You did it. You filled your tag. Your first ever?
Now what do you do with it?
As society has expanded and Wal-Mart has taken over the role of “food provider” from the head of the household, the ability to process ones own food has become an art as foreign to most as how to properly shoe a horse. Even for those of us raised “in the country” processing your own animal to deliver healthy local protein has largely been outsourced to local butcher shops. With the rise in sustainable living and hunting and fishing to provide table fare, there has been a bit of a resurgence in bringing some of these skills back into the household.
The one issue that still looms large among those new to venison as their protein of choice is how to combat the gamey taste that can sometimes be present in venison and other wild creatures. While deer, rabbit, bear, elk, and others naturally possess a more robust flavor profile than cultivated chicken, beef, and pork, there is no reason for the gaminess of the meat to overpower the enjoyable experience that bringing your game to the table should be. A couple of tips, and one trick will certainly help ensure that your venison is fit to eat, even for the non-hunters who may sit at your table.
Obviously, the first rule of processing wild game is to quickly and properly remove the entrails from the animal to allow the cooling process to begin. Without getting into the details of gutting various animals, all can be cleaned in a manner that is not only very efficient, but barring a poor shot, ensures that no unsavory contents of the animals gastrointestinal tract come into contact with the meat you intend to harvest from the carcass. As a hunter you should have already made yourself familiar with the anatomy and location of the vital organs and systems. Understanding the location and function will give a head start when the time comes to clean the animal. There are also numerous videos available online to show you the proper way to gut an animal, like this one from Dan Small. As with anything, practice makes perfect. You can’t be afraid to make a mistake, it’s all a learning process.
Second, as soon as the animal has been cleaned, the next priority is to get the meat cooled. In much of the country this can be done simply by hanging the animal. In warmer areas, or areas where predators are likely to take advantage of a hanging deer carcass a cooling house or even a walk-in cooler may be used. Inability to keep the animal cool enough to prevent bacteria to grow will result in spoilage of some, if not all, of the meat. Proper handling doesn’t stop at getting the animal cleaned. In many ways, proper storage before the meat can be de-boned and packaged, is the most important factor in keeping your field gathered protein fit for the table.
Lastly, a quick tip that I employ from time to time. Perhaps you don’t have access to a walk-in cooler and the temperature is too warm to allow the animal to hang. Maybe you just took a rank old buck who reeks of the rut and you are concerned about the quality of the meat. This is a perfect opportunity to experiment with brining the meat. Most folks are familiar with brining when it comes to their Thanksgiving turkey, but not venison.
A brine is salt solution used to tenderize meat by promoting osmosis thus making the meat more moist and tender. When it comes to venison, here’s what I do. After the animal is skinned, I de-bone the meat and place it in a cooler in pieces no larger than four to six pounds. Once de-boned I fill the cooler with water by placing a hose in the bottom of the cooler, flushing as much of the blood from the meat as possible. Once the water spills out of the cooler clear, I drain the water from the cooler and cover the meat with ice. Next, I add two cups of apple cider vinegar and 1/3 cup of salt, and add just enough water to cover the meat. Depending on the situation I may brine for as few as 12 hours, or as many as 96, but I will always change the brine solution every 24 hours.
When the time comes to finish butchering the meat, I try to let it sit on a raised platform in the cooler for at least an hour to allow the excess water to drip from the meat. I have employed this method of brining venison on yearling does as well as mature bucks and never have I had a problem with the gaminess of my venison causing trouble at the dinner table.