By Aaron Farley:
First and foremost, hunting is about meat. We hunt to eat what we kill.
There is an aspect of sport involved. I’m not denying the excitement and exhilaration of holding an impressive whitetail rack in your hands. But for me, hunting is about the meat first.
If I kill the biggest buck of my life this year, and only that one buck, I will look back on this as a bad season. For the last couple years I’ve been hunting to provide food for my family. We eat deer almost all year. I usually kill enough deer to feed us well into the summer. We have large freezers, and put up a lot of venison every year.
This meat costs me a lot. Last year while sitting in a tree stand dreaming about grilled backstraps, I ran some rough numbers in my head about the expense. I stopped when the price per pound got to $5.
*Note: At the time, equipment was a significant cost and would depreciate over the years, but you get the idea.
Not only is the meat I gain through hunting an investment, it’s also valuable in quality. You’d be hard pressed to go to your local grocery store and find higher quality meat than what I cut from the back of a whitetail deer. Free range, organic, all natural, fresh venison is worth the effort and costs involved. I do not want to waste any of it.
Since I’m hunting primarily for meat, it was only natural for me to start processing it myself. You can read more about that journey here.
We’ve tried several different setups to help us process our own deer. We needed something that was clean, safe, and quick. My wife and kids help with our home-butchering, so we needed a good spread. After some tweaking and improvising, we’ve landed on a simple setup that allows us to process deer at home in a breeze. Here are the 3 basic things that make for simple home processing…
1 – A Table Top
Right now we are using a piece of Lexan plastic I got as a scrap from a local manufacturing facility, as our table top. It is anti-microbial and doesn’t hold bacteria. It washes clean and we keep it stored in the corner of our garage until it’s time to process. The plastic basically serves as a huge cutting board and protects our knife blades as well as the table underneath.
Before I found the plastic, we used butcher paper (or freezer paper) to cover the table top. The paper worked well, but was delicate. If using the paper method, it’s important to get it taped tightly underneath to prevent sliding and pulling. Also, when using paper, we had to be careful with our knifes to keep from cutting into the wooden table.
Having the portable top (paper or plastic) allows us to set up on our kitchen table. We have plenty of room to spread everything out, and we can work indoors away from bugs and weather. Since this is our family table, we take extra care to keep things sanitized before and after the processing.
2 – Good Knives
If you are ever tempted to buy one of those butchering knife sets at your local big-box store for $29.99, don’t!
Knives are one area where it’s worth spending the extra money. I wasted lots of time sharpening cheap steel. A good quality blade will stay sharp much longer, and is well worth the added cost.
I bought a couple high quality German steel knives and have never regretted it. I use one expensive deboning knife for 90% of my home processing. With my German knife, I also use a cheap filet knife for when I need the fine tip, and a large butcher’s knife for wide cuts. Add to that quality knife a ceramic honing stone and you’ll feel like a Samurai slicing through those deer quarters.
In my book, it’s better to have one very nice knife that will last a lifetime, than a whole set that won’t hold an edge. Start by buying a good boning knife first. Later you can add cook, butcher, and cleaver knives as money permits.
3 – A Grinder
There are some equipment costs that come with home processing. I can get by without a cuber, slicer, stuffer, or dryer. I’ve found ways to serve all those purposes cheaply with what we already had. What I cannot do without in my home processing is a good meat grinder.
A quality grinder, with several screen options and plenty of power will serve you well for years. One of my hunting buddies is still using an electric grinder his uncle purchased decades ago. There are some great hand-crank options available for less initial investment as well.
The trick to making an electric grinder last a long time is feeding manageable chunks into the press. By chopping grinder meat into stew-meat sized chunks before grinding, the motor doesn’t have to work as hard. That’s the secret of long grinder life, not over taxing the motor. It takes a couple extra minutes of cutting, but it’s well worth it.
Sure, some grinders are junk – electric or manual. I recommend buying the best grinder you can reasonably afford. You’re going to use this grinder to make hamburgers and sausages for years to come. I’ve sent thousands of dollars’ worth of meat through our grinder. It’s worth considering a quality one.
Good recipes and ideas can turn your grinder into your favorite piece of equipment. Bacon in your grind for burgers, pork fat and spices in there for sausages, or peppers and onions in with your venison to make breakfast meat can make you fall in love with that little appliance.
We have a few gallon Mayfield ice cream tubs left over from one of our kid’s birthday parties that we use to separate meat while butchering. We use these for 3 categories during cutting, a “stew” “grind” and “scrap” container. These containers get stored with our grinder and only used for processing. They are marked with the word “Meat” at the bottom so we don’t accidentally use them for something else.
Another container I’ve come to appreciate is a small Rubbermaid container that holds almost exactly 1 lb of ground venison. We grind into this smaller container to help us keep our portions consistent when packing the ground meat for the freezer. We can wrap the 1 pound individually, or combine 2-3 containers worth for larger portions. It is a simple addition that has been very handy. This container is the right size to dump back into the grinder when full. This keeps from overflowing and helps when we want to run a second grind with other ingredients.
Eventually, I plan to purchase some restaurant-grade stainless steel containers for these purposes. For now, our Mayfield tubs are working nicely. You probably have something laying around right now that you could use, or maybe this is just the excuse you needed to go buy 3 gallons of ice cream.
Well, those are our 3 basic items to process deer at home. Obviously you’ll need paper, tape, a marker, and the expendables as well.
For less than what I would spend in a year at the deer cooler, I was able to outfit my house for home-butchering. We saved way more money in the long run, and get lots of enjoyment out of butchering our own deer.
Are you thinking about processing your own deer this year? It’s that simple. Those three little things are all you need. Start with paper on the table, one good knife, and a hand-crank grinder and you’re well on your way. If you want, you can step it up to a hard top, a couple more quality knives, and an electric grinder later and you’ll be set for years to come.
– Aaron Farley, Rusticman.com