By Erik Barber
A successful hunt doesn’t end with a killing shot. Once you’ve tagged your deer, it’s time to get your wild game ready for the freezer. Delicious venison starts in the field. Once you’re done field dressing, you’ll need to debone the meat and package it into portions fit for the grill. After you’ve assembled the right tools for the job, you’re ready to go.
Start by hanging your deer by the rear legs on a gambrel. To do this, cut a slit through the hide at the rear legs where the Achilles tendon meets the leg, and then insert the gambrel through the cut. Be careful not to cut too deep and accidentally slice the tendon, which makes it more difficult to hang your deer. Make a cut where the deer’s white undercoat intersects the brown hair on the rear legs. Run your knife toward the spine on each leg, and cut through the tail when you reach it. Wrap your hand in a towel to keep a better grip on the hide, and pull it down toward the head and shoulders, only cutting when you need to. Continue peeling the hide until you’ve exposed most of the neck. Use a bone saw to cut through the spinal column to remove the head and hide.
Next, clean the carcass. You never want to find unwanted hair when you bite into a fresh venison steak. Thankfully, removing stray hair left behind from the skinning process is easy. Hold a blow torch about 4-6 inches away from the carcass to burn off any hair stuck to your meat. You can also remove hair with a damp towel by patting down the entire carcass, but a blow torch is more efficient.
Before you start quartering and deboning the carcass, get organized. It’s important to keep your cuts of meat in separate containers. Generally speaking, you can expect to end up with primary cuts of meat, like steaks or roasts, and other scraps known as trimmings. Keep your trimmings in a separate container from your primary cuts. When you’re done deboning the rest of the deer, trimmings can be ground into burger or sausage.
Backstraps and tenderloins are the most popular cuts of venison. Not only do they make for delicious steaks, both are easy to remove from the carcass. When you open the body cavity, you’ll notice two uniform muscles that run along the interior portion of the deer parallel to the spine. These are known as the tenderloins. Simply run your knife alongside them and peel them away using just your fingertips. Then, seal them in a container. Tenderloins are delicate cuts and can dry out quickly if exposed to air for too long.
Backstraps are large muscles found on the exterior of the deer and parallel to the spine. Start removing them by making a cross-section cut just above the rear hips. Then, run your filet knife down the length of the spine until you reach the base of the neck. Run another parallel cut along the tops of the ribs. The backstraps will pull apart from the carcass. If you enjoy steaks, cut your backstraps into portion-sized steaks, and wrap them individually.
Once your backstraps and tenderloins are removed, you can quarter your deer into front and rear quarters. Individual quarters are more manageable, and are easily boned out on a tabletop once they’re removed from the carcass. A folding table cleaned with an ounce of bleach in a gallon of water makes for an ideal (and sanitized) wild-game processing station.
Start by deboning the rear quarters. The hips are held together by the pelvic bone, which you can saw in half with a bone saw. Once it’s separated, you’ll notice a ball-and-socket joint on the inside of the hamstring. Use your knife blade to trace around the exterior portion of the hip, and work it between the ball-and-socket joint to remove the quarter. It will eventually break free. Then, you can disassemble the smaller muscle groups that make up the hind quarter – the sirloin tip, inside round, bottom round, and eye of round. While deboning the meat, look for the lymph nodes, which comprise the deer’s lymphatic system. Lymph nodes are identified by their grey, spongy appearance and should be disposed of when discovered.
The front shoulders hold a high-quality roast on the exterior of the shoulder blade. Generally, the rest of the meat in the front quarters is ideal for the trimmings pile. Work your knife underneath the shoulder blade to remove it from the carcass. Then, trace your blade around it to remove the roast. Remaining scrap meat in the shoulder and front legs should be trimmed and eventually turned into ground venison burgers or sausage.
If you’ve ever enjoyed delicious pork ribs at your favorite BBQ joint, you’ll appreciate the taste of whitetail ribs cooked in a similar fashion. If BBQ ribs don’t make your mouth water, you can still remove the meat between the ribs and add a few extra pounds to the trimming pile.
Once you’ve separated your trimmings from your steaks and roasts, grind them up. Use a meat grinder to grind the trimmings into lean venison burger. You can always add pork fat for recipes that might call for it later. In the meantime, package your ground venison in individual one-pound packages ideal for meatballs, burgers, and tacos.
Invest in a vacuum sealer to protect your meat for extended periods of time. The last thing any hunter wants is their hard-earned table fare to get freezer burn. Vacuum-sealed packages are the best insurance against it.
Double-wrap your carcass in heavy-duty garbage bags to prep them for disposal. As chronic wasting disease (CWD) continues to spread, states combat it by creating specific rules for carcass disposal. Contact your state’s natural resource department or fish and game agency to learn the rules where you hunt. Generally, never dispose of your deer by dumping it on nearby land. Not only can this disposal method spread CWD, it’s unsightly and paints hunters in a negative light.
Processing your own venison is the most rewarding way to stockpile your freezer with free-range protein. Over time, you’ll develop your own style and become more comfortable and efficient. Nothing beats the satisfaction of a successful hunt and tasty meal shared with family and friends, sourced from your favorite wild place.