by Dan Schmidt, Deer & Deer Hunting Editor
With chronic wasting disease now east of the Mississippi River, hunters everywhere are worrying about the safety of their venison. Although CWD is troubling, it should not deter you from eating venison from healthy deer. After all, the World Health Organization has officially stated there is no scientific evidence the disease can infect humans. However, the agency says no part of an infected deer or elk should be eaten by people or other animals.
Bad prions, which cause CWD, congregate in nervous tissue and lymph nodes. Therefore, boning out meat – without cutting in the brain or spine – and discarding blood vessels and internal organs is the safest way to process deer.
Any hunter can learn to process deer safely and effectively. Use these 10 tips to improve the flavor of your venison:
1. Play It Safe in the Field
Take extra care while field-dressing your deer. For your safety, always wear rubber gloves, and be careful not to puncture the rumen or intestines. If the stomach contents enter the chest cavity, rinse the cavity with cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Wash all utensils with hot soapy water before and after field-dressing a deer.
2. Take Time to Skin Your Deer Properly
Some hunters remove the skin from the head down, while others prefer to start from the hind legs. Either way works well. The key is to work slowly and methodically. Pulling the hide with your hands prevents extra cuts into the meat and hide.
3. Keep It Clean
After the hide is off, remove as much hair, blood, damaged tissue, gristle and fat as possible. This makes the finished product more enjoyable. Allow skinned carcass to cool. A refrigerated room is ideal, but not necessary. Meat can hang for several days in an unrefrigerated room if the temperature is less than 35 degrees and there are no drastic temperature fluctuations. In warm weather, process the deer immediately and cool quartered sections in a refrigerator before final processing.
4. Keep a Sharp Edge
Butchering a deer requires a stiff, sharp boning knife. Keep it sharp throughout the process with frequent sharpening. Another knife, perhaps your normal hunting knife, serves for cutting through tough connective tissue, especially leg joints. Do not use your knife to pry, pound or twist through bones. One slip, and you can severely injure yourself. Instead, work slow and use your hands –not your knife – to pry meat away from bone joints.
Removing the two loin straps (or “back straps”) is similar to filleting a fish. Cut down the center of the back using the tip of your knife to follow each bone of the spine. Be careful to not cut into the spinal cavity. Instead, use the tip of the knife to work the loin free on both sides. Next, grab the head of the loin with one hand and pull it free from the bones while using the knife to work it free form the rib cage. Loin straps can be cut into 1-inch-thick steaks for grilling or frying.
6. Don’t Be Wasteful
Bone out the front shoulders and set the meat aside. The tendons and connective tissues of shoulder meat is perfect for ground venison or sausage meat. Meat from the neck, ribs and lower hindquarters is also good for these applications. It is very important to remove the tough, silvery connective tissue along the outside surface of all meat. This tissue gives venison an undesirable aftertaste.
7. Avoid Meat Saws
Although meat saws work great for cutting through bones, avoid using them at all costs. Cutting through bone means cutting through marrow. That could taint your saw blade. The hindquarter can be easily detached from the carcass by using a knife and slicing down to the hip bone. After locating the knuckle, slowly and carefully cut around the joint to “pop” it free form the skeleton. Bone out the round completely and slice it into steaks or roasts.
8. Remove All Bones
Cut down the inside of the deer’s leg to find the leg bone. Then use your finger to probe between the muscle bundles for the bone. Once located, cut around the leg bone to free and remove it from the meat. By removing the bones, you will save yourself the extra costs associated with freezer paper and freezer space
9. Be Meticulous
Venison is one of the most nutritious meats available. Therefore, it’s wise to utilize every scrap of meat from your deer, and that means the ribs! Meat removed from between the ribs can be ground for sausage or burger. The more gristle and fat your remove now, the better the finished product will be.
10. Wrap It Up
When all the meat is removed from the carcass, shift your operation indoors. Using clean utensils and working surfaces, package the cuts for the freezer. It’s wise to double-wrap all packages, using extra care to remove all air from the packages before sealing them with tape. Two layers of wrapping paper provide better insulation and prevent the meat from getting freezer burn. Be sure to label all packages and include the date.