Work begins the moment of impact. The shot — no matter how much time and effort was exhausted to get there — was the easy part. Now it's time to dig in because the prize is at stake. The real trophy of a hunt is a substantial amount of the highest-quality deer meat that cannot be purchased in any store. The only way to ensure the meat arrives on your table in prime quality is to don the white apron and butcher it yourself.
There are many great butcher shops around the country, but during hunting season the volume of work turns them into production-line factories. A commercial meat processor doesn't have the time to devote more energy to your hard-earned animal. In truth, you never know what you're getting back from the butcher shop. This is especially true when it comes to ground products.
Hunters spend weeks scouting, hanging stands, checking trail cameras, prepping gear, and preparing for the hunt. Why, then, do many hunters not continue that effort and give meat, the only measurable reward (outside of antler inches), its due diligence?
Lack of time is a lie or, at the very least, an excuse, in the context of the hours hunters devote to punching the tag. We pride ourselves on remaining in touch with nature in a modern world full of distractions and chaos — from cell phones to tablets to Kardashians. The only way to do so, in the most fundamental of human endeavors, is the hunt, engaging the entire process from field to freezer to table. There's an intimidation factor, but the truth is, butchering your own deer is much simpler and faster than most hunters realize. Follow these five simple steps to get your deer meat from field to freezer the easy way.
What You Need
Fillet knife: Try to find one with a stiff blade that is just flexible enough to bend around bones. The Reel-Flex line from Outdoor Edge has a comfortable handle and sharp edge. $23; outdooredge.com
Boning knife: For working around joints. A stiff, small boning knife works great for removing quarters from deer and handles most meat-cutting jobs with ease. Dexter Sani-Safe is the choice of pros for a reason.
Cutting table: I had one of these made that is the right height for me. Bending over will kill your back and make the entire process miserable.
Grinder: Don't skimp. If price is a problem, go in with a buddy or two and buy a good, commercial-grade meat grinder from Cabela's. It will last a lifetime.
Vacuum sealer: For big jobs, invest in a quality sealer that will seal many bags in a row without overloading the heat bar. The Weston Pro-1100 is a good mix of value and performance. $300; westonsupply.com
Reciprocating saw: For cutting off the legs, ribs, or skull. This is a great gift for a new homeowner, too. An invaluable power tool that all of us need.
Sharpener: If you're good with the sharpening steel, great. I'm not and rely on the automated models that utilize sanded bands, such as the Combo model from WorkSharp.
Before You Butcher
As you field dress the animal, remove the heart, liver, and whatever other organs float your boat. Ambient air temperature dictates the process when it comes to meat care, but in a perfect world, fall temperatures will allow for a few days of hanging, preferably skin on.
We've all heard many theories on how long to hang wild game, but in general, five days at 40 degrees or lower seems to be about right for tender, delicious flesh. One of my friends hangs his meat for a month, and though some of his game does taste really good, it's a risky proposition and you can lose a lot of product. Wild meat has very little fat, and if need be, you can butcher it the day of the kill and be just fine. A gambrel and simple pulley system in the garage is ideal and one individual can hang a deer alone.
- Loins and Tenderloins
The first cuts you should take after skinning the animal are the backstraps, otherwise known as the loins. These are the two long pieces of meat that lay on either side of the vertebrae. Take your time removing them, keeping the knife close to the bone, as they are highly regarded as the best cuts on the animal and rightfully so.
Once they're removed, you can slice them into steaks one to two inches thick. Better yet, leave them whole or cut them crosswise into thirds. Left as thick chunks of meat, the backstraps cook up better than thin steaks, which can dry out quickly under the high heat of a grill.
Beneath the backstraps, hanging on the inside of the abdomen, are the tenderloins. The best practice is to remove the tenderloins in the field because they dry out very quickly and develop a thick, inedible skin when exposed to air. Treat them kindly as they are usually very tender. In fact, the muscle is so soft they can often be removed from the body cavity without the use of a knife. Treat them kindly on the grill or in the pan, too, with just a quick sear.
