bags are a bit pricey).
When it comes to diversity of cuts and specialty items such as various kinds of sausage, the commercial processor offers more than the home processor can possibly do. They likely have the ability to quick freeze the meat, which is quite important since it appreciably reduces the amount of ice crystallization. Processors will also have all the equipment needed to do the job properly. That is why, at least for folks who live where whitetails abound and for whom venison constitutes a major item in the family diet, a commercial processor may be the way to go. Some suggestions in that regard might be helpful.
Mainly, you need to ask questions and check things out in person. In the case of processed meats such as summer sausage or jerky, ask to have a tasting sample. By all means ask to see the interior of the room where the processing is done. If that area is “off limits,” the processor probably should be too. If the area is too dirty for you to see, eating meat processed there is obviously an “iffy” proposition. Make absolutely sure that everything connected with prices is clear at the outset. Finding out, after the fact, that skinning costs more or that you pay an unexpected premium for specialty cuts or packaging can be a real irritant. Find out the precise nature of the packaging. Anything short of careful wrapping with freezer paper that is clearly labeled is unacceptable, and vacuum packaging is distinctly preferable. Ask for a list of processing options. At the very least the processor should offer burger, roasts, steaks and cubed steak. Options for sausage and specialty meats (summer sausage, smoked meat, kielbasa, bratwurst, bologna, cheese sausage, jerky and the like) are a real plus. Don’t forget to ask about how long the deer is aged and whether it is possible to have the aging done with the hide intact. To our way of thinking, it is worth paying a bit of a premium to have a few extra days of aging with the hide in place.
Unless you intend to host a big neighborhood gathering or feed the multitudes, it will be necessary to put much of your venison in a freezer. That may seem a simple enough matter, but as anyone who owns a freezer knows, things have a way of getting pushed to the back or overlooked. You can avoid this by keeping a list of what you store and when you do it, checking it off as individual packages are used. Alternatively, make a point of clearing the freezer once a year. The time to do this is late summer or early fall. Hold a neighborhood barbeque, fix a feast for the members of your hunt club, give the remaining meat to a local soup kitchen or take some similar step. If you make a practice of clearing the freezer just prior to the opening of each season, you should be able to keep things in good order.
How a deer is handled from the time it is shot until the moment the cooking process starts can make all the difference when it comes to taste. When defrosting venison for cooking, do it the proper way. That doesn’t mean grabbing a packaged from the freezer, throwing it in the microwave to thaw it, and proceeding with cooking. Instead of this sort of mishandling, plan a day or two in advance. Take the venison to be used from the freezer and place it in the refrigerator. One helpful tip in this regard is to place the frozen meat in a colander or other container that will allow the melting ice crystals and other fluids to drain away.
With venison that has been properly handled and processed from the field to the stove, oven or grill, you have meat that will produce healthy, hearty and tasty meals. Obviously, that should become your primary goal once the adrenalin high of a successful hunt has washed over you and the serious business of dealing with your deer lies before you. Do it right, and you will savor the fruits of the hunt for many months and many meals.