The Science Behind Aging Wild Game

The Science Behind Aging Wild Game
Print Recipe

Last fall, I hung four elk quarters in a walk-in cooler, shut the door, and walked away. For years I’ve been aging my game meat, letting deer, elk, and antelope hang for a week or so, and giving game birds up to two weeks before processing them for the freezer. But this was the first time I’d had a true, controlled environment to age big-game quarters on the bone, and I was looking forward to an extended test.The cooler was set to maintain a temperature of 34 degrees with little to no fluctuation. I checked in on my meat a few times, feeling the outer rind and giving each quarter the sniff test to ensure this most-valuable trophy of my hunt wasn’t rotting away on the bone. Finally, 21 days later, I had a free day to cut the quarters into steaks and roasts.

To Age or Not

Aging game meat, including deer and other venison, does two things. It breaks down connective tissues via naturally occurring enzymes, resulting in a product that is more tender. It dehydrates the moisture within the muscles, leading to an overall weight loss of up to 30 percent, concentrating that meaty flavor we all love.

The dry cap, which should be removed before cooking, and surface fungus account for a funky, cheese-like odor that is one of the hallmarks of well-aged meat. Whether you like the resulting flavor is personal preference; a little can go a long way. Start your aging experiment with a seven-day hang, adding days from there. I know people who age their deer for 28 days or more, though I believe the 18–21 day period offers the best balance of flavors.

The primary key to dry-aging venison is temperature control. Bacteria thrive between 40 degrees and 140 degrees, leading to rotting meat and food poisoning. To inhibit bacteria growth and encourage enzymes to work, it’s imperative to keep the meat between 34 degrees and 37 degrees. The other important consideration when aging meat is adequate air flow. Here are three ways to age meat at home along with some of their pros and cons.


Open-Air Aging

Hanging a whole, skinned carcass or quarters of an animal in a cool, shady place is probably the most common way to age venison. Obviously, it’s also the cheapest and easiest, although it’s difficult to maintain a constant temperature in that ideal range. Hot weather is a concern during early seasons, and late in the year, freezing is a possibility. Open-air aging also invites insects and scavengers, so take care to keep your meat clean via game bags, cheese cloth, or other deterrents.


In the Fridge

If you have a spare refrigerator (or an understanding spouse), dry-aging venison quarters is a doable option. A refrigerator provides consistent temperature control, and by adding a small fan, it delivers proper air circulation. Hang the meat from the top of the fridge or employ a set of racks to keep the quarters from touching. You want the entire surface of each cut exposed to the air to prevent bacteria growth and moisture buildup. Check the meat every few days and rotate to ensure adequate airflow.

Walk-In Cooler

This dream dry-aging setup is out of reach for most of us. A walk-in cooler, whether commercial or homemade, delivers consistent temperature control and air circulation, providing the best way to dry-age meat for very extended periods. Expensive and bulky, the best walk-in cooler is the one your hunting buddy owns—as long as he lets you borrow it. In some areas of the country, meat locker rental is an alternative.

Tough to Tender to Table

The rind, or dry outer covering, I trimmed away from my 21-day aged elk quarters was thinner than I expected. What I found underneath was meat that was incredibly moist and soft to the touch. The color and tenderness was like that of a calf elk, rather than the big six-point bull I tagged nearly a month before. The true test came on the table, and thick-cut steaks from the sirloin roast were easy on the teeth and pleasurable to the tongue. My experiment was a success, and I’m looking forward to another lab session this season, pushing the hang time to 28 days and beyond.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Hunting Coues Deer South of the Border

Hunting Coues Deer South of the Border

Former Delta Force Operator Kyle Lamb hikes the rugged desert mountains of northern Sonora in pursuit of the diminutive Coues species of whitetail.

Fare Game: Venison Cheeseburger Bites

Fare Game: Venison Cheeseburger Bites

If you're tired of the same old jalapeno and cream cheese poppers, here's a completely different take on the popular party appetizer. Easy to make, and incredibly delicious, these mini cheeseburgers, wrapped in bacon, make the perfect one-bite-fits-all snack for your next tailgate party or hunting camp.

Sighting In the CZ .557 Carbine

Sighting In the CZ .557 Carbine

Kevin Steele sights in his CZ .557 carbine rifle that he plans to use on a Colorado elk hunt.

Camp Chef at SHOT Show: Elk Venison Slider Burgers Recipe

Camp Chef at SHOT Show: Elk Venison Slider Burgers Recipe

Have a freezer full of ground elk venison from your fall hunting trips? Never fear, the folks at Camp Chef have a great SHOT Show recipe that is lean and mean, easy to prepare, and a crowd-pleasing favorite!

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Follow these basic steps to prepare your meat, then pair it with one of these delicious marinades. Recipes

8 Best Venison Marinades

Hank Shaw

Follow these basic steps to prepare your meat, then pair it with one of these delicious...

If you're spending time in the outdoors where you might encounter bears, carry one of these guns. Survival

Which Firearm Is Best for Bear Defense?

Larry Case - July 11, 2018

If you're spending time in the outdoors where you might encounter bears, carry one of these...

Check out the new fleet of off-road options for hunters. Wheels Afield

2020 ATV Buyer's Guide

Rick Sosebee - June 23, 2020

Check out the new fleet of off-road options for hunters.

Practice under pressure with these high-intensity drills. How-To

4 Shooting Drills to Make You a Better Hunter

Jeff Johnston

Practice under pressure with these high-intensity drills.

See More Trending Articles

More Recipes

If you don't have a sous vide machine or immersion circulator, you can make this Butter Poached Pheasant Breasts Recipe using a pot of hot water on the stovetop. Recipes

Sous Vide Recipe: Butter Poached Pheasant Breasts

David Draper

If you don't have a sous vide machine or immersion circulator, you can make this Butter...

Are you leaving some of the best parts of your turkey in the woods? Recipes

Don't Waste the Best Meat: Wild Turkey Leg & Thigh BBQ Recipe

Michael Pendley

Are you leaving some of the best parts of your turkey in the woods?

Feel free to experiment with your own, but here are six sweet, spicy and downright scrumptious venison marinade recipes worth trying. Recipes

6 Scrumptious Venison Marinade Recipes

David Draper

Feel free to experiment with your own, but here are six sweet, spicy and downright scrumptious...

This is an adaptation of a wonderful Italian short ribs recipe in a wonderful book, Paul Bertolli's Recipes

Wild Game Recipe: Italian Short Ribs

Hank Shaw

This is an adaptation of a wonderful Italian short ribs recipe in a wonderful book, Paul...

See More Recipes

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save.

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get Digital Access.

All Petersen's Hunting subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now