How to process a deer: Butchery is one of those things that you just have to do in order to truly understand anatomy, muscles, and cuts. But did you know the most crucial steps to butchering your harvest are done in the field? Steve Rinella from the hit show MeatEater sat down with us to discuss all things butchery.
As Steve says, the most crucial parts of harvesting are done in the field. The first and most critical steps in order to guarantee great tasting meat on the table are: chilling and gutting your harvest as quickly as possible. You have to remember that your deer has just been running around a forest, and probably ran once it was hit, thus its temperature is going to be even higher than normal. According to Steve Rinella, there is no exception to these first steps. While you might be so pumped and full of adrenaline for the buck you just landed, Steve says get to work and gut your harvest as quickly as possible, or you won’t be enjoying life that much when it’s hot and your deer starts to bloat and brings all the smells that go along with decomposing. So, if you can put off the cheering and congratulatory banter until after your it’s gutted, you will be much happier in the long run.
After you have gutted your deer, your next mission is to cool it down, which led to the topic of snow and using it to help chill the body cavity. According to a conversation Steve had with a Meat Scientist (yes that is a real thing), it is possible to chill your deer too quickly, which is called cold shortening. Cold shortening is the result of rapidly chilling a carcass immediately after harvesting. The rapid chilling doesn’t allow the glycogen in the muscles to be converted to lactic acid, thus resulting in irreversible contractions of the meat, meaning your meat is going to be super tough because it will forever be in a contracted state. Steve says if it’s cold enough to have snow on the ground, its cold enough to chill your harvest without having to pack the cavity with snow. But if you’re really worried about cooling your harvest, pop the ball joints on the back of the legs because that is usually where the spoilage occurs. If you’re in snowy conditions, Steve recommends skinning to just below the knee because when the shank freezes and you go to thaw it, the hide will not come off and it will make your life hell in the long run.
After your deer is gutted and chilled, bring on the celebratory cheer! After all, high fives are in order even if you and everyone else is covered in guts! After the celebration, it’s time to get your meat out of the field. Steve goes for a simple breakdown of removing the four legs, then taking off the backstraps and tenderloins. Next take the rib racks off as individual whole pieces of the whole rib rack followed by removing the neck, which is kept whole. This is a great and quick way to get your harvest quartered if you are packing out. Although Steve Rinella prefers to leave the animal whole whenever possible, (it stays cleaner; it’s always nicer to work on at home; and infinitely more pleasurable to work on in an environment that is clean and bug free) quartering and boning is sometimes necessary.
According to Steve Rinella, a big part of hunting is improvisation and problem solving. Steve has sometimes put meat in dry bags and submerged them in creeks or buried them in a glacier to chill. Hell, hotel ice makers aren’t off limits, and they make the perfect place to store well-packaged fish (Steve may or may not have done that).
Life happens, and you can’t always butcher your harvest in your garage, especially if you live in California—they don’t like that, I learned the hard way! There are times where life just requires the help of a food processor. Steve has some great tips when taking it in for processing. First and most importantly, the processor will certainly judge you based on what you bring to them. So, bring them something you can be proud of. Do yourself and the processor a favor; clean it, gut it, and chill it properly before you haul it in. If you bring in a dirty animal, it tells the processor that you don’t care, so why would you expect the processor to care about your harvest? Steve also recommends knowing what cuts you want before you even step foot in the door of a processor. Those ribs that you wanted to grill, well those are thrown out by most processors. So be very specific when telling them how you want your recipe-ready meats broken down. Tell them exactly what you want, like; bone in shanks cut into two-inch disks and packaged four disks to one package. This will ensure that you get all the cuts you are looking for. Then there’s ground meat. It’s super important to tell your processor that you would like your harvest ground separately. Or else you won’t be getting your specific harvest. Instead the processor will combine the meat with others, grind them all together, then distribute the ground meat amongst their clients.
Hang your deer
In a perfect world, Steve prefers to take a harvest home to hang. And in that perfect world, the weather is not too warm and not too cold at night, which creates the perfect temperature for developing the most perfect flavors. How long does Steve hang a deer? He takes a cut of the meat, and if there is no dripping of blood and a nice rind on top, it’s done. That rind is actually called a pellicle, which is formed during the aging process. The pellicle is the formation of a hard-outer layer that contains almost zero moisture thus helping to develop and deepen the flavors of aged meats. It also plays a key factor in smoking too. If you plan on smoking your wild game, it’ s best to form a nice pellicle all around the piece of meat prior to smoking because the pellicle will hold on to all that delicious smoky flavor. However, if you leave the meat to age/hang for too long, the pellicle will get really thick, and you will end up having to cut it off, giving you less meat. When smoking, you want a very thin pellicle so that it grips the smoky flavor but is still very edible. The optimal time Steve prefers to hang a harvest is somewhere between four to five days. But since life isn’t always perfect weather, Steve also suggests aging it in the refrigerator. But to do so you need whole muscle cuts set atop a cooling rack and placed in the refrigerator for a week or two until you get the rind just right.
Steve Rinella also developed a taste for less utilized cuts the more he hunted. Growing up, Steve’s family would view the deer as three main parts; the backstraps, rump (from the back legs) and the rest of the deer was grind. Fast forward to present day, Steve’s vision of an animal is all based on the cuts, and he says that the cut of meat is more important than the type of animal! His favorite cuts are the ones that tend to be underutilized. The shanks, the shoulders, neck roasts have become his most desired cuts to cook and eat. But when pressed to pick one of his favorite underutilized cuts, Steve stands by venison ribs.
time to eat
Naturally all this butchery talk led us straight to the good stuff; Food! The brilliant thing about cooking is you never stop learning. And I actually learned something rather awesome from Steve that I know you will appreciate too. Steve Rinella likes to take a deer’s front leg, cut the shank off at the knee, which leaves you with the shoulder. Then take Sawzall fitted with a metal rough tooth blade to the shoulder and cut it like you were cutting a log into firewood. Leaving it bone in and cutting it into three pieces, now you have what Steve refers to as “blade roasts”. Blade roasts happen to be one of his favorite things to prepare. And he prepares them by keeping the seasoning basic with salt and pepper then browns them on all sides in oil. Then he places the roast in a Dutch oven just barely covered with stock and places it in the oven covered at 350° and lets it hang out in there for about six hours. During the last hour, Steve adds a mixture of seasonal root vegetables to build a stew then serves it bone-in on a family style serving platter with the root vegetables. It’s simple, rustic, and captures the flavors of the outdoors perfectly.
I know y’all look forward to venison burgers, so I had the burger ratio chat with Steve Rinella. His ratio for perfect venison hamburger meat is minimum of 10 percent fat but no more than 20 percent.
what knife to use
All this butchery talk also led to knife talk, and if there’s one tool that every person should invest in, it’s a good knife. The importance of a good knife is highly underestimated and is a topic I get asked most about. When it comes to field dressing, Steve is particular and only carries a full handle knife with a blade that is no longer than four inches. It must also have a bright orange handle so it’s easier to find if you drop it. One of his favorites is the Steep Country knife by Benchmade. But of all the knives in his arsenal his pick is the Meatcrafter knife made by Benchmade. And for good reason, Steve poured countless hours into developing the ultimate boning and processing knife that best suits hunters’ needs in the field and in the kitchen.
So by now you are either ready to go pack out a deer, reach for that Sawzall and venison shoulder, or just flat out hungry for a burger and want to cut it with a cool knife. So, before you get hangry (hungry-angry) head to themeateater.com to learn more about Steve Rinella, get venison recipes, and to purchase the knife mentioned above.
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