Everyone wants to save every dollar they can, no doubt. And at no time in my 44 years has this budget-mindedness been more evident than today, what with the stock market dropping, prices high and jobs at a premium. It’s tough out there in the real world, and the experts say it’s going to get rougher.
We hunters aren’t immune from this economic down-turn, nor the penny-pinching that typically follows on the heels of such financial instability. One of the ways my wife and I are saving money, and something we began years ago, is by processing our own deer from start to finish. Certainly, with 160 pounds of hide-covered venison lying in front of you, the thought of taking your whitetail from the field to the freezer might be a bit intimidating. Believe me, it’s not difficult. A little time consuming, perhaps, but between the money you’ll save and the knowledge that it’s your high-quality venison in the oven, it’s definitely worth the effort.
What You’ll Need
I’m a firm believer in the KISS principle—keep it simple, stupid. And this applies to my home butchering, both in equipment and methodology. My gear list for an afternoon of processing is short:
1. Quality knives: heavy, medium, and fillet style blades
2. Firestone double-wheel knife sharpener
3. Meat saw, or fine-tooth wood saw cleaned with bleach-water
4. Vacuum packer and bags or butcher paper and plastic wrap
5. Indelible marker, Sharpie brand
6. Paper towels
7. Garbage bags
8. Stainless steel bowls for finished product
9. Good, stable work station
Your personal list of equipment may differ slightly. However, the above items are a great place to start and won’t set you back hundreds of dollars, just in case you don’t have some of them already at the house.
The How To
Good venison begins in the field. That translates into a quick kill, efficient field-dressing, hanging, skinning, trimming, and cooling. Sounds like quite a bit, but the steps really aren’t involved.
Let’s assume your whitetail is down, field dressed, and hanging in the garage. I prefer to hang my deer head down. They’re easier to skin as such, and any blood or fluids that drain do so into the head, not the prime eating hindquarters. Too, I skin my animals as quickly as possible for several reasons. One, it allows the meat to cool more efficiently. Two, a hide-less deer can be trimmed before blood-shot meat starts to spoil, and before the fat begins to harden. Unless you’re a magician, there will be stray hairs on the carcass. Picking them off one-by-one is fine, but your trusty Shop-Vac makes quick work of these.
Before I address my process, a word on aging your venison. Older whitetails, we’ll hang, hide-off, for three to five days, if the temperature in the garage stays between 32 and 40 degrees. If the weather is warm, or if we hang a younger deer, processing typically begins almost immediately. What follows are my steps in the self-processing program. If you’re a veteran, yours may vary; if not, these steps should make the process both painless and efficient.
1. Using a fillet knife, remove the backstraps from either side of the spine. Trim all fat, tendon, and silver connective tissue. These I cut into ¾- to 1-inch thick fillets or butterfly chops. Don’t forget the smaller tenderloins located inside the body cavity opposite the backstraps.
2. The front shoulders, shanks, and all trimmings, including from between the ribs, I cut into cubes. These go into a five-gallon bucket lined with a heavy garbage sack, and are ground into burger. Once this is finished, I take a meat saw and cut through the spine just ahead of the hips. This leaves just the hindquarters to tend to.
3. Again using my meat saw, I cut through the pelvis. Switching to a heavy-spined knife, I cut through the knee joint. This meat goes into the burger bucket. The hindquarter proper is separated by muscle groups into roasts, with some of these being further sliced into steaks. Two notes here. One, as I’m not a professional butcher, my steaks and roasts are visually different each and every time I process the hindquarters. The bottom line, at least to me, is taste. And second, it’s easier to completely bone-out the hindquarter before you begin the process of creating steaks and roasts.
4. Finally, packaging. We prepare steaks and roasts for the freezer via a commercial grade vacuum packer. Yes, there was the upfront cost ($200), but the savings in wild game and fish we don’t lose to freezer burn have more than made up for the one-time expenditure. Burger in one-pound blocks is first placed in quality quart-size freezer bags, and then wrapped in butcher (freezer) paper marked with the date and the hunter’s name.
After years of “I wish we had,” my wife and I finally broke down and invested in a one-horsepower, commercial-grade meat grinder. Ours is from Cabela’s (www.cabelas.com), and yes, at $349, it wasn’t inexpensive. However, with some processors coast-to-coast advertising $70-plus minimums on their work, it won’t take long to recoup the cost. In fact, by the time you’re reading this, the unit will have already paid for itself, and started saving us money.
This particular model (#22) includes a sausage kit, and is rated at nine to 12 pounds per minute, which we’ve found is plenty quick for us. The machine is easy to operate, and ridiculously simple to clean once everything’s done. Smaller models (1/2- and ¾-horsepower) are also available for those really looking to pinch pennies.