Home Butchering Tips: Getting the Most Out of Your Kill
September 1, 2022
With most hunting seasons open in North America, what better time to share some home butchering tips to help you get the most out of your hard-earned animal! Home butchering is a tedious task with a steep learning curve that can get frustrating. In my first few years of doing it, I got overwhelmed by the work and frustrated with the quality of my meat after spending so many hours of work on it. Over the years, I have come up with some crucial tips that I have used to get the most out of the animals I harvest. The field care, preservation, aging, and utilization tips that follow are sure to help you have more tender, better tasting meat, and maybe utilize some parts of the animal that would normally go to waste!
- Keep the meat as clean as possible
On early season hunts, it can be quite stressful trying to get photos taken, and get the animal opened and processed while the sun is beating down on your valuable game meat. Getting the guts out as soon as possible is the first step after taking pictures. I have known some hunters who tag and gut their animal before taking pictures for the sake of cooling the meat down as fast as possible. That is a move that I highly respect, but it can have an impact on the quality of your pictures. I have never had an issue with taking pictures before making any cuts, but the biggest factor I have found in caring for meat on those hot early season days is the time and attention you put into keeping the meat clean. It is easy in the winter when there is snow on the ground, but in the early season this can be a difficult task.
I always try to use the animals hide as a ‘floor’ for the meat. If you are methodical about skinning and not letting the inside of the cape get dirt or hair on it, the fleshy side of the cape is a perfectly clean place for you to rest meat on while you work and debone the animal. I also take great care when gutting an animal not to cut into the stomach or bowel. If you can remove the innards cleanly, the inside of the rib cage acts as a great place to put your backstraps and tenderloins, rather than trying to find some clean grass to lay them on. Of course, using game bags is a huge bonus, but if you put a wet game bag in the dirt, the meat still gets dirty on the inside. Allowing dirt and hair on your meat is effectively introducing bacteria to the meat, which thrives on those hot September days. This is a huge factor in what causes meat to spoil. Taking the extra time to keep your meat as clean as possible is a sure way to have better tasting meat and mitigate the risk of it sun-spoiling.
I have also heard from so many hunters over the years that keeping the meat free of hair will limit the ‘gaminess’ of the meat. I have never personally had an issue with meat tasting ‘gamey’, but I certainly hate cleaning hair from meat when I am butchering! Either way, there is at least two good reasons to keep your meat free of hair as much as possible when field dressing.
- Use your refrigerator to age your prime cuts, BEFORE cutting!
This principle of butchering I once learned from an old-timer game butcher has been a crucial step I now take on every animal I process. The process of rigor mortis (the stiffening of muscle tissue after death) occurs usually between 2 and 6 hours after death. If you have ever shot an animal and had to wait until the next morning to recover it, you know what I am talking about. Rigor mortis happens to all animals after death as the muscle absolve themselves of oxygen. This phase of muscle stiffness can last up to 48 hours, and after that the muscle will loosen up again.
It is completely fine to debone your animal while it is in rigor mortis, in fact it is usually necessary unless you have a way to hang the full carcass in a cooled environment, which most of us don’t. However, choosing to take the next step in butchering – which is cutting your meat into steaks – is something that needs to be done after the animal has come out of rigor mortis. Just because the meat is no longer on the animal, does not mean that rigor mortis doesn’t exist. If you slice into the grain of the meat before it has come out of rigor mortis, you are disrupting the muscle fibers in a way that does not allow them to ever relax again, and this is a significant factor in the tenderness of your game. An old game butcher I became friends with gave me this tip: after deboning, put the cuts that you plan on turning into steak into plastic bags and leave them in your fridge for no less than two days before cutting. He would actually ‘wet age’ his game like this for 14-21 days before cutting. I began doing this two years ago, and it made a world of difference in the tenderness and flavor profile of the meat. If the meat is completely clean, and free of dirt and hair, it can stay in a refrigerator easily for three weeks without the risk of spoiling, and it only becomes better by the day! Not only have I found the meat to be much more tender after the aging process, but I have also found there to be a richer flavor.
- Saving some under-utilized parts of the animal... your dog will thank you!
Most hunters – including myself for several years – don’t even think about keeping parts of the animal like the liver, the kidneys, and the femurs. However, once I got a dog, I began thinking about how I could use parts of the animal that I would usually leave for the coyotes.
I first started taking the femurs. Using a reciprocating saw, I cut the femurs into 1” thick chunks and freeze them for my dog! He absolutely loves these as a treat, and they are extremely healthy for him too. The marrow is full of so many crucial vitamins and chewing through the soft bone and marrow is very good for a dog's teeth. If you look in the frozen section of most pet stores you can usually find frozen beef femurs cut exactly like this. They sure are expensive though, so I would much rather the wild, organic, and free option for my dog to enjoy!
If the liver and kidneys are intact, I will take them home for my dog as well. These act as an extremely healthy treat that he can’t get enough of. Deer liver and kidney treats that I make have become the highest value training treat that I use with him. First, I make sure that the organs are very clean and are fully intact. Small bone or bullet fragments can easily burrow into the liver, and not be noticed. Then, I bring a pot of water to a low rolling boil, and let the organs boil for about 15 minutes. After cooling, the organs get sliced thin and dehydrated. For this I use my Weber kettle to give them a nice smoky flavor that he loves and poses no health risks to dogs (as long as you aren’t adding any salt or spices). Once they are dried and jerky-like, I will keep some big chunks for large-reward treats and cut some into very small pieces for use in training.
After learning about the health benefits of bone marrow and liver, I have begun to implement them into my own diet as well. When I kill an elk or moose, I will keep the large femurs for myself and bake them over an open flame. The marrow inside is buttery tasting and delicious… maybe we will make a blog out of that recipe if I am successful this season!
I have also begun to utilize the liver in my own diet. In all honesty, I can’t stand the flavor or texture of it, but it is one of the healthiest things that exists in nature. I usually will take half of the liver and prepare it for my dog (who goes nuts for it), and the other half gets ground into my sausage. I have found that half of a liver is not enough that you can taste it at all in the grind, but it certainly ups the nutritional value of my sausage and burgers.
- Don’t forget about the ground!
It is very common to just take all your scrap meat, grind it up into sausage or burgers and call it a day. However, after experimenting with some of the wet aging principles that I now use on the finer cuts, I also like to wet age my trim before I grind it.
Before grinding, I will make sure that it is all clean and free of hair and dirt. This is crucial to preventing spoilage. I then leave it in a sealed plastic bag in my fridge for 7-14 days, depending on my schedule. I have found this to increase the flavor profile of whatever the ground meat goes into a lot. When I grind, I always do it twice. First through a course plate, and then again through a finer plate. This extra step goes a long way in ensuring that any bits of facia or silver skin that I missed get ground away so that I don’t find them with my teeth!
I am a huge fan of ground game meat. I use it in burgers, sausage, tacos, meatballs, sometimes I even just fry it up and eat it plain! The extra trim on a game animal has become such a favorite in my house, that I am happy to put just as much time and care into it as I do my steak cuts!
Home butchering is a big job and can take a long time to really get the hang of. Every year I am still learning new things about animal anatomy, cutting practices, keeping things clean, and of course game recipes! I have become so passionate about using every ounce of an animal that I can. Not only does it make me feel good as a hunter, but it is also extremely healthy and fulfilling as well!
If you have any unique ways that you like to use under-utilized parts of an animal, we would love to hear them!
If you have any questions or would like to discuss the topic further, please feel free to reach out to us at email@example.com
We are always more than happy to talk arrows and broadheads with fellow bowhunters!