In “How to Field-Process a Deer,” I described how to field-dress, skin, and debone a deer in the field. Once the meat is home, it’s time to process and package it for both the freezer and the table.
If this is your first time processing a deer, don’t feel intimidated. Preparing venison at home isn’t difficult. It doesn’t require knowing the names of every muscle and cut, or buying a bunch of expensive supplies and equipment. Instead, it involves learning the basics of how and where to cut, and a modest investment in supplies. As with many other DIY activities, you can start with a small amount of equipment and add as your operation expands. The basic equipment costs about the same as processing a couple of deer at a butcher. Add some family members or hunting buddies, and processing becomes a community activity. Once all the work is done, it’s satisfying to sit down to meals that you’ve prepared from the field to the table.
Preparing to Process
There are a few steps to take before processing at home. First, check your local wildlife regulations for hunting and processing, and follow them. Second, check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for testing and handling deer with chronic wasting disease (CWD). I test every deer for CWD and, until I get the results, handle it as if it has CWD. Third, make sure that anything that contacts the meat is clean. This includes hands, knives, and workspaces. Finally, keep the meat processing area as cool as possible to reduce the chance of bacterial spoilage.
You’ll also need to gather basic processing equipment and supplies, which include:
- Running water and a tub or sink
- Food processing gloves
- Fillet knife
- Two or three large coolers and ice
- Counter-height table (You can turn a folding table into a counter-height table by making leg extensions from 1-1/2-inch PVC pipe.)
- Cutting board
- Kitchen scale
- Quart- and gallon-sized freezer zip-close bags
- Masking tape
- Freezer paper
- Permanent marker
- Paper or cloth towels
- Cleaning solution (such as dish soap or diluted bleach)
- Optional equipment and supplies include a refrigerator or walk-in cooler or cold room; a vacuum sealer and bags; and a meat grinder (either hand crank or electric powered) or a food processor and shallow pans.
Once you’re ready, the four steps you’ll need to follow to prepare venison for the freezer are cleaning, ageing, cutting, and packaging.
It’s best to have access to running water when cleaning your meat. This can be as basic as a garden hose and a washtub or utility sink, or, my favorite, a portable fish-cleaning table. Remove the meat from the cooler one bag at a time. Rinse the meat in cold water to remove hair, leaves, and other debris picked up in the field. Cut off any connective tissue (called “silverskin”), membrane, and fat from the meat. Rinse the inside of the zip-close bag, return the meat to the bag, and put the bagged meat back in the cooler in preparation for ageing.
Ageing naturally tenderizes the meat and mellows the flavor. The optimum conditions for ageing are temperatures between 33 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity that’s as low as possible. The bacteria that spoils meat likes warmth and moisture. Meat needs to age long enough to relax from rigor mortis, but not so long that it becomes rancid, usually 2 to 14 days. The age of the animal also determines ageing time. Young deer typically need to age for less time than older deer. (See below, “How Old is This Deer?”) Ageing also plays a role in the scent of the meat. Fresh venison has a metallic, iron-like odor. As the meat ages, the smell mellows.
Ageing can be done in coolers on ice, a spare kitchen refrigerator, a commercial walk-in refrigerator, or an unheated shed. I age venison on ice in 48-quart coolers in my unheated garage for 5 to 7 days. To do this, place a layer of bagged ice in the bottom of the cooler. Open the zip-close bags and put a single layer of bagged meat on the ice. (Meat in closed bags can fall prey to anaerobic bacteria.) Close the cooler lid, open the drain, and prop up the opposite side of the cooler so water drains from the cooler as the ice melts.
Don’t let the meat sit in water or blood for long periods of time. Every morning and evening, dump the liquid from inside the bags, reposition the meat in the bags so the meat that was in the middle of the bag is now on the outside, and replenish the ice if necessary.
If you’re new to ageing meat, you can sample the flavor (after getting negative CWD results) by cutting a small piece, cooking, and eating it.
Cutting involves separating muscles; identifying the grain; turning the muscles into steaks, roasts, jerky, and trim; and then chopping the trim into stew meat or grinding it into burger.
The deer’s age and size will determine how some muscles are cut. For example, the shanks of a large buck can make individual roasts, while the shanks of a smaller doe are usually too small for roasts. The rounds of a young deer make better steaks than the rounds of a large, old buck, because those muscles on a young deer are tenderer than an older deer. Tenderloins are typically small and can be grilled intact or cut into smaller pieces. The advantage of processing at home is that you decide how to use the cuts.
While cutting, remove and discard lymph nodes and any remaining fat, membrane, and silverskin. Lymph nodes are small, oblong, gray-colored glands typically located in the fat between muscles. The rounds, shoulders, neck, and digestive system of a deer all contain lymph nodes.
A sheath of thin membrane covers each muscle. Where muscles meet, this membrane forms a thin, light-colored line. Cut along that line and pull the muscles apart. This is best seen in the rounds, pictured above. There will be 3 to 5 muscles in the rounds, depending on how they were deboned in the field. The tenderloins, backstraps, and shoulders were separated into individual muscles in the field.
Muscles contain long bundles of fibers that run parallel to each other. These bundles of fibers form the grain of the muscle. Once the muscles are separated and the grain is identified, it’s time to cut the muscles into smaller pieces. The naturally tender muscles along the backbone (tenderloins, backstrap, and rump) make the best steaks. Steaks are 3/4-to-1-inch-thick slices of muscle cut across the grain, best cooked quickly over direct heat as single servings.
