A Hunter’s Guide to Putting the Best Venison on the Table

Getting your meat into a cooler and on ice as soon as possible is the first step to the best outcome for your dinner table. Being prepared for field cleaning with sharp knives and tools, a cooler, and then further processing at home, can help ensure tastier meals. (Photo: Alan Clemons)

Whether you use a deer processor or do your own work at home, hunters should focus on taking no chances that can ruin venison destined for the table. And, with chronic wasting disease a concern for many, extra precautions may be necessary to ensure the best venison possible for your meals.

The scene is the same across the Midwest: After opening day of gun season, garages, dining room tables and even barns are converted into makeshift butcher shops. Many hunters pull out their sharpest knives, grab a roll of freezer paper and start the process of “making venison.”

And then, there’s the other half of the hunting population — the ones who strap deer carcasses to their car roofs or shove them in pick-up truck beds and head to the closest meat processor.

But in light of the chronic wasting disease situation, you might want to rethink the way you process your venison.

Don’t misread this and think that home processing is unsafe or that meat processors should suddenly be avoided like a trip to the dentist. On the contrary, both options can be safe — given the proper circumstances.

The Meat Scare
Let’s start with the basics. First of all, science hasn’t proven, although speculation exists, that CWD can affect humans. Secondly, the abnormal prions that cause CWD have never been found in the muscle tissue of wild of captive cervids. Instead, naturally occurring prions are centralized in the eyes, brain, spleen, spinal cord and lymph nodes, which can easily avoided by taking simple precautions.

Whether you’re taking your meat to a processor, or doing the cutting yourself, your work begins as soon as you shoot a deer. When field dressing, make sure you wear rubber gloves. Take your time, and avoid breaking the intestines or stomach, which can contaminate the meat. And, make sure you keep the meat clean. After all, food born bacteria, such as E. Coli can be picked up from soil or manure contamination. If you kill a deer, field dress it, and then drag it through a cow pasture, you can be sure that CWD isn’t your greatest worry.

In case of hot weather, you should pack the carcass with ice. In 2001, many deer hunters encountered unseasonably warm weather during gun opener. Those hunters who took the extra precaution of packing their deer carcasses with ice saved more of the inside meat.

Also, you shouldn’t think about eating any animal that looks sick. The same is true of livestock. If a butcher cuts open a beef carcass and finds it riddled with tumors, you can bet that no one will be sitting over that meat at the dinner table.

As extra precautions, you should also be careful that your knife is only used for deer hunting and that it is cleaned properly afterward. The University of Wisconsin Extension recommends that you use a solution of 50 percent bleach and 50 percent water to sterilize equipment.

You’ve probably heard that the lymph nodes are the main culprits to avoid. Luckily, as you’re field dressing, you really don’t have to worry about them. The spleen is generally removed when you gut your deer, along with several other main lymph nodes. The remaining lymph nodes are either in the skull or along the leg joints.

WATCH: These Super Gloves Can Help Make Field Dressing Easier


The Processing Issue
If you’re planning to take your deer to a meat processor, you might want to think twice about whom you choose. Venison processing is highly unregulated, so basically anyone who wants to set up shop during the hectic month of November can do so. This means that plenty of processors are working in conditions that are less than ideal.

Your best bet is to reach for the phone book and find a proces- sor who works year-round with meat. Because these business are regulated by the state, they must conform to certain sanitary standards, regardless of whether they’re working on beef, bison or venison.

“Even though the (venison) isn’t inspected, (the processors) have to know how to handle meat,” said Donna Gilson, a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture. “You’ve got a knowledgeable person, someone who’s doing this day in and day out.”

If you use a processor for your deer, check with fellow hunters and your state’s agriculture or conservation departments to find reputable and certified processors in your area.

Long before CWD was discovered east of the Mississippi, meat processors were already required to take precautions when working with venison. First of all, they must notify the Department of Agriculture if they plan to process deer, they can only accept healthy game animals, and generally, they must keep things sterile and separate from other inspected meats.

“The regulations are intended more to protect the integrity of other meats they process,” Gilson said. “The inspected and uninspected meat needs to be separate either in time or space.”

Therefore, if a meat processor is working on venison, he can’t be working on other meats, which helps prevent cross-contamination. Kenny Christensen, owner of Pine Grove Meats in Iola, Wis., said venison is the last meat cut at his shop each day. After that, all blades and utensils are sterilized with bleach.

“When we do deer, we just do deer,” he said.

