I’ve cut up my fair share of big game animals in my lifetime, and it’s fairly easy once you get the hang of it.
Regardless of the animal, the skeletal structure is basically the same whether it’s a deer, an antelope, or a moose. How you handle the meat is the key to having great tasting venison.
We all want to shoot a big buck, but if you’re looking for the best eating, a doe or young buck generally provides better tasting meat. The meat from a mature buck that is in the rut and has adrenaline coursing though its body can lead to strong-tasting venison. The buck will provide lots of meat and is still good-eating, but a fat young doe is the ultimate.
Making a good clean shot is the first step toward good-tasting venison.
Once you have recovered your deer, take care to field dress the animal as soon as possible. Remove the internal organs and drain the blood out of the body cavity. I like to rinse the body cavity out with cold water. Some advocate against that, but I believe that getting all blood or body fluids off the meat improves the taste. Dry the carcass after rinsing to prevent bacteria from forming.
If you make a gut shot, be sure to thoroughly rinse and dry the interior after it has been field dressed.
Be sure to remove the inner tenderloins along the bottom of the spine as these are the choicest cut of meat on a deer. These tenderloins dry out quickly, so remove them as soon as possible.
When you kill a deer, the animal goes through a period of rigor mortis when the muscles tighten. Hang the deer for a minimum of 24 hours if possible to allow the muscles to relax.
Letting meat age breaks down the connective tissues naturally through enzymes already in the cells, which increases tenderness, and dehydrates some of the moisture within, enhancing the meat’s flavor.
The ideal temperature for dry aging is between 34 to 37 degrees, but 32 to 45 degrees is suitable if hung in a shaded area. Any higher or lower and you have to either butcher it immediately, age it in a cooler with ice, or age it in a temperature-controlled area.
Learning to age wild game can be an educational experience. For those new to it, it’s best to err on the short side and experiment with longer hang times to achieve the best results. For the best combination of flavors, tenderness, and texture, venison should potentially age for between 18 to 21 days under ideal conditions.
Open-air aging is straightforward and the most widely used by hunters to age their meat. It’s also the most cost effective and simplest way.
Basically, just hang the carcass in a cool, dry place where the temperature is relatively consistent. You can leave the hide on or skin the deer depending on your preference.
Leaving the skin on protects the meat from insects and dirt and keeps the surface from drying out. If you decide to skin or quarter the animal, place it in cheesecloth or game bags to protect it from insects. The only drawback to open-air aging is temperature control and exposure. Too high or too low of a temperature can be a big problem. Even if you can only age the animal for a week it’s better than not aging it at all. If temperatures are predicted to be extreme, butcher the deer.
When we hunt antelope out West we don’t age them because it’s typically hot. The key with antelope is to skin them immediately, separating the hide and glands from contact with the meat, and getting them cooled down as soon as possible. We skin and quarter them in the field and get them in a cooler on dry ice. You might want to consider the same with your deer if temperatures are high.
Properly aged venison is going to look a little different than meat you immediately butcher. The aged venison will have crust on it that needs to be removed. Cut about ¼ inch of the meat off to reveal the prime venison beneath.
When processing deer you can easily remove the muscle groups like a puzzle with little cutting. I like steaks, so I cut across the muscles to create choice cuts. Take care to remove all of the tallow (fat) and as much of the silver connective tissue as possible. It takes time, but it eliminates stringy, chewy sinew.
Packaging is an important step in having great tasting venison. Vacuum sealers are a godsend for storing venison. Extracting the air from the package eliminates freezer burn, makes it more compact for storage, and by writing the date you harvested it you can use your venison larder in an orderly manner.
If you don’t have a vacuum sealer you can double wrap the meat with plastic wrap and put it in zip-sealing freezer bags.
Great venison is the ultimate reward of deer hunting.