Muscles from lower on the animal are less tender and are used for roasts, jerky, and trim. Roasts are thick (more of the muscle is left intact), usually cut with the grain, and cooked slowly using indirect heat. Roasts are sliced into individual servings after cooking.
Jerky is strips cut 1/4 to 1/3 inch thick, seasoned, and dried. Stew meat is made from trim and is cut into 1-inch cubes. Trim can also be used for burgers and sausage, or canned.
A typical serving size for venison is 1/4 to 1/3 pound per person. Use a kitchen scale to weigh the cuts before packaging.
Prolonged exposure to air in a freezer causes freezer burn, so, when packaging in zip-close bags, squeeze the air from the bags, close the zipper, and wrap the bags in freezer paper. Mark the packages with the contents and the date the animal was killed. A vacuum sealer is also good for packaging venison.
It’s best to use a meat grinder for making burger. However, you can cut trim into small pieces and then chop it in a food processor.
Venison is extremely lean. When grinding into burger, it’s common to add either beef or pork fat, caul fat, or high-fat hamburger. If this is your first deer, experiment with the proportions of fat to venison, and cook samples until you find the correct mix. However, if no fat is added, which is how I prefer it, cook deerburger over low heat. Because of the lack of fat, it’s easy to scorch if it’s cooked like hamburger.
Dennis Biswell grew up in a family that processed most of what they ate at home. He’s shared his knowledge of processing deer at Mother Earth News Fairs.
How Old Is This Deer?
Like other mammals, deer begin life with baby teeth, or milk teeth. Adult teeth replace the baby teeth at a predictable rate. To age a deer, use the teeth on one side of the jaw, called “premolars” and “molars,” as a reference. (Ignore the front teeth.) Depending on the deer’s age, there will be 4 to 6 teeth on one side of the jaw.
Deer are born in late spring to early summer. They’re about 6 months old during their first winter hunting season. At 6 months old, a deer has fewer than six teeth on one side of its jaw; the third tooth from the front has three cusps, or peaks. A 1-1/2-year-old deer has six teeth; the third tooth from the front is still a baby tooth and has three cusps, and the sixth tooth may still be erupting from the jawbone. At 2-1/2 years old, the third tooth from the front is replaced by the adult tooth and has two cusps, and the sixth tooth is fully erupted. If the deer is 3-1/2 years or older, you can determine its age by the amount of wear on the fourth, fifth, and sixth teeth. As these teeth wear, the darker bands of dentine grow wider as the light-colored enamel and sharp cusps wear toward the jawbone. When it’s 3-1/2 years old, the deer’s dentine on the fourth tooth is as wide as the enamel. When the deer is 4-1/2 years old, its fourth tooth dentine is wider than the enamel, and the fifth tooth dentine is as wide as the enamel. Under normal conditions, it takes about nine years for the premolars and molars to wear to the gums.
Parts and Cuts
- Here are the parts from most tender to tough and the way I cut them:
- Tenderloins — Steaks or kebab medallions
- Backstrap — Steaks
- Rump — Steaks
- Rounds — Steaks and roasts
- Shoulders — Steaks (if large enough), jerky, stew meat, burger, or canned
- Flank — Stew meat, burger, or canned
- Shanks — Roasts (if large enough), stew meat, burger, or canned
- Neck — Roasts (if large enough), stew meat, burger, or canned
- Meat from between the ribs — Jerky, stew meat, burger, or canned
- Organs — See “Using the Gut Pile,” below.
Using the Gut Pile
Use these tips to prepare and utilize the internal organs from your processed deer.
Heart. Cut it in half and remove the large blood vessels at the top of the heart and the connective tissue inside. The heart can be cooked several ways. My favorites are roasted; sliced, grilled, and topped with grilled onion and cheese; or cubed and pan-fried like chicken gizzards. Learn more about cooking this organ in “Do’s and Don’ts of Cooking with Deer Heart.”
Liver. Remove and discard the gallbladder, the green-colored sack between the lobes. To mellow some of the flavor, soak the liver in milk overnight in the refrigerator. It’s excellent pan-fried with onions. Liver is also good channel catfish bait.
Kidneys. Remove the outer membrane. Cut the kidneys in half and remove the white material in the middle. Soak them for a couple of days in the refrigerator in water with a little vinegar or milk. Change the liquid every 24 hours. Discard the liquid before cooking.
Intestines. These are natural sausage casings. To prepare them, squeeze out all the contents. Unlike processed cattle and hogs, deer usually have full digestive systems when killed. Using a dowel or broomstick, turn the intestines inside out. Thoroughly clean them with running water and gentle scrubbing. Turn them right-side out and rinse for several minutes. Soak them for a couple of days in the refrigerator in water with a little salt, garlic, and onion before stuffing with sausage.
Caul fat. This is the lacy fat that surrounds the intestines, and is the best fat on a deer. Add it to deerburger or wrap it around deer roasts before cooking.
Natural Sinew for Stitching
The silverskin that runs along the backstrap is the longest strip of natural sinew on a deer and can be used as thread for stitching. To harvest the sinew, don’t cut through this silverskin when cutting the backstrap steaks, but fillet each steak from this connective tissue. Hang the sinew in a low-humidity environment, and allow it to dry completely. To use for sewing, peel the strands from the sheath, and then soak them in water or wet them with saliva. Once wet, the sinew will be flexible and ready for stitching.