Christensen also said deer are numbered as they come in and then processed individually. That way, if meat must be recalled after finding out the results of a CWD test, the customer can be sure the meat he received is from the deer he brought to the processor. As you choose a processor, make sure you ask if your meat will be kept separate, especially if you’re requesting sausages or hot sticks.

“Its not a secret that venison processors have blended venison from a number of animals,” said Bob Manwell, the public affairs manager for the Department of Natural Resources.

However, because of concern over CWD, that procedure is changing, and processors are receiving instruction to cut up deer individually. Before choosing a processor, you can call the Department of Agriculture to make sure the processor is licensed. Otherwise, the best advice is to find someone with a good reputation.

“Talk to your friends,” Gilson said. “Are they satisfied? Go with someone who is reputable.”


The Home Processor
For decades, hunters have converted their kitchens and basements to temporary meat shops during deer season. In my home, we’ve often cut up several deer in one sitting — packaging and labeling our own meat. Although it requires more work, some hunters prefer this method because they know exactly what is going in their freezer, and where it’s been.

Take care of your venison for the best meals possible! If you’re working on meat at home, have sanitized surfaces and utensils, and don’t take chances for spoilage or other problems.

However, if you’re processing your own meat, you should take a few extra precautions. First of all, avoid contact with the eyes, spleen, brain tissue, spinal cords and lymph nodes. Then, try to bone out as much meat as possible without splitting the carcass down the midline.

If the deer is shot in the spine or there is damage to bones, discard at least 2 inches of meat from the area, which is the recommendation meat processors have received from the state. It’s a good idea to wear latex gloves, using separate gloves when handling the head. After the meat is boned out, remove the head with separate saw used only for that purpose.

Manwell said hunters should also label each deer separately when packaging. That way, if a deer tests positive, it would be easy to discard meat from the infected animal.

After you’re done processing, clean and sterilize everything with a solution of water and bleach.

“Ordinary bleach is the best sanitizer there is,” Christensen said.

As for disposal, rules haven’t changed much for hunters. Check with local regulations, but for the most part, you can continue to discard carcasses the same as you have always done.

Future Concerns
Will venison processing change in the post-CWD landscape? It’s hard to say. In 2002 the Medical Society of Milwaukee County called for tougher regulations of deer processors because of health questions surrounding CWD. The doctors hope that deer processors would have to follow procedures similar to those mandated in England for beef processors. However, Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors and the Department of Agriculture don’t believe that’s necessary. Both groups say that enough precautions are already being taken, and the processing community can monitor itself.

It’s Time to Eat!

Here’s a cool recipe from one of DDH’s hottest and most popular venison cookbooks, We Kill It We Grill It. The recipes are from our loyal readers and are sure to please.

Mini-Venison Burgers
Prep Time: 20 min
Cook Time: 8 min
Serves: 8 servings of 2 mini-burgers each

1/2 lb ground venison
1/2 lb ground pork
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup chopped white mushrooms (about 3 ounces of mushrooms)
1 cup chopped apples (about 2 apples)
2 ounces blue cheese (or your choice of cheese)
16 mini-potato rolls (the dinner-roll size)

Heat grill. Mix venison, pork, salt, pepper, mushrooms and apples, and form into 16 small patties. Grill to medium doneness and crumble blue cheese on top. Serve on potato rolls.

SEE ALSO: 5 Ways to Make Your Venison Burgers Even Better!

Tasty Venison Burgers
This is a super recipe from Stacy Harris, one of our longtime contributors. Be sure to check out her other recipes, tips and more on GameandGarden.com as well as her great cookbooks herehere and here or this super DVD here in ShopDeerHunting.com.

Venison Burger
4 pounds venison (or lamb)
1 pound bacon
4 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 Tablespoon Kosher salt
1 Tablespoon freshly ground pepper
6 Hamburger Buns
Pickles (optional)

In a meat grinder, grind venison and bacon on the largest setting. This will keep your hamburgers light and juicy. Add onions, garlic, salt and pepper. Mix gently, but well.

Grill your hamburgers until just done. I did these on a flat top on my stove – I let them cook 5 minutes on one side then flip then and finish cooking about 4 minutes on the other side, depending on the thickness of your patties. Don’t overcook, but make sure the pork is completely cooked.

Warm your buns on the flat top until they are slightly steamed. Serve them with Chipotle Mayonnaise (get the mayo recipe here), pickles and anything else you you like! Enjoy!

SEE ALSO: One of Our Favorite Recipes, the Delicious Bleu Cheese Burger!