Venison Processing 101

By Jessica Graham

You have just harvested a whitetail deer. Now what? You have two options:  you can take your deer to a locker, or you can proceed with processing the deer yourself. Processing your own deer can seem like a big undertaking, but in all honesty, it is not very complicated. The biggest component of processing your own deer is the time it takes to complete all of the steps. After you process your deer a few times, the procedure gets easier and faster.

Whether you choose to process your own deer, or wish to take it to a processing facility, the first thing you want to do is field dress the deer. You will make a cut from the pelvic area, near the tail and continue on through the chest cavity. Be sure to remove the insides as cleanly as possible, and avoid cutting internal digestive organs, as quality field care will yield quality tasting meat. Although not always possible, if you can avoid leakage of internal fluids from the stomach and intestines on the meat, your meat will taste better. If you can avoid contacting the meat with the fluids, do so. Poor field handling is one of the biggest reason deer meat will have a poor taste; I’m sure you have heard “Deer meat is so gamey”. When handled and cooked correctly from field to table, you will have high-quality meat your whole family will enjoy.

There are glands located near the hocks of the deer. These are the tarsal glands. They secrete an oily substance, and deer use them for scent purposes. If the venison meat contacts the residue from the tarsal glands, it will taint the taste of the meat. A few fellas I know prefer to remove the tarsal glands prior to field dressing; others take care not to brush tools, hands or meat against the glands. Always be safe, and when available and practical, wear gloves. Be sure to use sharp tools while performing field work. The sharp knives will allow you to apply a constant pressure to safely complete tasks.

After the field prep work is completed, you should now remove the hide from the deer. It is easiest to remove the hide soon after harvesting, when the meat is cooling, but can be done later. To remove the hide, hang the deer from an elevated location. You can use a lot of different methods to elevate the deer ranging from using a rope and a tree, a chain and the end-loader of a tractor, or a hoist to suspend the deer. By doing this it is easier to remove the hide and tasty venison.  Apply pressure to pull downward and cut between the hide and the meat. The hide should be removed from the hocks of the deer to the upper neck so you can easily access and remove the exposed venison.

It is important to use a quality knife for the job that should be able to hold a sharp consistent edge. Removing the hide from a deer can quickly dull your knife, and using dull tools increases the effort you must apply to finish the job. Using dull tools increases your chance for blades slipping and accidents occurring.
While field dressing and skinning, try to avoid getting deer hair on the venison, and do everything in your power to maintain the safest sanitary conditions. This will ensure the meat will hold a delicious flavor, and your friends and family will not get sick from consuming the venison.

After the hide is removed from the animal, you can choose to allow the deer to hang for a few days (if it is cold enough outside), or you can remove the meat now. By allowing the deer to hang for a couple of days you are allowing the meat to age and tenderize. If it is too cold, the meat can freeze and it becomes difficult to remove. If temperatures are too warm, on the other hand, the meat can spoil. Depending on the temperature, your schedule, and available tools, you might be better off to remove the meat promptly rather than hanging the deer for a few days.

Just as it is important to use a sharp knife to cape your deer, you want to use a clean, sharp knife that fits your hand well to remove the meat. Make sure your knife is uncontaminated; if you used it for field dressing or skinning, you might consider changing knives, or washing your current knife.

Before you start, take a couple of minutes to evaluate the meat with the hide removed. Look for injuries and signs of infections on the deer. You do not want to eat meat that appears to be infected. Once you have determined no injury is present and your deer visually appears to be healthy, it is time to remove the meat. Most of the meat is located along the hind quarters, front shoulder area, and along the back. As sportsmen, do your due diligence to remove and use as much of the meat as possible.

To remove the meat, I start at the hind quarters and work my way towards the neck, but you can do what works well for you and your situation.  Take a sharp knife and cut near the back hocks and follow the bone towards the pelvic area and hind quarters of the animal. You will want to cut on both sides of the bone trying to remove as much venison as possible. Do this for both hind quarters. You are essentially cutting the thighs and rump. Do this for both legs of the deer. The meat you remove from the hindquarters is delicious and will have a great flavor. I use this meat in roasts, steaks, and in dishes where I want to be able to enjoy the flavor of the meat. I grind and can some meat that comes from the legs and hind quarters as well.

