By Erik Barber
The only thing more satisfying than filling your deer tag is processing your doe or buck into fresh venison. By processing deer at home, you control the final product. You can cut, package and label each steak, sausage or package of ground venison to your liking. Before diving in, make sure you have the right tools.
A gambrel hangs your deer by its back legs while you debone it. Attach the gambrel to a pulley hoist so you can raise and lower the deer, and control its position to work more efficiently and comfortably. A gambrel costs about $15, but add about $15 if it includes a pulley system.
A quality set of sharp knives is most important. Choose a set with different blades, but be sure you have at least one long, flexible fillet knife for most of the work. Other helpful tools include a skinning knife, bone saw, and ribcage splitter. Choose knives with rubber nonslip handles. They’re easy to grip, even when wet, which reduces injuries while processing. Quality knife sets cost over $100, but knives are lifetime investments that quickly pay for themselves.
Even the sharpest blades get dull, so you’ll need a manual or electric sharpener to restore and maintain razor-sharp edges. Electric sharpeners are easy to use and faster than manual models, but also cost more. They start at about $40, while manual sharpeners start under $20.
As you process your deer, you’ll accumulate trimmings too small to package as traditional meat cuts. Don’t waste them. Set them aside and buy an electric meat grinder for making tacos, burgers and sloppy Joes. A meat grinder is essential to DIY deer processing, so buy the most powerful model you can afford. You’ll save money by buying a manual hand-crank model, but here’s a prediction: You’ll soon ditch it for an electric model.
A quality 1.0 or 2.0 horsepower grinder can cost $350. It saves time, but you can get by with an attachment for a Kitchenmaid mixer or other food processor. If you’ll process several deer each season, get a powerful grinder. If you’ll process only one or two, get an affordable model.
Package your venison in consistent sizes. That’s especially important when packaging ground venison, which is easy to store and use in 1-pound packages. A food scale is handy and affordable, starting at about $30 for digital versions.
If you like jerky, get a dehydrator. Making jerky can take time, so consider buying a larger model so you can work more efficiently with bigger batches. A dehydrator’s price correlates with its size. Small, four-tray dehydrators usually cost less than $100, but larger models with six or more trays can cost over $175.
Venison sausage makes a tasty treat, and it’s a staple at get-togethers when thinly sliced and paired with cheese and crackers. If you take your scraps to a meat market’s sausage-maker, you’ll have few flavor options. A sausage-stuffer attachment for your food processor lets you experiment with recipes and endless seasoning varieties until you discover your favorite batch. You’ll find countless options for a sausage-maker attachment, but expect to pay at least $100. You, your family and friends will appreciate it for years to come.
Never overlook the importance of packaging and storing venison. The last thing you want is to lose venison to freezer burn. Vacuum seal your venison to ensure it lasts a long time. Vacuum sealers remove excess air from the package, ensuring the meat’s shelf life extends beyond a year when frozen. A vacuum sealer and a few sets of freezer bags cost more than traditional freezer paper, but that $150 also buys peace of mind that your venison will stay fresh.
Don’t be overwhelmed at the initial costs when outfitting yourself with everything needed to process your deer. But you don’t have to buy everything at once. Also remember that you’ll likely pay a meat processor over $100 for basic cutting and packaging, excluding jerky, sausage, baloney and hotdogs. If you shoot four or five deer the next few years, you’ll quickly recover the cost of your investments.
Processing your own deer also ensures the venison in your freezer came from the deer you killed. That’s a growing concern when hunting where chronic wasting disease is present.
The more deer you process, the faster you’ll develop your own style and system. You might even find that you enjoy processing venison more than the hunt itself.