By Aaron Farley
When I started hunting, there was a ton I did not know. As much as I wanted to take on and master every aspect of the process at once, I simply could not. The only logical thing to do was seek lots of help and learn as much along the way as possible. Some of the hunting lifestyle I was adopting came naturally, while other things intimidated the heck out of me. One big area of intimidation was butchering deer.
I am an excellent cook, as long as it’s bacon, eggs, or grilling. Everything else in the kitchen scares me a little. I’ve wasted too much money on dishes that came out tasting like a garlic sprinkled ash-tray not to have a healthy respect for food and cooking. The initial idea of skinning, deboning, and butchering an entire deer was no light thing for me. So, for a while I paid a local processor to prepare all the deer I killed, aware each time I would drop off and pick up that I wanted to learn this craft for myself. My goal from the start was to learn every step of the process from the hunt to the table, and processing the deer was the only thing I had not done.
After a couple years of gaining my sea legs in the woods, I decided to tackle the task of butchering my deer myself. To prepare, I read a bunch of articles, ordered a very helpful book from Eric Fromm & Al Cambronne called “Gut It, Cut It, Cook It”, and convinced a friend to help me through my first attempt as a home-processor. Deer season finally opened that year and thanks to a large early season doe, I finally had a chance.
Dragging the heavy deer through the woods, I remember thinking about the fulfillment that would come from eating her. Taking an animal from the woods, and preparing it for the freezer, and ultimately eating it was no small accomplishment. I had spent a few years preparing for this, and it felt good. I knew this meat was sure to have a sweetness to the tongue that previous venison did not.
Without getting into too many details about venison scraps or the amount of time that first butchering job took, let me just say that it was not as smooth as my optimistic expectations. We spent ½ a day “learning” what we were doing and probably wasted more meat than I would like to admit. However, it was done. Having learned many tricks and shortcuts for next time, I was ready for another. As the season went on, and 3 more deer came across our butcher paper wrapped kitchen table, the process became much faster and more productive. I still use the local deer processor when time constraints demand it, or to get some special cuts/sausages, but we primarily do our own now. Looking back at my decision to start processing my own deer, I realize these benefits I would have missed…
It Helps Us Cook
When I began to see where the muscles came from, I noticed some connections between stronger tasting meat, tougher meat, and cuts with more sinew. Now, there are certain muscle groups that I always prepare for roasts, and some I will opt to cut as steaks if size and fat are appropriate. Pockets of fat have a way of affecting taste and knowing where those are in the hind quarters helps. Understanding how the deer used the muscle also helps me to see why some meats are more dense and require slower cooking.
We Save Money
Our deer processor charges $65 per deer before special cuts or sausages. I love summer and breakfast sausage, so the bill was often $80 per deer. Since we are a family that eats from the animals I hunt each year, and since our state has a liberal tag limit, it is not uncommon to put up 4-6 deer in a season. With a savings of $260-480, a guy could buy a nice grinder and knives to process his own, and then do the next several years at no expense.
The Increased Yield
I have noticed when picking up deer from the processor that there seems to be less meat than when I do it myself. With dozens of deer to process in a day, and the choreographed production of sorts going at the deer processor, I don’t expect they would get as much as my slow methodical knife. As a rough estimate based on a non-scientific comparison between boxes of the home wrapped meat with the meat from the processor, I would say I retain 10-15% more meat by processing at home. This may not be true in every situation, but I would guess it’s typical of the average.
A Connection to the process
A satisfaction comes from taking fresh meat from an animal that I’ve harvested, and placing it on a searing hot grill. Knowing that no farmer, factory, slaughterhouse worker, stockboy, or clerk has touched that meal is more than rewarding. Sometimes I catch myself smiling as I look down at a tenderloin searing over hot coals, remembering the day I brought it home.
This may sound weird, but my family loves it when we process the deer. My sons are still a little young to hunt with me, but butchering has been a great way to let them share in the experience. They love to stuff the grinder, under careful supervision, and help me write on the butcher paper. My wife feels like a customer at the butcher shop deciding which cuts and servings she wants from each deer. It’s a family affair around the processing table, and we all enjoy it.
Home processing your harvest is not for everyone, and local deer processors provide a valuable resource to hunters. But if you haven’t tried to process your own, let me encourage you to not be intimidated and just try. It may not be pretty at first, but it will be worth it.
– Aaron Farley, RusticMan.com