Next, you will want to remove the back straps of the deer.  The back straps are often referred to as the loins of a deer. They tend to be fairly tender, have low fat, and are some of the finest tasting meat on the deer. The loin meat will be more tender than meat found on the hind quarters. For this reason, the loins are my first choice for high-quality steaks and meat used in specialty dishes. To remove the back straps, run a sharp boning knife parallel along the spine from the front shoulder blades to the hind quarters. The size of the deer will influence the size of the loins. Generally speaking, you will make another cut parallel to your first cut, about 4 – 6 inches away from the spine to remove the back straps. Next, tug on the loins and cut, to remove the back straps. There is a layer of fat between the meat and hide. All the white fat, or silver skin, will need to be removed. Unlike beef fat, deer fat is tough, chewy and does not have the best flavor.

After the back straps have been removed, move towards the shoulders. The shoulders are a tougher portion of meat webbed together with a fair amount of fat. The shoulders are removed in a similar fashion as the hindquarters, cutting from the back of the shoulders towards the bone, and then following the contour of the bone. Shoulders are great for soup or ground into hamburger. Shoulders also taste delicious if braised and slowly cooked. A fair amount of trimming is required on shoulders to remove as much fat as possible.

The neck has quite a bit of meat on it, but it can be fairly tough, tougher than the shoulders, hindquarters, and loins.  The meat from the neck can be removed by working from the base of the neck towards the head, removing the meat in strips. Keep working around the neck until the vast majority of the meat has been removed. The neck should be slow cooked to tenderize it as much as possible. The meat has good flavor, and when ground, the toughness of the meat is masked.

At this point, most of the meat has been removed. However, you will notice there is still meat between the ribs. The meat can be removed in two ways.  You can either run a knife between the ribs, trying to get the meat removed, or you can saw the ribs in half. To saw the ribs, run the blade of the saw perpendicular to the ribs, and parallel with the spine. You will have to make an additional cut with the saw parallel to the spine to detach the ribs from the rest of the deer. Trim some of the fat off the ribs, and slowly smoke for a delicious dish.

The last remaining pieces of venison lie inside the deer under the loins of the deer; between the hips and the rib cage. There you will find two pieces of meat attached to the top of the ribs. These two strips of meat are the tenderloins of the deer. They are remarkably tender, as the name suggests, and are the best pieces of meat on the deer. To remove these, simply take a sharp quality knife, pull on the tenderloins, and cut perpendicular to the spine. The tenderloins do not need trimmed, and can be wrapped in freezer paper and frozen for later use.

Now that the meat is removed from the deer, trim off the white fat, often referred to as silver skin. As with most animals, the flavor comes from the fat. Unfortunately, deer fat does not have an appealing taste; this is why it is important to remove as much of the fat as you can. The white fat will also build up and eventually plug the holes in your grinder making it difficult to grind large batches of meat.

Once the deer fat is trimmed, you can cut the meat into custom sizes to be used for roasts and steaks. The portion of meat that does not go into roasts and steaks can be ground into hamburger. I recommend adding a little bit of fat either from pork or beef to help the meat stick together and to add a little bit of flavor to the meat. Venison can be ground alone, and is great in chili and other dishes. To preserve, wrap portions in freezer paper lined with plastic, and taped with freezer tape. You can also use a vacuum sealer for a fresher preservation, or some people use freezer ziplock bags for freezer storage.

By removing and processing your deer yourself, you are ensuring you are getting and consuming your own deer. You can control and ensure the highest standards from field dressing to the table to ensure your family is eating the best quality of venison possible.  By processing your own venison, you will invest a little bit of time but will save yourself some hard-earned money. It may seem complicated to remove the deer meat, but the process is actually quite easy, and the whole process from field to freezer can be completed in a couple of hours.