There’s no doubt that you will have put a lot of thought, effort, and preparation into your kill. But, in order for your kill to be the best it can be, it’s essential that you put just as much enthusiasm into how you handle the deer after shooting it.
Your first step involves field dressing the deer. You’ll need several good quality, sharp knives to hand to successfully do this as quickly as possible. You then have the choice of either hanging the deer by its hooves or antlers so that you can access its organs.
If you plan on keeping the antlers, then it’s advisable to hang the deer upside down as this will prevent damage to the antlers. Furthermore, during the skinning process, less hair will get onto the meat. However, when you hang a deer by its head, it’s typically easier to avoid contaminating the meat when you’re removing its internal organs.
Once the deer is strung up, you’ll need to use the tip of a knife to cut open the stomach from the base, up to the bottom of the sternum. You’ll need a bucket handy to place the organs in, which can be removed one by one. Extra care should be taken when you get to the bladder and urethra as they will contain urine. Should this spill onto the meat, it will contaminate and spoil it. For best results, place the urethra into a bag before cutting it away from the body to reduce the likelihood of any spills (2).
Similarly, you should be cautious when you’re working around the anus and vulva. A small circular incision should be done around the anus, to allow you to pull out the rectum. You should, however, make every effort to avoid any feces from spoiling the deer meat. This is where having another plastic bag available, as well as some rubber bands will come in handy as they can be used to cover the organs as you remove them. When you’re happy that these organs are secure and aren’t going to damage the quality of the meat, you can cut and pull them out from the body, along with the large intestine. (3).
You’re now safe to actively remove the deer’s organs which reside within the rib cage. To complete this task, you’ll need to saw through the sternum. This will then allow you to tear the chest open and pull out the heart, lungs, windpipe, and esophagus. If you plan on keeping the heart, then you’ll need to ensure you’ve got a separate clean bucket or container to store it in.
The final step in field dressing involves a thorough clean up of the deer’s cavity. You should thoroughly inspect the cavity for any excess entrails and remove them as appropriate. It’s best to leave the deer hanging so that any remaining blood can drain out of the cavity. If there are any noticeable pieces of hair or dirt within the area, make sure you remove them with fresh, clean water. Then, thoroughly pat dry with a cloth, or paper towel to prevent bacteria from contaminating the meat.
After the hard work of sourcing and shooting your game, followed by the intricate after-kill process, you need to spend time aging your venison meat to ensure that it’s at its best when consumed. Aging is a vital step in the preparation process as enzymes in the meat deteriorate during this period. This helps to tenderize the meat as the muscle tissues will break down (7).
However, one of the trickiest obstacles you’ll have at this point is finding a suitable location, as you’ll need ample space to hang the deer, a clean and sterile environment, be able to maintain the temperature of the space, and have access for days or even weeks, depending on your meat preference.
When it comes to hanging the deer, most hunters choose to hang it with a rope around its neck or using a metal hook. So long as the deer is off the ground and in a suitable environment, either method is suitable for the aging process to occur as expected.
Walk-in coolers and walk-in refrigerators are typically best to age deer as it’s easy to maintain the perfect meat aging temperature, which is between 32 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Should you not be able to maintain this temperature, you can fill out the deer’s chest cavity with bags of ice to keep the temperature of the meat low. Walk-in coolers and walk-in refrigerators are also effective as the humidity within them are low, which is crucial in stopping microorganisms and bacteria from invading the meat.
If you don’t have access to such facilities, then a garage or similar outbuilding is usually a suitable location too. But, if none of these are possibilities, it is possible to age the meat by cutting it up into smaller chunks and storing it in a conventional home refrigerator. If you take this route, be sure to adhere to safe meat handling and storage guidelines at all times. These include keeping raw meat on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator (8) to avoid cross-contamination to other produce stored in the fridge.
It’s ultimately up to you how long you choose to age your game. However, as a minimum, you should age it for 24 hours as it takes this long for full rigor mortis to set in. It’s only after rigor mortis occurs that the meat becomes tender and satisfying to consume.
Chef Depot advises that venison tastes best when it has been aged for between five and seven days, Real Tree favors venison after an aging period of two to seven days, and The Meat Eater prefers venison that has been aged for at least 14 days (9). In other words, there is no “right” answer. To find your preferred texture, flavor, and consistency, it’s best to try aging the meat for various periods of time.