- Rear Quarters
Next, remove the rear quarters by working around the ball joint and pelvis with a boning knife. It's not difficult, providing you have a sharp knife and some basic knowledge of a deer's anatomy. Use the tip of the knife to cut between the ball and hip socket and the whole quarter will start to fall away from the rest of the pelvis.
Lay a rear quarter on your butcher table with the outside facing you and you'll see an easy map of muscles to guide you. Using a fillet knife, follow the bone and cut the top sirloin from the top of the pelvic bone and back of the loin. The sirloin comes off as a football-shaped mass. In my opinion, this cut is the best grilling meat on the entire animal, and I slice it and label it as such.
In the interior of the leg you'll find top round, bottom round, and eye of round. These cuts can be separated via blunt dissection by pressing your fingers through the fascia holding the muscles together. Much like the round steaks you may be familiar with, these cuts are extremely versatile.
The top and bottom rounds can be turned into steaks for grilling or frying or left as whole roasts. The eye of round is excellent grilled whole or, for charcuterie fans, is the best cut on the animal for bresaola.
The sinewy meat on the rear lower leg can be removed and ground into summer sausage or brats or cut the shank into sections of one to two inches and braise them until the meat falls from the bone.
- Front Shoulder
The front shoulders are easy to manage and can be removed by pulling the leg outward and slicing the scapula off the body beneath the animal's armpit. There are no joints to work around, as with the rear leg, so this can be done in one cut.
There are a couple of good-sized chunks of meat on the scapula, and these can be roasted or make good steaks. These muscles do a lot of work, making them a bit tough, so I use them for roasts, burgers, and stews. They're also ideal jerky material.
The mock tender, or teres major muscle, underneath the shoulder is a prime cut that shouldn't be ignored. Like the rear shanks, the forelegs can be turned into an Italian delicacy known as osso bucco.
- Other Cuts
Once the primary cuts of meat are removed from both legs, take the fillet knife and shave all the excess meat off down to the bone. I put this in the grind pile for burgers or sausages (either loose or linked, such as bratwurst and kielbasa).
The meat around the neck makes great ground or stew meat. In my household, we use more ground burger and breakfast/Italian sausage than stew meat, so this usually ends up in the grinder. Along the ribcage the flank can be easily removed, this also goes into the grinder pile.
Deer ribs are a curious dilemma. I know guys who smoke them as one would pork, but mine have always turned out dry. A reciprocating saw will cut them from the vertebrae in one intact piece. I slice the meat out between each rib and put it in the grinder pile. If you want to get more inventive, have at it.
- Paper or Plastic?
Use a vacuum sealer for all of your prime cuts, backstraps, tenderloins, top sirloin, and rounds. Properly vacuum-sealed meat will easily last a year, and the meat will be free of freezer burn. It is also very easy to label and identify the individual cuts. I vacuum seal brats and summer sausage too, and they'll last for a couple years.
For ground meat, burgers, and sausage, wrap individual pounds in plastic wrap and butcher paper. Industrial rolls of Cling Wrap can be purchased at membership wholesale stores and elsewhere. Tear off all the pieces of butcher paper that you will need beforehand. I generally make these about two feet long. With the point of the paper rectangle facing you, lay the plastic-wrapped meat down, make a few wraps, being sure to release any air in the wrapping, then fold the corners in and wrap up to the other point of the square. Seal with masking tape, label it, and enter the date with a permanent marker. Properly done, this will keep your ground meat for at least a year.
Know Your Cuts
Cook as a bone-in roast, or debone for the grinder or chili pot.
Steaks should be smoked and seared to medium-rare.
A little tough, but good for chewier steaks or rolled roasts.
These forelegs fall apart during a long, slow braise.
Ribs & Flank
This trim meat is best when ground for burger.
A tender cut. Perfect for the grill.
Great steaks. Cook hot and fast.
Top & Bottom Round
Extremely versatile as steaks, roasts, jerky, or ground meat.