While we were clearing the table after eating a meal that featured charcoal broiled steaks cut from a mature whitetail buck I’d killed during the 2015 season, Amber commented, “I really like venison.” That’s high praise, indeed, especially since she is–or, more accurately, was–a city girl who was raised in a nonhunting family.
It’s no accident that the venison she and I eat is always juicy, tender and flavorful. To the contrary, it’s the direct result of the fact that we process all of our meat ourselves.
When I discuss this subject in person, one of the most common responses I get is some variation of “but I’ve never done anything like that before.” So what. If you’re like me–and I’m sure you are–there was a time when you’d never thrown a ball, caught a fish or driven a car either. Besides, there’s a wealth of information on the subject available on the Internet. I don’t personally agree with a lot of it, but that needn’t bother you. The very best thing about doing anything yourself is that if you’re happy with the final product, you’ve done it “right,” regardless of the methodology or combination of methodologies you used.
Worry about not having the right equipment to do the job is another common, but easily overcome barrier. If I absolutely had to, I could skin and dismember a deer carcass and then cut its meat into package-sized portions using nothing but a boning knife with a slightly flexible five-inch blade, but I’m sure glad I don’t have to. I have an excellent skinning knife with an upswept blade that I should use more often, but the truth be told, deer skin so easily, I usually use the same Buck Folding Hunter ® I carry while hunting. I do use a boning knife made out of steel from a band saw blade throughout the actual butchering process. Amber prefers a filet knife with a narrow seven-inch blade. Just remember that a butcher knife’s blade has to be shaving-sharp from the first cut through the last.
It’s possible to skin and dismember a deer while the animal is lying flat on the ground, but it’s a lot easier if it’s suspended by its Achilles tendons. I use a block and tackle that’s firmly attached to a ceiling joist in my garage and a homemade gambrel for this purpose.
If you hope to have venison that’s really good, skinning the deer and cooling it down to no more than 40 degrees as soon after it was killed as practical is an essential first step. After skinning the deer and after carefully removing every trace of damaged meat, I remove the front legs, filet the backstraps off of the spine, saw off the ribs if I intend to keep them, saw off the neck and split the pelvis to separate the two hind legs. (I use a professional meat saw, but a hacksaw will work.)
If I had room for it, I’d buy a large used refrigerator to cool and age venison, but since I don’t, I use a 150-quart ice chest with a four-inch-tall bottom rack to keep the meat above the level of melt water. It will easily hold a “parted out” deer and 40 pounds of ice, shows no sign it won’t last forever and cost less than the cut-and-wrap processing fee for a single deer.
Like beef, venison benefits from aging at temperatures in the 35- to 40-degree range. I’ve found that four or five days is sufficient, but twice that number under close supervision should be ok.
When the time comes to complete the process, having a solid work surface is a virtual necessity. We now use sections of kitchen counter top salvaged from a house due for demolition, but “back in the day,” we used our kitchen table.
Amber and I think that venison ground with an equal amount of pork shoulder makes the world’s best hamburger. The friends we often share meat with use a lot of stew meat. Therefore, the front legs, the neck and scraps from the hind quarters are cut into small pieces after the fat, sinew and everything else that isn’t pure red meat has been removed.
The backstraps are cut into 12-ounce pieces that are reserved for the charcoal broiler. I know that sounds small for two people, but each piece is pure, fat-free boneless meat.
All of the meat on the hind legs is top quality, but the various muscles are best suited for different tasks. Begin by deboning the leg by removing each muscle separately. You’ll notice that most of the larger muscles have straight grains. They’re ideal for chicken fried steak or broiling. The large half-round muscle that lies against the thigh bone makes a good roast or jerky meat. We use the smaller muscles that lack easily discernable grain for stir fry, stroganoff and similar dishes.
By the way, the preferred method of disposing of the inedible parts of your deer is to put them in heavy duty plastic trash bags weighing less than 50 pounds and put them out with your regular household garbage.
Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]