by Craig Fields
Like you, I have read countless articles on how to insure that my gorgeous trophy travels from its normal habitat to my table with the majesty of its life duplicated in terms of masterful cuisine. Most were informative, some were contradictory, and some were ludicrous. Many led me to believe that the author did not as a general rule dine on home-shot venison with any degree of regularity. Above all, most of these articles included steps which the average hunter is simply unable to undertake.
Chief among such objections is the concept of hanging deer in order to age the venison. Folks, I've tried it all. The method you are about to learn is based on two global considerations: a hunter should be able to easily reduce his deer to manageable and toothsome venison meals, and that venison should be easily made to taste delectable to each individual palate. As such, this method is flexible according to YOUR goals, and eliminates tedious steps of questionable worth while replacing tedious steps of genuine worth with easy solutions.
Note: if you already know how to skin, quarter, and butcher a deer, but have not obtained truly succulent meals through your efforts, do not stop reading just because I'm giving info that you already have mastered. I'll eventually get to the secrets that insure gourmet quality on the table.
A. If you don't have a deep freeze:
B. If you have a deep freeze:
First you must field-dress it as soon as possible. I haven't seen a checked deer that wasn't field-dressed in several years, so I am assuming agreement on this. Now, many different opinions exist as to what to do with the field-dressed cavity. In this method, it doesn't matter. Wash it out, use prehistoric leaves, swab with paper towels, prop with sticks, who cares. Just make sure that carcass cools quickly. Don't lash it over a hot engine. BTW, I actually saw two does lashed to the hood of a Ford Explorer on I-81 this year. The dude's cargo area was clear: he had done this only to show off his two little does. He'll pay for his transgression: that meat will be unedible. Anyway, I happen to just get rid of the guts and then sort of tamp the spread cavity on the ground to sop the excess blood. Sure, dirt gets in the cavity, but read on: this method is designed to be easy. Oh, I always save the heart in a sandwich bag, and I hate liver. That's up to you.
So. Drag it out, check it in, get home quick. If that is impossible, hang the carcass with hide on, spread the ribs with a stick, and wait until you can get home. If in doing that, daytime temps exceed 45 degrees, you are in trouble, probably hunting in the expansive open spaces of South Florida during bow season in early July and have hiked in 47 miles, so this method isn't for you. I believe that most deer are killed during the season by hunters who can get home in 24 hours, and those are the only deer I am concerning us with. Ok. The deer is checked, you arrive home, now what?
Hang the deer up by the head to where the lowest point is a foot or two off of the ground. Then skin it. This isn't a tan-the-hide or cape-the-trophy file. If you want to do that, fine. I'm just gonna tell you how to get good meals from the carcass. So get rid of the hide, and cut the feet off at the kneebone.
Now we get into the meat of this file. Yea, I know, a poor pun, but who cares? Anyway, here's what you do.
Important note: veterans will, when reading the following, be asking themselves, "what about silverskin and fat?". Patience, people. That's going to be easy as well.
Now, you have several usuable portions: two front leg quarters, two hind leg quarters, one neck, two identical backstraps, two small inside tenders, and two sets of ribs, with flank meat. Now what? If you want to get the utmost use of your deer, use your hacksaw to cut up the backbone and toss it in the huge soup pot, getting it started on a very slow boil. I confess that I don't do that with every deer; usually only one per family per season, and simply discard the backbone (and for that matter, every major bone, as we've only just started).
This should be transfered whole to the freezer. If small enough, put it in a gallon freezer Ziplock bag, and regardless, wrap the whole in freezer paper and label it as "NECK ROAST". A neck roast is perfectly suited for the crockpot. Cut it in half if required to fit in your crockpot. Remember that a neck roast has rut-induced fat strips which are inedible. Simply cut them away before serving; the fat does not render and therefore does not affect the taste of the meat. Follow crockpot directions.
Freeze whole under the heading of "INSIDE TENDERS". Wrap first in plastic wrap and follow with a butcher's wrap of freezer paper. The butcher's wrap consists of bringing the two ends of a piece of freezer paper together and then rolling them down to the level of the meat. The ends are then tucked underneath and taped. YOU MUST USE THIS METHOD OF FREEZER WRAPPING! This is so important I'll describe it differently. Tear off a sheet of freezer paper. Glossy side up, place it on the counter. Put a hunk of meat in the center. Lift both far ends of the freezer paper to form a sort of triangular tent above the meat. Using both edges placed together, roll the paper downwards until you contact the meat. Move hands to the outside edges, and fold paper under hunk of meat. Turn entire package over, tape loose ends down, label other side. Note on plastic wrap: any or all of your packages of meat may first be wrapped in plastic (Saran-type) wrap, then put in butcher's wrap via freezer paper. I have found that if you master the butcher's wrap, the plastic wrap layer is unnecessary. BUT: if you allow air into your butcher's wraps, you run the risk of freezer burn, a fate horrible to contemplate. I recommend that beginners invest in Saran wrap for the cheap insurance it provides.
