Alas, the hunt is over—the land has been scoured, the rifle fired, the deer harvested. So…now what? Rip off a leg and begin chomping away? If you were a lion, that would be a great course of action. For mere humans, turning a deer carcass into an edible meal is a bit more complicated. In this blog, we’ll review the basics of field-dressing a deer, butchering it and preparing venison for consumption. At the end, we’ll include a few simple recipes. OK, let’s get started!
- A very sharp knife (with gut hook, if possible)
- Limb loppers or a bolt cutter
- A bone saw
- A large bucket
- A gambrel
- A large cooler
- 5-pound bag of ice
Field Dressing A Deer
- This is the first step after you’ve shot a whitetail deer. You should remove the internal organs, or entrails, as soon as possible to cool the carcass and preserve the meat. First, put on your gloves and lay the deer on a hill or slope, with the head higher than the body, and cut a coring ring around the anus. This should be about 2 inches deep and make a full circle around the anus. Then, slide your knife deeper and cut any membranes attached to the colon (the tubular organ that ends at the anus). Do not puncture the colon.
- Grab the flap of skin that forms a ‘V’ between the deer’s legs, and make a shallow, 1-inch cut. For a male, cut and remove the genitalia. Now, cut up the midline of the deer’s belly, from the pelvis to the breastbone. This is when the gut hook comes in handy, because it prevents you from cutting too deeply and puncturing any organs.
- There is a thin membrane, the diaphragm, between the chest and abdomen. Cut it through completely so you have access to the chest cavity’s organs. Then, grab the windpipe, above the lungs and heart. Pull the windpipe taut then sever it.
- With the cuts you have already made, the entrails should come completely free with a strong tug on the windpipe. Use your knife to gently slice away at any unyielding sections, but be careful not to puncture any organs. Inside the abdominal cavity is the best meat, the tenderloin (about 10-12 inches long), beneath the spine and near the hips. Try to avoid cutting the tenderloin.
- You can leave the entrails right there in the woods or field—scavengers will make them disappear within a day or two.
- Position the deer face down to help any remaining blood drain out.
- OPTIONAL—remove the tarsal glands. These are round, knobby glands on the ‘heels’ of the deer, adjacent to the Achilles tendon. They can simply be grabbed, pulled taut, and sliced free. Removing the tarsal glands may help prevent additional hormones and odors from contaminating the venison. Tarsal glands can also be used as scent attractants in future hunts. After you touch a tarsal gland, be sure to wash your hands and the knife.
- That’s it! You field-dressed your deer and prevented initial spoilage. Next, we’ll take the deer home, hang it up, and butcher it.
Butchering a deer
- Butcher your deer as soon as you’re able. In colder temperatures, 40F or below, you can wait up to 2-3 days to butcher the deer (or if it’s in a large meat locker/freezer). In warmer temperatures, butcher the deer as soon as possible.
- Once the deer is in your butchering location, you first need to remove the hide. If possible, you should hang the deer upside down so that the blood will drain downwards, away from the choice meat. To hang the deer, make a cut in the soft area between the Achilles tendon and shin (do this on both sides). This way you have a little hook area to slide a boom pole or gambrel to hold the deer in place. DO NOT CUT THE ACHILLES TENDON ITSELF. If you cut the Achilles tendon, you may not be able to hang the deer.
- Make a circumferential cut around the deer’s legs. Remember, for removing the hide, shallow cuts should suffice.
- Now, you want to peel the deer’s hide away from the flesh, always pulling downwards. This action is similar to peeling off a sock.
- As you peel the hide, you may need to make small, deft cuts to sever any unyielding sections.
- Fully remove the hide. If you shot the deer within the past 2-3 hours, the flesh should still be warm, and steam may come off the body at this time. This is normal.
- From this point, you’ll want to keep all the unwanted skin and body parts in your large bucket. You can dump the leavings in the woods afterwards. Some states allow you to dump deer remains at a landfill, or even to bag it and put it out with the trash. Consult your local game warden or other authorities if you don’t have ample land to organically dispose of the remains.
- Removing the head and/or antlers is possible at this point. Ehow.com has an excellent article on how to remove and mount a deer head yourself.
- Now it’s time to remove the backstrap. Use your sharp knife to make four cuts: One along the left side of the spine, one along the right. Stay as close to the bone as possible. The backstrap itself should be 2-3 inches wide, so make your third cut parallel with the first, along the back, 2-3 inches laterally. Your fourth cut will be on the other side of the backstrap. Gradually pull and slice this meat free—when you’re done, you should have two long, arm-length, beautiful strips of meat. Throw these in your cooler full of ice.
