Column: Venison care
Published 4:08 am Thursday, October 7, 2004
With the archery deer season now under way many of you will soon be finding yourself standing over a fresh deer carcass. What now? The average hunter guts it out, drags it to the truck and heads to town for some bragging. Some hours and beers later he heads home and crawls off to bed. A few days later the carcass is hauled off to a processor. The meat from a deer handled this way is going to be some pretty sorry eating. No wonder his family doesn't like venison.
Rule number one in handling any meat is to cool it down as fast as possible. After gutting and dragging to the vehicle, prop the stomach cavity open with a stick, allowing air to circulate and begin the cooling process. Deer hair is a great insulator so you've got to get that hide off as quickly as possible. Book it straight for home. Ideally, the deer should be hung up in some fashion for skinning. Some like to hang it from the neck head up, others from the hind legs head down.
It's amazing how easily the skin comes off when the carcass is still warm. It can be mostly just pulled off with very little knife work. It pays in the long run to make every effort to keep hair from getting on the meat. You can skin a deer in just a few minutes, but if done sloppily, you'll spend the next two hours picking hairs from the meat. Always start at the top, whether it be hung by neck or hind legs. That leaves no exposed meat down below for hair to drop on to. When starting a cut, insert the tip of the knife under the skin and make the cut from the inside out. This way, very few hairs are cut. If you just start hacking away from the outside a jillion hairs are cut off and they have an amazing ability to linger around and jump onto exposed meat at every opportunity. Take your time and carefully work the hide down inside out like a sock. Finish up by trimming off soiled areas and picking all stray hairs from the meat while it is still moist. DON'T WASH OUT THE INSIDE OF THE CARCASS. Water promotes spoilage.
Now comes the timeless question, to age or not to age. I've experimented with this to some length and found that extreme aging, a month or more, does provide more tender meat. However, there are so many down sides to letting a carcass hang that it's not worth it. Aging must be done under controlled conditions, meaning a constant temperature of 36 to 38 degrees and low humidity. That requires a walk-in cooler which most of us lack.
The biggest problem with aging, though, is loss of meat. A beef carcass is completely encased in a layer of fat which prevents the meat from drying out while aging. Deer have relatively little external fat and the exposed meat begins drying the moment the skin is removed. The longer it hangs the deeper the drying goes. Just a few days of aging does nothing, it takes many weeks for noticeable tenderizing. By the time it hangs this long the entire carcass has formed a thick, dry skin. This can't be re-hydrated so it all must be trimmed off. On a typical yearling deer you may lose a third or more of the meat.
I let the carcass hang with stomach cavity propped open just long enough to cool all the way through. Then I butcher it. I butcher my own deer and bone out all the meat rather than sawing it. Venison bone marrow and fat don't freeze well and depart a gamy taste after just a few months in the freezer.
One final tip, don't cut the meat all the way into steaks and chops. Leave the large pieces in roast form of suitable size for one family meal. That way you always have cooking options. After thawing it can be cut into steaks, left whole for roasting, corning and smoking or cubed for stew. Carpe diem.