If you have ever hunted a whitetail deer, you know the amount of time, patience, and effort that goes into your first harvest and every harvest after that. However, once you have harvested the animal, the real work starts. In this article, I am going to walk you through an informational guide to deer processing that will benefit not only you but those around you as well.
Table of Contents
- Why Consume Venison?
- Deer Processing and Venison Field Care
- Skinning Your Deer
- Deer Processing Venison Quartering
- Deer Processing Equipment
- Venison Aging
- Deer Processing Conclusion
Why Consume Venison?
Venison is a popular and delicious wild game meat. I would venture to say the majority of people who have tried wild game have tried venison. The whitetail deer is plentiful in North America and is sought after by many hunters across the United States and Canada. The harvest of one deer can provide you with 45-65 pounds of usable meat in a variety of cuts.
Venison meat is high in protein and offers great health benefits. Plus, I like to know where my meat came from. This is why I perform all of my own meat processing. I am involved in handling my food from the time it is harvested until it lands on my dinner table.
Deer Processing and Venison Field Care
Field care is essential to harvesting any deer meat. The steps you take from the time you recover your animal until that meat is preserved, placed on your table, or in the freezer will decide the quality of the deer venison. As previously pointed out, the effort to get to where you are with this animal has been massive, to say the least. Now is not the time to take shortcuts. These are the most important things to remember during the field care process of harvesting wild venison.
Reduce your risk of Contamination and Disease
This is accomplished by simply wearing elbow-length field dressing gloves, as well as cleaning your knife throughout the process frequently. It is important to keep the waste the deer produces away from the meat. Also, remove any blood bathed spots that occur in the area of the shot on the body of the deer. Some other areas to avoid are the spinal cord or brain during processing. Be sure to remove the sex parts of a male deer and avoid contamination during this process.
Set Your Deer Up for Easy Deer Processing
It is important when field dressing your deer you allow the blood to drain. I like to find an embankment and place my deer head on the highest portion of the bank. This allows me to spread the Whitetail’s legs apart, and I try to place them behind a tree sapling or rock so I can better see what I am doing and access the deer cavity. I remove the insides of the deer and allow all blood to drain.
Cooling Your Deer
It is critical to get your deer cooled. I like to make a cut with my knife on the rear legs and insert a gambrel in both sides and attach the gambrel to a cable that is connected to a hoist inside my barn or from a tree. I then hoist my deer up off the ground and in the shade. The deer being in the shade is critical in this step. Do not make the mistake of not opening up the chest cavity. I use a basic stick that is strong enough to expand the chest cavity. If the outside temperature stays around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, I am comfortable leaving my deer to hang for two days. This allows all of the blood to drain out of your meat, providing a much better end result.
Skinning Your Deer
When you skin your deer will depend on the weather and temperature. Even in colder temperatures, 32 degrees Fahrenheit or below, I still skin my deer by day two. The skin will protect your deer from predators if you do not have it in a walk-in freezer; however, in warmer temperatures, you need to skin it once it is hung. Skinning your deer will allow for your meat to cool faster.
Step 1 of Skinning a Whitetail Deer
You need a sharp knife. If you are using the same knife you field-dressed the deer with, please sterilize it first. Begin by cutting a circle just under each hoof. Once completed, find the hairline that runs on the back of each rear leg and cut on that hairline to the anus of the deer.
Step 2 of Skinning a Whitetail Deer
Peel the hide off of the rear legs and around the tail of the deer. From here, pull the hide all the way down to the front legs. I like to repeat the process of the rear legs on the front legs to make things easier. This allows you to continue to pull the cape of the deer past the front legs without issue.
Step 3 of Skinning a Whitetail Deer
Pull the cape all the way down to the base of the skull. At the base of the skull, you can use a saw to cut the head off and remove it. From here, you are ready to either debone your meat or freeze your quarters whole.
Deer Processing Venison Quartering
I understand this process can seem intimidating, especially if you have never done this or did not grow up around it. The reward at the end of this process you will find satisfying, I promise. Think of quartering as breaking the deer down into quarters. There are four quarters in a dollar, and there are four main parts of the whitetail deer. After those are accounted for, we still have the head, ribs, and tenderloin/backstrap (the good stuff).
Venison Front Quarters Cut
The front quarters contain some great “grind” meat. (Meat for the burger grinder). I am going to encourage you not to get too caught up in this. The front shoulders also have great deer steaks. These deer steaks should be slow cooked, but tasty they are. The front quarter meat is also great for stew meat, which will also be cooked slowly. My favorite way to utilize a front shoulder is by slow cooking it whole on a charcoal grill. I save these for special events.