Pay no attention to the butchering diagrams you see in various magazines! These usually have the backstrap given as "chops"! A true travesty to the one cut of the deer most amenable to haute cuisine. They also have the front quarter given as across-the-bone beef-like processing. Nothing could be more useless to the average deer hunter. Like, we all own bone saws. How to do it right: Lay the quarter on its flat side. Pressing with a thumb at the highest point will reveal a ridge of bone that runs across the entire shoulder. Use your knife to fillet off two pieces of meat: the wide, resting on the shoulder blade piece, and the thick, hanging "behind" the blade ridge piece which is called by various names. Use the plastic/butcher wrap (hereafter refered to as the PBW) to create two packages: the blade roast is marked "BLADE ROAST" and the underblade is marked "UNDERBLADE". Strip the rest of the meat from the "elbow" on down and toss it aside. Note: flank meat from the ribs should also be yanked off and tossed on this pile, which is going to grow profusely. Bones: boil 'em for stock, toss to dogs, or throw away.
These are the Holy Grail of fine venison. You have two long strips. Too long strips, that is. Cut both into still-long strips which are short enough to fit on a width of freezer paper. I generally try to make 1 1/2 pound strips. Doesn't really matter, but since these will be your best meals, making them too big invites leftovers which may be wasted-- a darn shame. Use a P/BW and label these "BACKSTRAPS".
Because they are so bulky in terms of number of meals provided, most wilderness hunts will cook these in camp so they don't have to be packed out. But we are speaking of a whole deer taken straight home. Now another problem exists: These ribs, being largish and curved, don't wrap easily and require lots of precious freezer space. You aren't going to use them immediately, because who wants to go through the hassle of fixing ribs when all these lovely tenderloins and steaks from your recent exaltation are right in front of you? Do this instead. As mentioned above, the flank meat should have been removed and set aside. What is flank meat? Any ribmeat which rests on top of the accordion of bones rather than in between them. It can be, for the most part, pulled off by hand. Now. Use your sawblade to make smaller racks of ribs than what you have. Do not cut lengthwise between the ribs: cut across each invividual rib to make mini-racks. The ribs cut easily. I tend to take the first rack from where the ribs just start to curl: this gives me a mini-rack of very straight ribs, usually seven to ten inches in individual length (Virginia deer). This "straight rack" can be rolled in on itself and wrapped like a log, using very little freezer space. The "bottom" ribs are a little more difficult. It is sometimes best to square them off at the base to get a wrapable shape, the meat thus trimmed being tossed onto your pile of shanks and flanks. Good-lookin' bottom ribs are kept as ribs, and an additional sawing halfway down makes two more mini-racks. Each set of ribs yields either two or three mini-racks, the first always being the flat, rollable one. It depends on the size and after-shot condition of the ribcage. P/BW the racks. The bigger they are, the harder to wrap effectively. Do your best. Fortunately, using the after-freezer care methods contained in this file, ribs are the least damaged of all packages by freezer burn, so wrap them good but don't get anal about it. Mark the packages "RIBS".
Saved for last because here is where opinions differ most greatly. And a good time for my disclaimer: THIS METHOD IS ONE I WISHED I WOULD HAVE DEVELOPED A DOZEN OR TWO DEER AGO, AS IT WOULD HAVE SAVED ME TIME AND MONEY AND MANY ABORTIVE KITCHEN EXPERIENCES. IT WORKS FOR
Ok. Contentious point number one. There will be no packages marked "STEAK" in this method. You can get steaks for the grill from this method, but that decision is made after the packages come out of the freezer, not before. In the past, all my cross-grain steak packages ended up one of two ways: either they were too small to be considered true steaks, or they required cutting across so many muscle groups that the "steak" separated before it made it to the table-- resulting in a collection of meat pieces, cooked just right in a few places and badly in others. Now, you can take a band saw, and using a chilled hindquarter, just rip across it like making centercut pork steaks, and that's fine. Except that I don't have a band saw, and deer intermuscular tissue does not have the holding power of pork or beef. So try it this way:
Lay the hindquarter on its flattest side. Cut away the muscle that would be farthest from the deer's nose if it was alive. This is to be called the "RUMP ROAST" and it is Holy. One per hindquarter. Now, using your fingers to pull apart muscle groups, and your eyes to note where silver lines between muscle groups exist, and your knife to facilitate separation (never should your knife penetrate actual flesh-- you're running off-line if it does-- back up) separate all the muscle groups above the shank to form a number of differently-shaped roasts. You'll have to cut actual flesh around the legbone in the center-- again, the bone goes in the soup pot or the scraps are removed and set into your pile and the bone discarded. Now, I usually take the two smallest roasts and cut them across the grain into chunks, tossing any resultant chunk that has a fair amount of white tissue into the set-aside pile. The "clean" chunks are packaged in one-pound P/BW's and are labeled "SIRLOIN TIPS". The larger roasts are wrapped whole and labeled "CHUCK ROASTS".