- Now it’s time to remove the tenderloin. Reach inside the abdominal cavity with your knife and feel along the spine. There should be two pieces of meat, located close to the hip area, each 10-12 inches long and attached to the spine. Carefully cut around this meat and simply slice it free.
- Removing the hindquarter meat is a tad more detailed. First, cut one of the legs off at the knee joint using your limb loppers or bolt cutters. You can discard the shin/hoof section because there is not much edible meat there. Next, use your knife to follow the thigh muscles up to the hip joint and cut all the way down to the hip joint around the entire leg. User your knife to cut through the hip joint to detach the leg.
- Now, follow the natural seams of the structure of the muscles. You are not cutting into the muscles, you are separating them. Separating them is equal parts using your hands to pull apart the muscles as it is cutting with your knife. When you’re done, you should have a nice slab of rump meat and a section of sirloin. You can put these in the cooler as well.
- After you cut off both legs, the deer will no longer be hanging. You can repeat step 12 for the deer’s shoulder meat, if you’re so inclined.
- Butchering the rest of the deer is very technical. Some hunters use every gram of flesh, cutting from the neck, shanks and front quarters. Most of this meat can be thrown into a grinder for later consumption, but we won’t get into that right now. For a full, step-by-step guide to getting every bit of meat you can, ShootingTime.com has an excellent breakdown.
OK, enough blood and guts. It’s time to start cooking that venison. First, let’s talk about storing and preserving the meat.
- Cut the backstraps and tenderloins into the desired cooking size/shape.
- Do the same with the hindquarters, unless you want to cook it all at once.
- Wrap the meat tightly in cellophane.
- Wrap the cellophane in butcher paper.
- Store in a refrigerator if you’re going to cook it in 3-5 days.
- Store in a freezer if you’re going to cook it in the next 3 months. The venison may be good for years, but for the sake of caution, GunLove recommends consumption within 3 months.
- You can use any part of the deer meat for jerky
- Slice the meat extremely thin
- Prepare your spice mix in a large bowl. Each hunter has their own ‘special recipe’, and you can use any spices you want for your jerky. Common selections include soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, crushed red pepper, sugar, salt, garlic powder, onion powder, srirarcha sauce, black pepper and bourbon. Again, you can use whichever spices you wish, in any ratio you desire. So mix it up, try something new, experiment!
- Put the sliced deer meat into the spice mix bowl
- Put the bowl in your refrigerator and let it marinate overnight
- The next morning, put the meat in a dehydrator. The dehydration process usually takes another 12-24 hours.
- If you don’t own a dehydrator, Cnet.com has an informative article on how to use your oven as a dehydrator.
- Store the meat in plastic baggies in your refrigerator after dehydration. Again, this is a judgment call on duration. Some people wait 2 months. Others wait 2 weeks. Test the meat yourself to figure out when it’s appropriately dry/brittle/tasty.
- Eat that jerky!
- Using a large skillet, deeply brown the venison in oil. For flavor, add onions, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, bay leaf, salt and water. As always, you can choose your own spices and sauces to tweak the flavor. Simmer, covered, for 30 minutes to 2 hours (until the meat is appropriately tender).
- Add vegetables: Carrots, potatoes, broccoli, spinach, yam, cucumbers or mushrooms. Again, the number and types of veggies is chef’s choice.
- Mix 1/4 cup of flour with 1/4 cup of water and stir into the stew.
- If you used bay leaf, remove before serving
- Heat one of your oven’s burners to medium-high. Coat a pan with cooking spray.
- Add your (chopped or ground) venison to the pan and cook until browned (generally 3 -5 minutes)
- Remove venison with metal spoon and set aside.
- Reduce heat to medium and begin adding ingredients to the pan. Common choices include onion, bell pepper, garlic and jalapenos. You want to cook these for 10 minutes, or until tender.
- Now stir in your chili powder, venison and other ingredients: diced tomatoes, chicken broth, red pepper, kidney beans—whatever you want! It’s your meal, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Increase the heat while you stir for at least 10 minutes, or until the chili is well-combined.
- After the chili is mixed, reduce heat to medium, cover and simmer for 1/2 hour.
- Before serving, heat to desired temperature.
Great job! Hunting (successfully) is a challenging and rewarding experience in and of itself! If you managed to harvest that deer, competently field-dress and butcher it, and then make a hearty meal, you’re a bonafide woodsman! Few things are as satisfying as fending for yourself in this big, cold world, and adding new skills to your knowledge base is always a worthwhile pursuit. This knowledge should serve you well in the future, and we at GunLove hope you pass on this time-tested information to the younger generations! Happy Hunting!
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