Venison contains more protein and less fat than nearly all domestic
meats. Most people who enjoy the taste of venison find it superior to
the usual domestic fare of beef, chicken and pork. But, unlike the meat
we buy in a supermarket — cut, trimmed and neatly packaged — venison
comes to us still wearing its hair and hooves. You can pay a meat
processor to butcher your deer, but with a little practice and a few
simple tools, you can do it yourself and get exactly the cuts of meat
you want in the sizes that will best serve your needs.
Good venison meals start with proper care in the field. Body heat,
moisture and digestive juices promote the growth of bacteria, which can
lead to spoilage and a strong, “gamy” taste. Once a deer is taken,
your next goal should be to field dress it and cool down the meat to
ensure it will reach the table in the top condition.
If you’ve never field dressed a deer, watch someone who knows how
before you try it yourself. If you can’t do that, watch a video or
read a brief guide on the subject (see the step-by-step guide that
accompanies this article).
Transport a deer in the open bed of a pick-up truck, or strap it onto a
car-top carrier or one of those deer carriers that fits into a receiver
hitch. Never tie a deer over the hood of a vehicle because engine heat
will harm the meat.
Hang the deer in the shade or an outbuilding so it will cool. If hung by
the hind legs, body heat will escape more easily. If hung by the head,
no rain or debris will fall into the cavity. A carcass can be hung for
several days to age the meat if it is first cooled and the ambient
temperature stays below 40 degrees. In warm weather, take it to a
processor or cut it up as soon as possible.
Some prefer “aged” venison, while others like it cut up and frozen
immediately. Aging tenderizes the meat and, if done properly, improves
the taste. If you can’t cool the carcass and keep it between 32 and 40
degrees, skip the aging step.
Whether or not you age your deer, remove the tenderloins as soon as you
get it to camp or home. They’re about a foot long and weigh a
half-pound or so on an adult deer. They lie inside the body cavity on
either side of the spine. If you leave them there, they will dry up and
you’ll miss the most tender meat of all. Cut them loose with a fillet
knife and lift them out. Broil or pan fry them whole, basted with garlic
butter, or slice them into half-inch-thick medallions and saute them as
To skin a deer, you’ll need a sturdy knife with a fixed blade or a
folding blade that locks open, and a saw. A meat saw works best. Saw off
the forelegs above the knee and the hind legs below the hock. Don’t
touch the scent glands on the hind leg, as the scent can taint the meat.
If you get scent on your hands or knife, wash it off before continuing.
Cut just through the skin along the inside of each leg from the body out
to the end of the leg. With the carcass hanging by the hind legs, peel
the skin off the hind legs and cut off the tail, leaving it attached to
the hide. Pull the hide loose from the carcass, using the knife
sparingly. When you reach the head, cut through the meat and tendons
close to the skull and twist it off.
If you plan to have the head mounted, leave it attached to the hide,
otherwise, simply cut it off. Lay the hide flesh side up, sprinkle it
liberally with canning salt and rub the salt evenly across the hide. A
five-pound bag of salt will do one large hide. Let the salted hide dry
overnight, then fold it flesh side in, roll it up and tie it. Now you
can take it to a commercial tanner and have it tanned or trade it for
credit toward a purchase.
If you’ve come this far, you can complete the job yourself with a
couple sharp knives and a meat saw. You’ll need a boning knife with a
curved, six-inch blade, and a longer knife to slice large muscles into
steaks. Work on a butcher-block table, a large cutting board or a sheet
of clean vinyl flooring attached to a workbench or kitchen table.
With the skinned carcass still hanging, cut away all bloodshot meat and
visible tallow. Unlike beef fat, which is marbled throughout the meat,
tallow lies between and outside muscle layers. If left on the meat, it
will turn rancid and add a strong flavor. Remove any loose hair stuck to
the carcass. To do this, wrap some freezer tape around your hand,
adhesive side out, and pat the carcass to pick up the hair.
Boning out the carcass will save freezer space and yield 100-percent
edible meat. To begin, remove both forelegs by cutting through the
tissue between the shoulder blade and ribs. Follow the muscle outlines
with the boning knife to fillet meat from the bone. The meat from the
shoulder and upper foreleg can be cut into stew chunks, sliced across
the grain into thin strips for stroganoff or pepper steak, or ground for
burger and sausage. Trim away the silver skin membrane from the shank
portion and set the meat aside for grinding.
Fillet the loins (backstraps) away from the backbone and ribs. Remove
the silver skin and cut each loin into chops, butterfly steaks or
two-inch cubes for kabobs.
Now you can tackle the hindquarters. Locate the ball-and-socket hip
joint on one side and cut down to the joint from the front and back of
the leg to separate it from the rump. Repeat the process on the other
hind leg. With a boning knife, remove both chunks of rump from the
pelvic bone. Tender and free of gristle, the rump on each side will make
a small roast.
Remove the sirloin tip by laying the leg flat and guiding a boning knife
along the femur from the knee to the ball joint. The boneless sirloin
tip also makes an excellent roast.
Bone out the rounds and remove all connective tissue, separating each
round into three muscles. These can be left whole for roasts or sliced
across the grain into steaks. Cut steaks an inch thick to keep them
juicy. The calf muscle can be cut into stew chunks or ground. Trim the
shank and set it aside for grinding.
Bone out the neck for stew or grinding. The ribs are layered with
tallow. You can bone them out for grinding, or saw them into small
sections for barbecuing.
Using plastic-coated freezer paper and freezer tape, double-wrap the
meat in meal-size packages. Label and date the packages with a permanent
marking pen and spread them out in your freezer so they freeze quickly.
If you pile 50 pounds of meat in one corner of a chest freezer, it may
take several days for the meat in the center to freeze solid.
You should have nothing left now but a pile of bones. Saw them up to
make soup stock, or trim off the remaining meat for grinding. Grind the
trimmings in a food processor for burger or sausage, or take them to a
butcher and have them ground.
These steps will take you a few hours the first time, but your
efficiency will improve with practice. Over several seasons, you’ll
save hundreds of dollars. Use your savings to upgrade your hunting gear.
When you sit down to a meal of venison, you’ll enjoy the satisfaction
of knowing the entire process was your own doing, from field to feast.