November 24, 2021
By Mark Kayser
In case you have been living in a cave feeding yourself with freeze-dried meals due to the pandemic paranoia, consumer prices are on an upward march led by inflation. Caught squarely in the middle of this working-class dilemma is meat. Yep, that delicious meal centerpiece you push aside the bowl of cauliflower to reach for first has sticker shock. Conveniently, meat is your game if you are reading North American Whitetail.
Although antlers may be your googly-eyed focus, that gorgeous hat rack comes complete with a muscle package of good eating. Now, more than ever, venison plays an important role in providing for your family while delivering healthy protein from your efforts.
In the Field
Every sizzling skillet of venison goodness begins in the field. To start the goodness, make your aim true. Deer die from double-lung or heart shots almost immediately, but hit anywhere else, they can live for hours, and that risks the deliciousness of your meat.
Wounded deer endure a short, yet stressful existence that includes the releasing of a substantial amount of chemicals into their system to survive. In brief, this chemical rush taints meat leaving it with a wilder taste than most people appreciate.
After a quick volley of tasteful social media snapshots, it is time to get down to the business of meat. Before anything, place all your meat care field equipment purposefully next to the carcass for quick utilization. You will need two small- to medium-sized knives, two sets of latex gloves, arm-length gloves for gutting, a lightweight sharpener, game bags if backpacking meat, Ziploc bags for vital organ storage, water and field wipes.
Next, field dress your deer taking the utmost in care to avoid the spillage of any internal fluids that could taint meat. Think intestinal matter, urine, digested vegetation and excessive blood. New hunters should watch YouTube tutorials beforehand to acquaint themselves with the proper steps.
Before opening the cavity, place the head slightly uphill if possible. This simple move provides you with gravity assistance as you tug and let the entrails slide downhill away from the carcass. Put on your arm-length gloves and latex over the top.
Begin with a cut around the anus, slicing deep around it to loosen it so it can be pulled back into the body and rolled away attached to the intestines. Next, carefully slice along the penis and scrotum, following the attached trackway to the rear. This too can be sliced off and tossed unless evidence of sex is required as a state law. The udder can also be removed if it is a doe.
With slow precision, slice open the cavity from the anus to the brisket with care not to puncture any gastronomical entrail. When you reach the chest, reach in carefully with your knife and slice open the diaphragm, and then extend farther until you pass the heart. Grab onto the windpipe, slice it, and use it to pull backward to bring along heart, lungs, liver and eventually the digestive tract.
You will need to slice along the sides of the body cavity to loosen each section. Let gravity assist you as you roll out the entrails being careful not to spill the bladder or any other contents. If you do have an accident, splash some water and rinse immediately. Lift your animal up by the head to again have gravity slosh all blood out the anus opening. You are officially done unless you need to debone the animal and cape the head.
For deer breakdown, rinse your knife and begin skinning, leaving the head for later.
Deboning is fairly easy, even without YouTube help. Look at all exposed muscle groups and separate them layer by layer. Remove the backstraps, inside loins and excess neck meat. Place in game bags for packing. An averaged size buck tallies approximately 75 pounds of boned meat and even an adult doe can add up to 50 pounds of deboned weight.
If you need to remove the head and possibly cape it out, switch gloves and knives if the area has a history of Chronic Wasting Disease. A fresh set assures you will not contaminate any meat later if your deer is infected with CWD. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there still is no connection between CWD and human infections. Nevertheless, it still pays to be careful and use new gloves and fresh tools to detach the head or vertebrae where tissues and fluids reside that spread the disease.
After extracting the deer from the woods, you can have the deer CWD tested. Research game and fish agency information on whether testing is available near your hunting location.
Now on to the business of extraction. Be prepared for backpacking as noted, but even simple preparatory steps help. Evaluate the terrain and weather forecast to determine if you will need an ATV, a wheeled game cart or simply a cheap tarp to help you slide the deer along while protecting it from environmental contaminants. Keeping the hide on until you reach a final destination is also warranted if it does not exceed four hours, especially in temperatures above 50 degrees.
