We’ve entered the age when people are questioning the origin and quality of the meat we eat. For many, wild game stands out as one of the best options for feeding us, our families and friends.
Way before shoppers needed labels to indicate whether or not meat was organically grown or injected with dyes and hormones, ethical hunters were filling their freezers with low-fat, high quality protein.
But before you release an arrow or squeeze the trigger this fall be prepared to properly care for your game once the animal is down. That’s when the real work begins. The succulent flavor of those savory backstops and tenderloins actually starts before you leave the woods.
Hunters spend a lot of time preparing, testing and tuning equipment for fall hunts then overlook the need for quality field-care tools. This first begins with a proper knife, which we are blessed with a multitude of options.
The key is to select a knife with a sturdy blade made of high quality steel. Keep the knife sharp. A blade with a keen edge makes precise cuts and reduces the odds of accidentally cutting into the digestive tract. You want your knife to remain sharp through the entire field-dressing process. For this reason some hunters carry a small sharpening tool. Personally, I pack two knives. Disposable gloves are important too and you’ll also need to pack some clean clothes or paper towels.
The worst offender of meat spoilage is contamination. So from the time you first recover the animal take care to not let dirt, debris, digestive tract contents or urine come in contact with the meat. Reducing contamination actually begins before the kill and it starts with a good, clean shot to the vitals. Once you recover the animal begin by moving it to a clean and cool place before field dressing.
Carefully remove the entire digestive tract while preventing the bacteria-rich contents to contact the meat. Plant materials, dirt, hair and other items are also sources of contamination.
The second most common cause of spoilage is warm temperatures. Make every effort to cool the meat as quickly as possible. Start the process by first removing all the internal organs while keeping the animal out of direct sunlight. Opening the body cavity and skinning will allow it to cool properly. Unless the temperature is 40 degrees or cooler place a bag or two of ice inside the cavity for the trek home. Do not open the bags of ice. Instead keep the plastic bag sealed. Ideally you want the meat to cool between 32 and 40 degrees – the quicker the better.
As mentioned earlier, bacterial contamination is the leading cause of spoilage. Bacteria thrive in moist environments so your goal should be to keep the meat dry, but water isn’t all bad. After all, when a butcher kills a beef cow or hog he hangs the carcass and washes it from hoof to horns. If it’s raining or you rinse out the body cavity with water be sure to dry it the best you can. This is where the paper towels come in.
Blood also substantially ups the odds for bacterial contamination, so always clean it away from the animal as soon as possible. Here’s the other use for those paper towels. The warmer it is the more important keeping the meat dry becomes.
Once you have taken the animal from the field it’s time for processing. That used to mean buying a roll of freezer paper and spending several hours cutting and packaging your venison or other big game animal. Years ago big game processors were hard to come by but now we are fortunate to have several good ones available. There are Simpson’s Deer Processing in Young America and Kristie’s Deer Processing in Western Howard County. Burlington Meats also packages deer as does Hollands just outside of Peru and Rances located in Cass County. But beware; all processors are not created equal.
First off make sure the processor you select is prepared to handle wild game. If they don’t take great effort in keeping the meat clean and refrigerated all your hard work in the field will be in vain. Again, storage below 40 degrees is the key and if you plan to age the meat do so between 32 and 40 degrees.
Frank Simpson has had literally thousands of deer pass through his shop. “Without a doubt contamination and failing to get the animal cool are the two biggest causes for spoilage,” he said emphatically. “It’s easy to freeze a milk jug or two with water and put them in a cooler and take it with you when you deer hunt,” he continued. “If you get a deer just put them in the chest cavity even if it’s a short trip to the processor. If you don’t use them just put them back in the freezer.”
Another trick Simpson recommends is to place a couple two-by-four’s between the carcass and truck bed to improve air circulation around the entire animal. “Think about it,” he said. “The bottom of your truck bed is normally warmer because of the sun and the hot exhaust pipe running right underneath it.”
If you want to dine on your wild game prior to freezing you can safely store it in your refrigerator for no more than four days. Cook the meat to 160 degrees Fahrenheit to kill any bacteria.
If you plan on freezing your venison or other large game, which you will most likely do unless you are feeding a hungry crowd, double wrap it in plastic wrap then freezer paper. Vacuum bags work well too. It’s best to write the date and cut of meat on the outside packaging. This attention to detail helps you know what’s inside the packages and allow you to keep your stock rotated.
One critical element some hunters forget is to keep the packages separated in the freezer so it can quickly cool until it is frozen solid, usually about 24 hours. When frozen rock hard then you can stack the meat to maximize additional space.
All venison is not created equal and proper care from field to freezer can mean the difference between delicious dinners of wild game or something better left for the dogs.