How to Process a Deer
Knowing how to properly process a deer (or any animal for that matter) is a useful skill and one that everybody who eats meat should be aware of. It can give you a good sense of achievement to know that you have done a job well, saved meat from spoilage and have done something that your ancient ancestors would be proud of.
Processing a fresh deer correctly can mean the difference between usable meat and spoiled flesh. Our guide will give you the basic pointers on how to do a job you can be proud of, of course, first you actually need to catch a deer!
When to “Dress” the Deer
This is an important decision. Whilst field dressing the deer will certainly prevent spoilage, it can often be a little more awkward for cleaning up, accessing fresh water, or transporting the processed meat to fully process at the kill site. However, transporting the carcass without at least some preparation will; almost certainly result in at least some spoilage. Make the decision based on the situation but try to plan in advance.
It is vitally important that you keep the carcass as clean as possible from this point on, so if you are dragging it back to camp, make sure it's wrapped securely. When you have the carcass back at camp, the real work begins.
If you are continuing the hunt and intend to leave the deer for a while, be responsible and make sure you tag it.
Field dressing involves actually preparing and cleaning the deer on site. The process involves removing the stomach and organs to promote faster loss of body heat; this reduces the amount of bacteria growth in the carcass. First, ensure that you have a sharp gutting knife before you attempt to make any cuts.
Juices from the gut will begin spoiling the meat almost immediately; if you've accidentally shot the deer in the wrong place, or make an inaccurate cut, use dry leaves or a rag to wipe off the fluids, and if possible, rinse the area quickly.
How to Field Dress:
- Either hoist the deer or lay it on a slope. If lying on a slope, make sure the head is on a higher level than the haunches. If hoisting, attach a sturdy rope around the antlers or high on the jaw.
- Slice upwards from the anus. Use short, smooth, shallow strokes to cut from the anus up towards the rib cage. Use your hands to widen the gap when needed. Make sure you are only cutting through skin, fat and abdominal muscles; if you cut too deeply, you can pierce the insides and spoil the meat.
- If you are going to mount the head, stop at the rib cage. If not, carry on up to the pit of the neck (the hollow part between the chest and the jaw.)
- Make sure the cavity is wide enough for you to use both of your hands and a knife.
- If you have a large knife or saw, you can use it to break through the rib cage which will make the job easier (for removing the pluck). Don’t worry if you don’t, it just involves a little more work.
- Cut through the windpipe to help with detaching the stomach.
- You’ll find that the organs are connected to the interior cavity and diaphragm by soft connective tissue, carefully scrape this away (some minor cutting may be needed). Once loose, carefully pull the whole mass backwards away from the head end.
- Cut around the anus (you can use a deer anus remover tool) with your knife and slip the organ mass out of the carcass through the pelvis. Be careful not to tear anything.
- Leave the carcass to air out for about an hour and then shift it back to camp.
This is the traditional method of field dressing. However, a popular method is by doing it upside down! With this method, you basically reverse the deer (whilst hanging) and start at the anus. Here's a great video that shows you how a real pro does this:
Finishing the Job
Now that you’ve got your deer back at camp (or home) the final processing can begin. Make sure that you have a good supply of water, a cool area and a decent sized table to work with. Getting this right will mean you have some really great venison on the table, so take your time and do it properly.
- Start by hanging the deer. It doesn’t matter which way up (although many prefer head down) as this will not only help with maneuverability but gravity will assist with drainage and removing the last of the blood.
- Next comes skinning. Make sure your knives and saw are sharp and clean. Begin by cutting away the hooves from around the knee (this is actually the ankle, but looks like a knee) joint. Begin by “worrying “the skin at the leg cuts, use your hands to pull the skin little by little away using the knife when needed. When you have enough skin away that you can grasp it firmly with both hands, just pull very hard and the whole skin will begin to pull away.
*An alternative to this is by using a golf ball, a pick-up truck and some well placed ropes. Here’s a video to see if this is something you could try yourself:
- Use water to clean the carcass inside and out. Make sure to remove any hair that may be stuck on and let the water drain. If any pockets of water remain, towel them dry because excess moisture can cause spoilage.
- Let it hang. To allow time for the collagen in the muscle cell to break down, you need to age your meat properly. The absolute minimum is three days; a week is better and if you can, let it age for 14 to 16 days for optimum flavor. Hang the carcass in a cool, dry place with an average temperature of no more than 4 degrees C (40 Fahrenheit).
Take The Deer Home
The work you have done so far will allow you to get the optimum amount of meat from the carcass with little or no spoilage. In many ways, dressing and preparing a deer is as much of a skill as actually tracking and shooting one!
Now it's time to haul your deer away home using whatever method you prefer. With all these steps followed, you are now ready to butcher the deer and enjoy the taste of delicious venison and a job well done!