How To Butcher And Process Small Game: The Definitive Guide For Beginners

How To Butcher And Process Small Game

Hey there fellow hunters and outdoors enthusiasts! As an avid hunter myself, I know that one of the most rewarding parts of the hunt is being able to process and prepare your own small game. There’s nothing quite like cooking up a tasty meal using meat from an animal you harvested yourself.

In this guide, I’ll walk you through everything you need to know as a beginner when it comes to butchering and processing small game. I’ll answer common questions, share helpful facts and statistics, and provide tips and tricks I’ve learned from years of experience. My goal is to make this the definitive guide on the subject – no confusing jargon, just practical advice in plain language.

Grab your knife and let’s get started!

Why Butcher Your Own Small Game?

Before we get into the nitty gritty details, let’s go over some of the key benefits of butchering your own small game:

  • Save money – Butchering it yourself allows you to get more meals per animal. Commercial processors charge by the pound.
  • Custom cuts – You can break down the animal exactly how you want.
  • Better flavor – The fresher the meat, the better it tastes.
  • Knowledge – Learn valuable skills and become more self-sufficient.
  • Connection to food – Develop a deeper appreciation for where your food comes from.

For me, the satisfaction of being able to harvest an animal from the wild and turn it into a nutritious home-cooked meal is extremely rewarding. The pride that comes with doing it yourself makes the meat taste even better!

What You’ll Need To Get Started

Butchering small game requires a few basic supplies. Here’s a look at the essential tools and equipment you’ll need:

  • Sharp knives – A fixed blade boning knife and fillet knife are ideal. Sharpness is key!
  • Cutting board – Look for one with rubber feet to prevent slipping. Sanitize between uses.
  • Meat saw – For cutting through thicker bones. A hacksaw works well.
  • Skinning tools – A skinning knife and pruner make the job easier.
  • Food scale – To weigh cuts for proper portioning.
  • Grinder – Either manual or electric to grind meat into ground or sausage.
  • Vacuum sealer – For storing meat safely for long periods.
  • Sanitizing supplies – Bleach, vinegar, soap for cleaning tools and surfaces.
  • Protective gear – Aprons, gloves, eye protection – safety first!
  • Coolers & ice – For keeping meat chilled in the field and during transport.

The initial investment is well worth it when you consider how much use you’ll get out of these supplies. Buy quality tools and keep them properly maintained. Now let’s get to the good stuff!

Field Dressing: First Steps After The Harvest

The most important part of butchering actually takes place right after the harvest when you field dress the animal. Proper field dressing is crucial for meat quality. Here’s an overview of the basic steps:

Making the incision

  • Place animal on its back, spread the hind legs and prop open the cavity.
  • Make a shallow slice from the sternum down between the hind legs.
  • Take care not to puncture intestines or stomach contents.

Removing entrails

  • Reach inside the cavity to cut around organs and detach from inside wall.
  • Carefully pull out all internal organs and intestines.
  • Save heart and liver if desired.

Cleaning the cavity

  • Use stream water or drinking water to rinse inside cavity thoroughly.
  • Remove any remaining blood clots or debris.
  • Pat dry with paper towels.

Chilling the carcass

  • Place ice bags inside the cavity and surround the exterior.
  • Transport in cooler filled with ice.
  • Hang in refrigerated area until ready to skin and butcher.

Proper field dressing minimizes dirt, bacteria, and spoilage, resulting in better tasting meat. It’s an important first step!

Skinning: Removing The Hide and Fur

Once the small game animal has been field dressed, the next task is skinning to remove the fur. For beginners, squirrels, rabbits, and birds are a good place to start. Here’s how it’s done:

Start by cutting off the feet

  • Use a knife to slice through the joint where the toes meet the foot.
  • On rabbits, also remove the tail by cutting through the vertebrae.

Make an incision down the back of each leg

  • Start just above the foot and cut toward the body.
  • The slit should run along the inside of the leg around the ankle.
  • Repeat on the opposite leg.

Peel the skin away from the muscle

  • Grip the skin and use short strokes to slice connecting tissue away.
  • Pull the skin up and over the hips toward the front legs.
  • Keep one hand holding the skin taut as you cut.

