Butchering: It’s In Your Blood
By Kent Boucher
One of my favorite conversation starters is to tell the tragic story of my name. My first name “Kent” is the same as my dad’s middle name. What’s so bad about that? Well nothing, except that he got the name from his grandmother’s preferred brand of smokes. As for my middle name, well it’s a great one that has been used in my maternal line for hundreds of years. The only trouble is my version: “Nickolas” was accidentally misspelled from what should have been “Nicholas.” And that leaves me with my last name “Boucher.” This name has French Canadian roots, and was historically pronounced the same way Adam Sandler’s was when he starred as the most famous waterboy of all time. However, when my ancestors completed their southward emigration, the pronunciation was altered to a more phonetic pronunciation which confuses nearly every person I introduce myself to. The great irony behind my tragic nomenclature is that the meaning of my last name is “butcher” which is only appropriate for the man with the most thoroughly butchered name of all time. Although the story of my name mostly serves as a good icebreaker for meeting folks, every part of it carries some level of historical reference to my own heritage, and as a hunter my last name really makes me wonder, why were we known as butchers?
Hanging, Skinning, Deboning
When I first decided to butcher a deer by myself I had three critical assumptions for how it would go. First, I assumed that hanging the buck on a gambrel and hoisting it up to the ceiling in my garage with the help of my brother would be no big matter at all, this assumption was wrong. I also assumed that skinning the deer would be a pretty simple task, this was actually a correct assumption. Finally, I had assumed that deboning the buck would be as basic as cutting meat where one bone ended and finishing where the next bone started- I was correct about this as well. Two for three isn’t a bad average when scoring assumptions!
Since that first butchering experience I have learned several tricks to help improve upon each of these three primary phases of butchering. First, hoisting a deer up on a pulley is a lot of hard work, in fact it can be nearly impossible if you don’t have the necessary tools to provide the correct mechanical advantage. I recommend purchasing a chain hoist. The gearing inside of the hoist greatly reduces the amount of strength needed to lift a heavy old mature buck, but be sure that you have enough overhead clearance to lift the buck high enough for cutting. Secondly, skinning really isn’t a difficult task. If you have ever fileted bluegill before, then you have already accomplished a more challenging feat.
Once the hide is off, the deboning process commences. For this step flashback to your days of high school biology dissection labs. You have muscle tissue (meat) that is connected to bone, fat and cartilage. Your job is as basic as separating muscle from the other types of tissue. Work methodically, cutting away from yourself and others, taking advantage of the flexible blade of the knife to bend around bones and slide tightly against tallow (fat) to maximize the amount of meat you can remove from the deer. Once again though, having the correct tools makes the task much more efficient to accomplish. I own a butchering kit that includes a field dressing knife, a skinning knife and deboning knife, and most importantly a sharpener. Having the correct razor-sharp blade for each corresponding task saves time and meat.
After removing the meat from the carcass, the focus changes from breaking down a large animal into its edible components, to taking these edible components and making them into cuts ready for the grill, frying pan, or crockpot. Although all aspects of butchering require time and a strong work ethic, this step can be the most tedious. After deboning, tendons and loose connective tissue will still be attached to the muscle. There are three ways you can approach this. 1. You can trim this tissue from all of the meat before you freeze it. This method requires a lot of time up front, but makes the future cook happy when they unpackage the meat to prepare it for a meal. 2. You can go ahead and freeze the meal sized portions of meat and trim the unwanted tissue when you unpackage it for meal preparation (this is the option my wife and I prefer). The drawback here is although you save a lot of time after you debone and cut the meat into meal sized portions, you add 5-10 minutes of extra time to each meal prep session in the future. 3. You can cook the meat with the tendons and loose connective tissue membranes still attached and let the cooking heat remove some while the diner trims the rest. Many wild game chefs suggest that leaving other tissue connected to muscle while cooking adds flavor, and even more nutritional value because the additional tissue contains different concentrations of nutrients than what muscle alone contains. The downside here is this can definitely affect the meat’s edibility for new wild game eaters.
Cutting, Grinding, Packaging
Regardless of when you choose to trim the game meat, you need to be realistic about what cuts of meat will be most useful for you. If you don’t normally consume a lot of steak, then don’t cut a bunch of the meat into steaks. If you host dinners for friends and family a handful of times each year, then leave the roasts in large portions. If you eat the vast majority of your meat in burgers, lasagna or sausage, then cube up the meat into chunks ready for the meat grinder. The better the cuts match your normal meal preferences the more likely you are to adopt the game meat as a staple for your regular diet.
In my family we eat very little ground meat, so based on our preferences much of the venison ends up in steaks, roasts, and stew meat. Even still, there are some bits of meat that can only be useful if it is ground. When I first tried grinding venison I had to consult some YouTube channels (MeatEater, Wild + Whole) to know how to proceed. In the videos I learned the importance of freezing the grinding components and half thawing the meat before grinding. I also learned what an appropriate fat to meat ratio was. With this knowledge I made the necessary preparations and hooked up the meat grinder attachment to my wife’s KitchenAid mixer. In my opinion pork tallow is much tastier than beef tallow so I acquired some from a friend who purchased an entire hog to slaughter. We froze the fat and then cubed it up with the meat and used a kitchen scale to measure out a 10% fat to meat ratio. Once measured, we fed the semisolid cubes of meat and fat to the KitchenAid. As the freshly ground venison worked through the grinder my wife and I scooped it up into meal sized portions and vacuum sealed them for storage in the freezer. Vacuum sealing is a great way to preserve wild game, but another less expensive option is to purchase a couple rolls of freezer paper and wrap the cuts of game meat up in the paper. This method is very basic, but it does keep meat in good frozen condition for well over a year. The freezer paper is also easy to label so you know what you are grabbing from the freezer when meal prep begins.
If you’re not grinding sausage, you’re missing out! By adding some pork to deer, you can have breakfast sausage ready to go in short order. You can either buy some pork or ground pork to add with your deer. Be sure to use a quality spice mixture like Frisco Spice’s southern style or old-style spice. Frisco Spices also has complete instructions for brats, Italian sausage, and fresh breakfast sausage, so if you are new to grinding sausage, it will be easy. For best flavor, grind your meat, freeze it, and add spices to the sausage once you are ready to use it. For cured, smoked sausages, remove from plastic bag immediately, thaw uncovered for 1-2 days and either wrap in paper. You don’t want to put it back in the plastic because of moisture and bacteria which will taint and spoil meat.
When it comes to grinding breakfast sausage, I purchase a pork cut with a lot of fat on it, like a rump roast. I then cube the roast and alternate between deer and pork in the grinder. Mike Pullen, from Frisco Spices, recommends grinding 60% ground pork and 40% venison for breakfast sausage, which will turn out to be about 75% lean finished product. It’s perfect for biscuits and gravy, breakfast casseroles, or you can form into patties for later use. Venison sausage is better than full pork sausage as it is leaner. For brats, Mike recommends grinding 60% venison 40% pork for a 85% lean product.
I still don’t have a direct answer for why my last name means butcher. But I guess I don’t really need the answer to that question because I know that long before grocery stores, fast food, and even old-time diners were around, everyone had to know how to butcher animals in order to feed themselves and those depending on them. Whether it’s done with ancient stone tools or a modern set of wild game cutlery, butchering is in our blood.