This year, my buddy Dan and I decided that if we successfully harvested deer, we were going to do all the processing ourselves. Here’s what we learned.
Deer season 2015 was officially over for me on September 3rd. I was fortunate to harvest a deer quickly. I say quickly, but many hours were spent hiking, scouting, and sitting in less-than-ideal conditions (I will write an article on the hunt at a later time).
Any time I can go into the woods and successfully harvest an animal, I feel blessed. There is nothing quite like hunting, and if you have never tried it, give it a chance. Although the hunting aspects of deer season were over, I still had a lot of work to do. This year, my buddy Dan and I decided that if we successfully harvested deer, we were going to do all the processing ourselves.
- Vacuum sealer (if you want lots of cuts)
- Good knives
- Large table (preferably covered in plastic or made of metal)
- Somewhere to hang the deer
- Friends (preferably the “share a beer with deer guts all over you” kind of friends)
- Trash can with heavy-duty bags
- Multiple bins
- Beef fat (amount depends on the percentage you want)
Shortly after I killed my deer, I did some basic cleaning. I removed all the upper and lower cavity organs (from neck to tail). I then cut away any meat contaminated with blood-shot or other materials I didn’t want. I followed this with a basic washing by pouring water through the now-empty chest cavity (there is no way you can get everything in the field; do the best you can). After this, I packed the chest cavity with blocks of ice from my cooler and secured everything with 550 cord. Next, I drove the deer into the nearest gas station, bought more ice, and packed it around the deer. Getting the meat cool quickly is extremely important.
I arrived at Dan’s house, and we secured the deer by hanging it in his garage. From here, we skinned the deer. If you remove the head and portions of the legs, the skinning goes really fast. After skinning, we removed the bits that I missed in the field before removing as much sinew (a piece of tough, fibrous tissue connecting muscle to bone or bone to bone; a tendon; or ligament) as we could. This is a painstakingly slow process, however the more you remove the better the meat will taste down the road. With this portion completed, Dan quartered the deer and placed everything on a large table we had prepared.
Over the next two hours, we removed the meat from the bones, tendons, and ligaments. Aside from the backstraps (best steaks on a deer), I wanted everything turned into ground. We eat a lot of meals that require ground meat, and this would be the most useful for me. Spend the time to get as much meat as you can; you would be surprised at how much meat can be acquired if you aren’t lazy. With the meat separated and the backstraps removed, we began cleaning. We went back over the meat to look for more sinew, and then washed it in some water (just to make sure any hair or grit was removed).
With the meat clean, we cut it into cubes (the size will depend on the grinder you select). Once cubed, we began weighing batches so that we could determine how much beef fat to add. Deer meat is so lean that you actually need to add fat to it so that it can be worked into something like a burger. Before I went to Dan’s, I stopped at a local butcher and bought some beef fat at approximately $1.50/lb.
To process the deer, we needed to grind the meat separately from the fat, then grind the fat, then put them in a bin together. Once together, we hand-mixed them. After they were well mixed, we ground them again (this time with a finer bit) and filled one-pound bags. We removed as much air as possible, marked the bags (one-pound, deer, and harvest date), and sealed the top. We repeated this process until all the meat was processed.
The only thing that we did differently was the backstraps. For quality steaks, we needed to allow them to cure (age in a refrigerated environment), for three to four days. After they cured, we wrapped them in plastic wrap, wrapped them in butcher paper, and froze them for future use. Perhaps you don’t eat as much ground meat as me, in which case you could take more time to cut away the sections that you want to preserve. A great resource for processing game is the cookbook called “Wild Gourmet, Recipes for Everyday Chefs.” This book even has large, fold-out posters with cuts labeled to make processing easier.
Every year it seems like hunting gets more expensive. Gear, licenses, tags, butcher, timber access, all of it makes getting a deer costly. If you can reduce costs, and ensure your deer is processed to your specifications, it is a win-win in my opinion. Also, I cannot overstate the importance of getting your friends and family involved in this process. Dan had his daughter (Mckenna) help during this process. I was extremely impressed with her throughout the entire night. Not only did she want to be involved in every aspect, she actually reduced the workload for Dan and me. The earlier you get your kids involved, the less likely they will be “grossed out” by the process.
**Update: Since this was written, Dan got his own deer, and we tried a slightly different method for introducing the fat. On the first grinding, we alternated fat and meat. This helped to speed up the process and made the second grinding a little smoother. I don’t think there is a wrong way to do this, however, the more you know, the more you can try.