Here is where you decide that utilizing bones for soup stock isn't worth the trouble, and you throw all of that away. Or a pang of consciousness overtakes you, and you skim the surface of your stock, pour it into Tupperware containers, seal and label as "VENISON STOCK". Then you look around at the incredible mess in your kitchen. Everything is packaged except for your put-aside pile of scraps and such.
NOTE WELL: As you have made your packages, you should have put them in the bottom of your refrigerator, then transfered them a few at a time to your freezer as you went along. Things put into the freezer should be stacked log-cabin style, with airspace in between. You want these things to freeze fast and completely.
Three possible methods:
A. Meat Grinder
B. No Meat Grinder
C. Wimpo Method
If you've stuck with me, congratulations, as now we get to the payoff. Now we find out why this method is better than all others, regardless of how the butchering superficially resembled any other methods.
The innovation is in aging technique. Have you ever seen a deer that has been "properly" hung for two-three weeks? The trim loss alone is sickening, not to mention the white fungus and the green flesh. And if you let a commercial packer do it, how do you know that's really your deer? If you did it at home, how do you know that last Tuesday's warm sun didn't explode the bacterial cultures into the danger zone? And who wants the hassle, anyway? And will the "aging" impart the meat with YOUR palate's requirements of the taste of venison?
This method utilizes a controlled, utterly safe, non-wasteful, and individually cofigurable tenderness and taste in aged venison. And it is easy enough to seem ridiculous-- until you try my Dutch Oven Tenderloin Feast.
Any package now in the freezer can be taken out, thawed as you would a chicken, and (assuming a young deer and a desirable cut) be used forthwith by a competent venison cook and no one's the wiser. But we're not all chefs, and some of us demand the best this deer can give us.
So. Anywhere from three days to a week and a half before you make a venison meal, take a package from the freezer. Place it on a plate lined with a paper towel and set it in the bottom of the refridgerator. It will thaw, bleed out, and age on a consistent basis, becoming more tender and more flavorful all the while. NEVER UTILIZE THE MEAT BEFORE THE PAPER TOWEL BECOMES BLOOD-SOAKED! Leeching blood is your sign that the cellular walls are being broken down.
Now, time of aging depends upon cut of meat, age of deer, and individual preference. I've done this for so long that I've even gotten to the point where I prefer different agings for different cuts-- as a gross example, I like backstraps only minimally aged and shish-ke-bob sirloin tips to be at their maximum.
How do you know? You experiment. A good rule of thumb: add one day for every deer age year above 1 1/2 for each particular cut. Thus, a spike buck at 1 1/2 years of age will require one less day of aging than meat from a 2 1/2 year old doe, all other things (cut selected, field-dressed condition, etc) being equal.
You may be absolutely certain that all but the oldest deer can be aged in this manner for exactly one week and provide toothsome excellence.
Not only that, but removal of silverskin and fat (I TOLD you I'd get to that sooner or later) is laughably easy once a cut has been 'fridge aged. The fillet-skin strip of silverskin on the underside of a backstrap can be pulled off using even the dullest knife. Simply pretend you are filleting a fish, using much more fingerpull on the silverskin than fillet action with the knife.
A note on knowing when the meat is perfect for use: I tell by simply lifting the still-wrapped package, on its plate with the bloody paper towel, to my nose and sniffing. I have come to notice a "clean, meaty, fresh, musty" smell when the cut is perfect for my taste. I like very little "gaminess" in my venison. It usually is reminiscent of prime rib in its succulence and mildness. Regardless, take to sniffing your cuts until you as well recognize a point in the aging process which exactly corresponds to your personal palate of how venison should taste. Remember that these values will be different for each cut of venison, but this method lends itself to only five specific cuts which will be other than cooked to their maximum: the blade roasts from the front quarter, the backstraps and inside tenders, the chuck roasts from the hindquarters, the rump roast and the sirloin tips, also from the hindquarters. The neck will be crock-potted or thoroughly roasted, and the ribs will be steamed and/or barbequed beyond recognition. Burger/sausage does not have to be aged.
Steakin' It Out: use only backstraps or chuck roasts for steaks. Once you have aged it to your satisfaction, always cut across the grain and butter- fly if the cut isn't thick enough to get good-sized steaks. For the deerless: butterflying is the process of cutting a double thickness, then cutting that piece most of the way through the midpoint of its thickness, folding the two "wings" outward while leaving those wings connected in the middle in order to have a larger piece of meat. These steaks are superior in any event, as the do not cross muscle groups, so separation of parts or different cooking times of parts is not a factor.