Sever the connective tissue

  • Carefully insert knife under skin around legs and work toward neck.
  • Cut through joints around ankles and wrists to remove feet.

Remove the skin from the torso

  • Lift skin up over rib cage and peel down toward back legs.
  • Cut away any remaining connective tissue attaching it.

Peel the skin off over the head

  • Loosen skin around the neck and eyes.
  • Pull skin off over the head like a mask.

Rinse and sanitize

  • Thoroughly rinse the skinned carcass under water.
  • Use vinegar solution or lemon juice to sanitize.

Take your time and use smooth, controlled cuts. Remaining fur can be removed with a knife or burning. Now you’re ready to move on to full butchering!

a wooden board surrounded by knives on a table

Butchering: Separating The Meat From The Bones

With the animal skinned, it’s time for the butchering process to break down the carcass into usable cuts. Here are the basic steps to follow:

Remove the front and rear legs

  • Bend joint to expose gap between ball and socket.
  • Insert knife into gap and slice through connective tissue.
  • Repeat for other limbs. Set legs aside.

Split the pelvis

  • Position knife in seam between pelvic bones. Slice down to split.
  • Scoop out pelvic meat and set aside. Discard bony pelvis.

Remove the loins

  • Run knife along backbone to loosen loin muscles on both sides.
  • Carefully remove loins in one whole piece if possible.

Remove the rib cage

  • With knife, shave meat from along spine down to rib cage.
  • Cut through ribs close to spine to remove rib cage.

Remove tenderloins

  • Locate two long, thin tenderloins above pelvis.
  • Run knife under to remove without severing.

Remove front legs and shoulders

  • Cut through wrist joint and peel meat back from bones.
  • Remove shoulders and set aside with other cuts.

Take it slowly, watching out for your fingers near bones. Proper butchering takes dexterity – don’t get frustrated!

Boning: Removing Bones From Cuts

Once you’ve broken down the carcass into primal cuts, it’s time for the boning process to remove the bones:

Work on a clean cutting surface

  • Sanitize your workspace and tools between each animal.
  • Have a container nearby for discarded scraps and bones.

Use a sharp, thin boning knife

  • A fixed blade allows better control and precision.
  • Make sure blade is razor sharp.

Cut along bone contours

  • Keep blade tight to the bone as you slice connective tissue.
  • Scoop out bone fragments as you go.

Remove membrane and silver skin

  • Peel away the shiny silver skin from inside cuts.
  • Also discard white membrane or gristle.

Portion boneless cuts

  • Slice larger pieces into portions for cooking.
  • Weigh portions for consistency.

Make ground meat

  • Reserve meat scraps, trimmings and organs for grinding.
  • Use a meat grinder to create burger or sausage.

Boning allows you to portion cuts for recipes and make the most out of the meat. It just takes practice building dexterity and familiarity.

Aging: Enhancing Flavor And Tenderness

For the best quality meat, properly aging small game makes a big difference in flavor and tenderness. Here are some techniques:

Dry aging

  • Hang carcass in refrigerator 35-40°F for 1-2 weeks.
  • Allow enzymes to naturally tenderize meat.
  • Results in intensified flavor.

Wet aging

  • Vacuum seal cuts and age in fridge for 2+ weeks.
  • Meat tenderizes in its own juices.
  • Retains moisture and flavor.

Aging individual cuts

  • Age portions like loins and legs separately.
  • Monitor for spoilage and discard if any smells.
  • Re-wrap in fresh butcher paper periodically.

Aging requires patience but pays off in the end. When ready, meat will appear darker and more shrunken. The flavour concentrate and texture improves immensely.

Grinding: Making Sausage And Ground Meat

Once you get comfortable with basic butchering, try your hand at grinding meat to make fresh sausage and ground meat. You’ll need a grinder and casings.

Start with chilled meat

  • Meat should be partially frozen for grinding.
  • This makes it easier to grind and prevents smearing.

Use proper spice mixes

  • Purchase pre-mixed sausage seasonings.
  • Or create your own blend of spices and herbs.

Grind first without casings

  • Grind meat into a bowl to mix evenly.
  • Add seasonings and mix thoroughly before stuffing.

Stuff mixture into casings

  • Load grinder and stuff ground meat into casings.
  • Twist or tie off links into portioned sizes.