A mentor of mine always stressed to “keep meat clean, dry and cool” for top results. Now, get ready to process.
As you contemplate the art of processing a deer, be honest with yourself. Are you handy with DIY projects? Do you pride yourself in the kitchen? Do you have the time to take a deer from carcass to little white packages? Your enthusiasm, family, career and wherewithal all combine on whether DIY processing is in your future. If you answered “no” to most of these questions, then research a processor ahead of time to handle meat care.
Again, keep in mind CWD considerations on traveling with a carcass over state lines. You may need to process the deer on location and travel with packaged meat along with a whistle-clean skull.
Even if you do decide to drop meat off at a processor, you may want to age the meat first. You could skip this process if you do not mind the possibility of a bit tougher meat or the following according to experts at that the University of Illinois Extension Service. They suggest you can skip aging if the meat is going to be ground into burger or on its way to a sausage ending.
Their information also proposed skipping the aging process if the deer was void of fat, a yearling or less, and may have been stressed during the hunt.
Aging is an ancient practice of hanging meat, ideally in temperatures between 32 and 40 degrees, for a week to even 20 days. The hanging time allows enzymes in the meat an opportunity to break down complex proteins, thus tenderizing your cuts.
To be safe, the meat must be hung in a temperature controlled, air circulated environment, like an old refrigerator, iced chest coolers or a shady shed. If the temperature spikes, you can see a bacteria outbreak resulting in bad tasting meat or foodborne illnesses.
Meat experts at the Pennsylvania State University College of Agricultural Sciences Penn State Extension office warn of such outbreaks in temperatures from 40 to 140 degrees, and they refer to this zone as the “temperature danger zone.”
If you do opt to compete against JBS Foods, the world’s largest meat supplier, you will need a few basics. Depending on your thirst for meat domination, you may want to invest further. Here are the basics and beyond.
First, you must decide how in-depth you are going to invest in your meat market. You can keep it simple with a knife, sharpener, cutting board, freezer wrapping paper and a knack for carving out meal-sized portions. Look at any meat cutting chart, beef or deer, to see where restaurant cuts reside on live critters.
In my opinion, backstraps are the most enjoyable to remove and slice into perfectly sized steaks. Inside tenderloins practically remove themselves and require little for trimming to make skillets hiss with goodness.
Roasts can easily be trimmed from the rumps with lower leg portions turned into steaks along with flanks on the sides depending on the size of the deer. You can trim rib meat out for the crux of fajita building or remove them whole, although they are bite-sized portions.
Front shoulders also contain some steak cuts, but many take the front half of the deer and turn it into stew meat or chislic portions (a Midwest seasoned appetizer). Neck meat, also in the front, can be quickly turned into select chunks perfect for stew.
That handles folks like me who would rather get the meat cutting done and hit the hills for more hunting. For the rest of you, a bit more technology may be in your budget.
Instead of “chunking” meat, you may be interested in grinding, slicing and stuffing. And instead of white wrapping paper packages filling your freezer, the sight of clear, neatly arranged, vacuum-packed meat packages fill your dreams. You could take it a step further and go into the jerky business with the purchase of a dehydrator.
Thankfully, sporting goods outlets, like Bass Pro, offer everything to get you up and running.
Economical grinders and sausage stuffers start at $99 and run up to more than $800. A vacuum sealer starts around $90, but you can easily spend nearly $400 on a quality model. Dehydrators are also in the range of $130 to $200, although you can dehydrate in an oven or your smoker to save on your meat budget. Sausage kits include seasoning, cure and casings, plus ample instructions to stuff like a pro.
Taking a deer from a fresh carcass to the dinner table is not rocket science. Nevertheless, you need to plan carefully, execute with precision and keep the meat cool throughout the entire process for thumbs up from your dining guests later.