Whitetail Deer Processing 101: Final meals and food prep precautions

Whitetail Deer Processing 101: Final meals and food prep precautions

Sushimi, Suckling pig, Octopus cooked in its own ink, Flaky fish tacos and chorizo, Bacon wrapped Venison tenderloin, these are the meals that rank top of mind while entertaining the ‘last meal’ thought experiment. Nobody requests their final meal and asked for rancid food, just like nobody goes to their grave thinking, ‘man, I wish I would have eaten more half-assed meals.’ By definition, when you half-ass a meal, task, project, or similar it’s because you either a.) have run out of time; or b.) you’re uninterested/unmotivated by what you’re doing. Assuming there are no artificial deadlines in proper management of deer meat, let’s make sure we give the food we plan on putting in our mouths and bodies, the very best chance of tasting the best it can. The underlying current here safely assumes everyone wants great tasting food. As Steve Rinella points out, “with game, there’s no better way to do this than butchering it yourself.” [MeatEater Cooking special: Butchering a whole deer: season 6, episode 6].

Butchering game yourself starts and ends with attention to detail, being thorough in your execution, and deliberate in your approach. Chief among this diligence with wild-game whitetail is making sure you remove every bit of tallow (fat), down to the size of a pencil lead before you freeze it. Here’s Rinella again, “[Tallow] doesn’t taste good...Never freeze venison with tallow on it, it will turn...even worse in the freezer.”  [MeatEater Cooking special: Butchering a whole deer: season 6, episode 6]. We adhere to these same philosophies and have done so for the better half of three decades now. For us, it was just how we were raised. We hunted as a family, processed animals as a family, and enjoyed meals from those successful hunts as family. We have however, had our whitetail meat processing doctrines challenged both by hunters successful during early seasons (i.e., September) as well as hunters in southern States when and/or where the weather is hot enough to be fighting off mosquitoes while in the field.

These temperatures could range from sixty (60) degrees, into the seventies (70s) and eighties (80s) and even into the nineties (90s). What we tend to hear is ‘it’s too hot out’ and ‘butchering takes too long, the meat will go bad.’ Looking at these in turn let’s discuss the premise that ‘it’s too hot out’ first. Well, the solution is quite simple. You need to cool that meat down without freezing it. There are plenty of ways you can accomplish this. One such way this can be done is by tossing a couple blocks or bags of ice in the bottom of your cooler (rip a chunk of plywood slightly smaller than the size of the cooler to keep the meat dry). There are other solutions as well. Do you have A/C in your house? If so, your house, especially your basement assuming you have one, will presumably already be cooler than the outside temp. Another solution is to purchase an inexpensive fridge and use the fridge to keep the meat +/- 45 degrees after you’ve quartered it and while you process it. To sum it up, think outside the box and inside the icebox/chiller.

Irrespective of temperatures out of doors, there are two additional truisms that are worth discussing in terms of deer processing: Keep your meat dry; and Keep your meat cool. The common thread across both of these principles is meat preservation. You preserve your meals and prohibit the meat from going rancid by prohibiting bacterial growth. There are few things bacteria loves more than water and warmth. Meat, will therefore, go bad more quickly the more heat and the more moisture it’s exposed to. Likewise, meat will go bad less quickly the cooler and dryer it remains. Forty five (45), sixty (60), and ninety (90) day, dry-aged wagyu beef is a great example of this...kept dry and cool and free from harmful bacteria, meat can remain edible for a considerable amount of time. Even at room temperature you have many hours to work with. For a great example of this you need look no further than the slaughterhouse where meat remains at or above ambient temperature for dozens of hours as it’s being processed.

Contrary to Rinella’s advice you could alternatively freeze the whole or quartered animal. Similarly, you could rush the deboning/de-tallowing process and freeze large portions of meat. By kicking the can down the road, this presents several issues later on. Firstly, although venison can be thawed out, then further and correctly processed, and finally refrozen, in practical terms it rarely works out. Here’s why.

If you want to be able to refreeze venison you need to, a.) Thaw the meat in a refrigerator, not at room temperature and certainly not in a microwave; and b.) Refreeze the meat within +\-72 hours (3 days). Therein lies the dilemma. In order to thaw venison in a refrigerator at or around 45 degrees, it can take anywhere between two (2) and seven (7) days. This is especially true the larger the cut of meat is since it thaws from the outside first. The exterior meat becomes fully thawed while the internal meat is still frozen solid. So, if it needs to be refrozen within 3 days, but just thawing the meat, not including finishing the processing that was procrastinated over the first time around, can take 7 days, you’re already over your preservation time limit. Now you’re left with the unfortunate fact that you’ll have to eat all four pounds of that defrosted round. To add insult to injury, any meat that was frozen while still having sinuet on it will probably have a ‘..nasty smell [you’ll] hate’ and ‘rancid [what many people refer to as a gamey]’ taste, says Hank Shaw https://honest-food.net/cooking-deer-fat/

You’re already spending hours target shooting and reading topo maps. You’re already waking up at 4am and getting prepared. You’re already marching a mile into the woods with 20, 30, or 40lbs of gear, an hour or two before first light. You’ve already field-dressed the animal (which helps to cool the meat), spent the time recovering the animal and dragging it back to camp. You’ve already skinned it (which also helps to cool the meat), and quartered it, and iced it down. Now that you’ve done all of this, below you’ll find a breakdown of approximately how much time you have remaining to properly take care of the meat your family will be feasting on.

Spoiler alert: Set aside 4-5 additional hours to do it right:

Preparing the animal, remaining outdoors work involved (Not including tracking, dragging, travel time)

 [Total time on task, 15-27 minutes]

  • Field-dress (gutting a deer) = 5-7 minutes
  • Skinning (removing the hide) = 5-10 minutes
  • ‘Quartering’ (four legs, loins, backstraps, flank, neck, brisket) = 5-10 minutes

Deboning the meat; removing tallow (sinuet), endocrine glands, and tendon & silver skin

 [Total time on task, 3hrs 50 minutes]

  • Heart, tongue, tender loins and backstraps = 20 minutes (0.33)
  • Neck and brisket = 1x 40 minutes (0.66hr)
  • Front legs and shoulders = 2x 35 minutes (1.16hrs)
  • Rear legs, rump, and flank = 2x 50 minutes (1.66hrs)

Grinding +/-20lbs of trimmings and selected cuts

 [Total time on task, 28 minutes]

  • Round one (1) course grind = 8 minutes
  • Round two (2) fine grind = 20 minutes

Package/Vacuum Seal +\-20lbs of Steak, +/-20lbs of ground venison, +/-4lbs of organ. By ‘steak’ we’re referring to several different cuts of meat including, but not limited to, Loin, Backstrap, Round, Sirloin, and front & rear shank.  

 [Total time on task, 32 minutes]

  • Venison Steak = 14 minutes
  • Venison grind = 18 minutes

Here’s the thing, if an additional 5 hours seems daunting consider this. Five (5) hours necessarily assumes only one person is on task with no additional help. If there’s two people involved you should be able to cut that time in half (i.e. 2.5hrs). If there are four people involved, then you should be able to process a whole deer in just over an hour. Here’s another example: Two people, with their noses to the grindstone, working 8hr days should be able to process six (6) deer in less than two days.

Make your 'fourth quarter' that much enjoyable,

Mike (The Coroner) Hiller


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