Proper field care critical to great-tasting venison

The meat processor I use to butcher any deer I’m lucky enough to get has a sign posted on the door of the shop stating there is an additional charge for any deer that hasn’t been properly field dressed.

I was amazed he had to post such signage, but after asking why, he told me many of the deer hunters bring in still have the heart and lungs inside.

“You can’t imagine how many deer are brought here for processing with most of the insides still in them,” he told me.

Venison is or could be as good as anything that comes from a cow, providing steps are taken by the hunter to ensure the meat is handled correctly. The first thing that needs to be done is to properly field dress the deer as quickly as possible after the kill. In short, the sooner the entrails are removed and the carcass starts to cool the better the meat will taste. For those who might need a refresher on field dressing a deer, the following suggestions may be helpful.

When beginning the field dressing process, roll the animal on its back and make the first cut into the hide, but be super careful not to puncture the stomach since it’s likely to be bulging. I like to pinch the skin and make a small cut just large enough for me to slip my knife blade inside the animal. Once that’s done, it’s easy to slit the belly open from the chest to the pelvic or “aitch” bone, keeping in mind that the last thing you want to do is to spill stomach contents on any of the meat.

Once the body cavity is open, using your knife, follow the ribs and cut through the diaphragm between the chest cavity and abdomen. Now, reach up inside and cut the esophagus free. After cutting it loose, carefully cut along the backbone, releasing the lungs, liver and heart while guiding the stomach and intestines through the body cavity opening. If the animal was killed with an arrow and the arrow is not recovered, be very careful when beginning this process because the broadhead may still be in the deer.

After the heart, lungs and stomach are free, carefully cut around the outside of the anus, freeing up the terminal end of the intestinal tract, keeping in mind some hunters prefer to do this as a first step. At this point I use my fingers to work the terminal end of the intestine through the pelvic bone so it can be removed without cutting. Some hunters like to use a string and tie it in two places on the intestine, then cut between the ties so that none of the contents are able to escape. Both methods work, and the thing to avoid is getting intestinal matter on any of the meat.

The bladder is another area that needs special attention. Patience is the best advice, and if it doesn’t come out with the lower intestines, I tie off the end and gently try to pull it away and work it loose from the meat. It’s important to check that all internal organs have been removed and that any pooled blood has been emptied from the body cavity. Don’t use water to clean out the body cavity.

In the old days, hunters assumed the tarsal glands on the back legs needed to be removed, but resist that advice and leave them on the deer. The reason is they are very odorous and the smell can get on your knife blade. If this happens and you do some additional cutting, the scent can be imparted on the meat.

Heat is the most insidious robber of good taste in any meat, especially venison, and when temperatures are high like they were the first the first part of this season, it’s important to get the carcass to a meat processor as quickly as possible. If that isn’t feasible, try to hang the deer and at least remove the hide.

If a spare refrigerator is available, and after the deer is skinned and quartered, place the meat on, but not in, plastic bags to cool until the meat can be properly butchered. Remember, deer meat doesn’t taste “gamey.” Heat and improper field dressing of the animal will only make it taste that way.

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