Venison Hind Quarter Cut
A deer is not all that different from a cow (beef). The rear quarters, often referred to as “Ham” cuts, are going to provide you with multiple roasts. Think of the anatomy. The rear quarters are going to make up the Whitetail’s hips and rump. These are large muscle groups. You have the sirloin, the rump, the bottom round, the top round, and the shank towards the bottom. To cut these, find the natural muscle seams. Leave the gland that is located in the middle. It will be white in color. Remove the fat and trim the meat.
When going into the freezer, I leave the silver lining around the meat. This allows an extra barrier in protection. Any of these cuts can go to the grind. I know a good amount of whitetail hunters that prefer a larger grind pile. I encourage you to try these different cuts and figure out what you do and do not want in your grind pile.
Venison Ribs – Backstrap Cut
Do not get the backstraps and tenderloins confused. Tenderloins are on the inside of the spine, above the ribs. The backstraps are a strap of meat that runs on both sides of the spine and sit on top of the outside of the carcass. I remove my tenderloins as soon as my skin is removed. These cuts are coveted in the whitetail world. I do not prefer whitetail ribs; however I do harvest the rib meat between the individual ribs.
The backstraps I have found are best when cut into a tomahawk deer steak. The bone left in tastes so much better, in my opinion. However, you can remove your backstraps whole, and either “butterfly” cut them, freeze them whole, or cut them into sections. If I do not utilize a tomahawk method here, I cut them into sections big enough for a two-person meal and freeze them as such.
Deer Processing Neck Meat
There are hunters reading this right now that do not harvest their neck meat. I used to be that hunter; however, I have come to love the neck meat of big game. It took me some time to jump on that bandwagon because of the lack of knowledge. I honestly did not know what to do with the neck meat, and it was not harvested in my household growing up. I will admit, deboning the neck meat requires patience. Also, come to terms right now with the fact you will mess this up more than once. I have cooked in-bone neck roast, I have ground it all and made sausage and brat links, and I have put it in the burger pile. I still am uncertain about what I prefer to do with my neck meat, however, I do not prefer to waste it.
Deer Processing Equipment
Deer processing equipment comes in all shapes and sizes. I know several Ol’ timers that will tell you all you need is a sharp knife, freezer paper, and a hand-crank meat grinder. I tip my hat to the hunters out there using this basic method, but today I am going to share with you my favorite pieces of equipment.
A Sharp Knife and Wet stone
You have to have a sharp knife and a sharpening stone to process your meat cleanly, as well as safely. A dull knife is a knife that you will cut yourself with. Another thing to point out here is the knife needs to be strictly for processing, not skinning or field care.
Deer Processing with a Large Cutting Board
The bigger the cutting board, the better. I went to the local countertop supply store and bought a large piece of granite used by the salesman to sell the larger countertops. A set of venison ribs or venison backstraps will prove to overhang on a normal-sized cutting board.
Meat Grinder for Quick and Easy Venison Processing
I remember a decade ago, purchasing a grinder was an investment. Do not get me wrong, I believe you always get what you pay for here, but in today’s market, you can find meat grinders for good prices in many locations.
Freezer Paper & Tape
Freezer paper is kind of a given here, along with the tape. I get asked frequently about how I wrap my freezer paper when it comes to my venison or wild game. My answer is always quick – DOUBLE WRAP IT! I prefer vacuum-sealing my meat, but sometimes I have two rolls of freezer paper burning a hole in my kitchen cabinet, and it needs to be used up. I top it off by labeling what it is and the date of harvest with a sharpie.
A vacuum sealer is ideal for wild game. It can keep your meat good in the freezer for two years, possibly longer. It is a more expensive way to get the job done, plus you have to purchase the vacuum-sealed bags, but if wild game is on the table 50% of the time in your household, I would suggest making the investment.
Venison aging has become popular in the last 10-15 years. Some people will laugh at this and tell you they have always aged their deer meat. Should you age your meat?
Aging venison allows the meat to become tender. This is the single reason I like to age my Whitetail. I do not like a tough cut of deer meat. There are so many opinions and articles out there breaking down the aging process of venison and when it should begin. I encourage you to check out this F&S article if aging your venison is something you want to try your hand at.
Deer Processing Conclusion
We covered a massive amount of ground here. In today’s day and age, there are a significant amount of resources at your fingertips through Google and YouTube to find what works for other people when processing their own deer. Deer processing does take time to learn. It is, however, one skill that will be beneficial to you for the entirety of your life.