Cook a test patty before bulk cooking

  • Cook a small test patty to check seasoning.
  • Tweak spices as needed before cooking a whole batch.

With the right technique, you can make incredible sausage and ground meat with your small game harvest. Get creative with recipes!

Storage and Preservation: Keeping Meat Fresh

Proper storage and preservation is crucial for enjoying your small game meat and avoiding waste. Here are some top methods:

Freezing

  • Package meat with freezer paper or vacuum seal.
  • Freeze immediately at 0°F or below.
  • Thaw slowly in fridge when ready to use.

Canning

  • Pressure can meat into sterilized glass jars.
  • Process for appropriate time based on elevation.
  • Store sealed jars in cool, dark place.

Curing

  • Use salt, sugar, nitrates to cure meat.
  • Submerge in brine solution for extended time.
  • Cold smoke cured meat for extra preservation.

Drying / Jerky

  • Slice meat thinly across the grain.
  • Remove moisture using dehydrator or oven.
  • Store dried jerky in sealed container.

Cooking and freezing

  • Cook meat completely into stews, soups etc.
  • Allow to cool before transferring to freezer bags.
  • Freeze for lasting preservation.

With proper storage conditions and preparation, your hard-earned small game can provide sustenance for many months to come. Avoid waste and enjoy the fruits of your labor!

Safety: Avoiding Illness And Contamination

When handling raw small game, safety has to be your number one priority. Here are some tips to avoid foodborne illness or contamination:

  • Wash hands thoroughly before and after handling meat.
  • Use clean tools and sterilize all equipment between animals.
  • Keep raw meat separate from other foods.
  • Refrigerate meat right away – don’t leave at room temp.
  • Cook meat to safe internal temperatures – at least 165°F.
  • When in doubt, throw it out! Discard meat if you notice any bad odors, sliminess or mold.

Proper personal hygiene and sanitation is crucial when processing small game at home. Don’t take risks with food safety – it’s just not worth getting sick over!

Common Problems and Solutions

Even experienced hunters run into issues now and then when butchering small game. Here are some common problems and tips to avoid them:

Dried out or discolored meat

  • Age meat wrapped in butcher paper, not uncovered.
  • Keep refrigerated at all times during aging.
  • Discard if meat smells bad or has dark sticky residue.

Sinewy, tough meat

  • Remove all silver skin, membrane and connective tissue.
  • Allow meat to age fully to break down fibers.
  • Use slow, moist cooking methods like braising.

  • Make sure to tag all meat immediately.
  • Document each processing step.
  • Keep accurate records of harvests and yielded meat.

Difficulty skinning

  • Skin as soon as possible after harvesting.
  • Keep knife razor sharp and pointed away from hide.
  • Move slowly and avoid tearing hide.

Meat spoiling quickly

  • Butcher and freeze as soon as possible. Don’t delay.
  • Ensure meat reaches safe freezing temps.
  • Sanitize all tools and surfaces thoroughly.

Learn from your mistakes – each small game animal you process will get a little easier. Follow proper technique and safety guidelines and you’ll minimize issues.

person holding white ceramic bowl with soup

Final Thoughts

Well there you have it folks – everything a beginner needs to know to successfully butcher and process small game! I hope you found this guide helpful and can use the advice and tips provided here to get started on your home butchering journey. Remember to start small, use proper tools, focus on safely handling raw meat, and most importantly – have fun!

The feeling of satisfaction that comes from transforming your own wild game harvest into delicious home-cooked meals is priceless. Not only will you save money and eat better, but you’ll also gain invaluable skills and knowledge.

Here’s to many successful, safe and mouthwateringly tasty hunts! Thanks for reading. Now get out there and fill up that freezer!

Captain Hunter is a seasoned hunting mentor with over 20 years of experience in the field. His passion began as a young man on trips with his father and grandfather in the Colorado mountains. Today, he shares his unmatched skills in survival, tracking, and marksmanship through his website CaptainHunter.com. When he's not volunteering with youth hunting programs, you can find Captain Hunter providing expert hunting tips, gear reviews, and answers to your most pressing questions. His decades of experience make him the trusted guide to help any outdoorsman master the sport.

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