I’m fortunate now to have a son who works as a butcher at Meijer, so processing a deer takes a lot less time, but there are still steps to take that can make for better-tasting venison.
I’ve cut up my fair share of animals in my life. I’d hate to guess how many. It’s easy once you get the hang of it. Regardless of the animal, its skeletal structure is the same: a deer, an antelope, or a moose. How you handle the meat is the key to having great-tasting venison.
You have to take the opportunity when it presents itself. Still, if you can shoot an animal that is relaxed, walking, or standing, it will provide more tender and less strong-tasting meat than an animal running with raging adrenaline coursing through its body. Making a good, clean shot is the first step towards good-tasting venison.
We all want to shoot a big buck, but eating a doe provides better-tasting meat if you’re looking for the best venison. The meat from a buck in the rut has been chasing does all night or has been spooked by hunters, and running is going to be stronger and tougher than a yearling doe. The buck will provide more meat and is still good, but a fat doe is the ultimate for table fare.
Hunters shouldn’t have any qualms about shooting a doe. Michigan has an abundance of deer, and taking does in most areas will only help the population.
Take care to gut the animal as soon as possible. Remove the internal organs and get as much blood from the body cavity as possible. I like to rinse the body cavity out with cold water. Some advocate against that, but getting blood or body fluids off the meat is vital for better-tasting meat.
One tip for excellent venison is to age the meat, but conditions often don’t allow it. Last year, I took advantage of the private land early doe season. I want a deer or two in the freezer to process and enjoy before the gun season starts. The farm we had permission to hunt had plenty of deer, so I wasn’t afraid of hurting the population.
I shot two does that weekend, but the daytime temperatures were in the 70s, and it was only getting down to 50 at night, which isn’t cool enough for proper aging. I had to process the deer immediately, which isn’t ideal, but it’s better than losing the meat.
When you initially kill a deer, the animal undergoes a period of rigor mortis when the body becomes rigid and muscles tighten. If possible, hang the deer for at least 24 hours to allow the muscles to relax. Before you hang a deer, be sure to remove the hanging tenderloins on the inside of the deer. These are the choicest cuts of meat on a deer. It was a tradition at deer camp to have hanging loins sautéed with mushrooms and onions for dinner on opening day. The hanging tenderloins dry out quickly, so remove them as soon as possible.
Letting meat age breaks down the connective tissues naturally through enzymes already in the meat, increasing tenderness and dehydrating some moisture while 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 need to decide: butcher 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. It is best for those new to it 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 widely used by hunters to age their meat. It is also the most cost-effective and most straightforward way. Basically, just hang the carcass in a cool, dry place where the temperature is relatively consistent. Depending on your preference, you can leave the hide on or skin the deer. Leaving the skin on protects the meat from insects and dirt. If you skin or quarter the animal, it can be placed in cheesecloth or game bags to eliminate bugs and scavengers.
The only drawback of open-air aging is temperature control and exposure. Too high or too low of a temperature can be a problem. Even if you can only age the animal for a week, it’s better than not aging it. If temperatures are predicted to be extreme, butcher the deer. Some venison is better than no venison.
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, quarter them in the field, and get them in a cooler on dry ice. If extreme temperatures exist, you might want to consider the same with your deer.
Properly aged venison will look a little different than meat you immediately butcher. The aged venison will have a crust that must be removed. Cut about a ¼ inch of the meat off to reveal the prime venison under it.
When processing deer, you can easily remove the muscle groups like a puzzle with little cutting. My son, Matt, likes venison roasts and the easy route, so he leaves the bundles whole. I like steaks and cut across the bundles to create choice cuts. Take care to remove as much of the silver connective tissue as possible. It takes time, but it eliminates stringy, chewy sinew.
Packaging is an essential 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, double-wrap the meat with plastic wrap and put it in zip-lock bags.
Excellent venison is one of the rewards of deer hunting. With meat prices what they are, it’s also one of the most economical ways to feed your family.