Coming across advice this good means passing it along: From preventing spoilage to maximizing taste and tenderness, these pro-tips will ensure your next venison harvest goes as far as it can.
If you’re among the many hunters preserving and cooking your harvest, then you know thine enemy: spoilage. Wild game has a tendency to spoil far faster for numerous reasons. Chief among them is the same reason it’ll always be best: no processing, no preservatives – straight as nature intended.
This does, however, prevent harvesters with a butcher’s-list of challenges. Thankfully, Deer + Deer Hunting’s Brad Fenson is generously sharing his pro-tips on how to get your next venison harvest to keep – and keep well. The kind of keep & cook that’ll convert those fellow hunters who “don’t care for deer meat.” If you’re game on sharing, too, that is.
Let’s start by at least sharing Fenson’s pro-tips – alongside those he’s sourced from Iowa State University’s expert, Dr. Joseph G. Sebranek. Playing stingy with advice this rock-solid (or tender, rather), does not a good outdoorsman make. So let’s get to it!
Venison Pro-Tips: Preventing Spoilage Begins Immediately
Firstly, it’s important to note that proper handling of game starts as soon as the kill is made.
For Fenson, this means any harvest should be “field dressed as soon as possible to remove blood clots, internal organs, and most importantly, the animal’s digestive tract.” Internal organs, or offal, if left unchecked, will spoil all edible parts of your kill far faster with loads of bacteria.
“If the stomach or intestine has been shot, ruptured or cut, make sure to clean the inside of the cavity to reduce chances of Escherichia coli, or E. coli bacteria that can contaminate meat and has the potential to cause food poisoning,” Fenson adds. “Stomach contents or intestinal fluids are easily contained in the inner cavity of an animal and can be wiped out with a paper towel, washed, and even scraped out initially.”
Another pro tip for those hunting in snow-laden locations: snow serves as a perfect absorbent for blood and waste material within carcasses. If you’ve got it on hand, use it to clean – and chill – your harvest right away.
Do I Skin My Harvest? Or No?
Second up is a matter of great debate amongst hunters. As such, the experts at Iowa State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition step in to lend some clarity:
The verdict? Dr. Joseph G. Sebranek says it all depends on climate. “If initial chilling of the carcass is slow and not well controlled due to warm temperatures (hanging in a garage or outdoors), then removing the hide would be a good idea in order to get the initial temperature down to 35-40°F,” he clarifies.
“However, taking the hide off will allow the exposed surfaces to dry out if aging for several days and could also result in dust, dirt and insect contamination if hanging outdoors. The carcass should not be allowed to freeze because that does not allow for tenderization by aging and might even result in toughening of the meat,” Dr. Sebranek continues. “If initial chilling can be achieved with the hide on, it would be best, in general, to leave the hide on until you’re ready to cut up the carcass. Of course, skinning is easier when the carcass is warm, as opposed to one that has been thoroughly chilled.”
Should I Wash the Venison?
Moreover, Dr. Sebranek explains that hunters should always be cautious when using any water on meat. Water aids bacterial growth greatly, and can devastate a harvest in a matter of hours.
“It is a good practice to wash the carcass body cavity as soon as feasible after dressing because the internal body cavity surfaces can be contaminated from stomach and intestinal contents during dressing or as a result of shot placement,” he starts off.
“However, the washed surfaces should also be allowed to dry quickly so that any remaining bacteria do not have a good opportunity to grow (they love water). Washing after hide removal is not really necessary because a good skinning job will leave a clean surface. If there is visible dirt, hair, etc. on the skinned surfaces, then washing would be OK.”
In short: if you’re prepping to wash – prep for immediate drying afterward.
Have a meat thermometer on hand, as well. Temperatures of 40° F or higher mean bacterial growth will kick into overdrive.
Fenson: “Temperature is Critical”
To this end – temperature is critical for venison and all wild game. Fenson further inquires with Dr. Sebranek to deliver specifics here, as well.
The sweet spot, temperature wise, is between 38-40°F.
“The tenderizing enzymes are more active at warmer temperatures and staying below 40°F delays spoilage bacteria,” Sebranek continues. “Cold storage of fresh meat after aging is best at as low an unfrozen temperature as possible (meat freezes at about 28°F) so 28-30°F is ideal if possible.”
This means getting creative in warmer states. In Oklahoma, my outfitter stuffed two 10-pound bags of ice into the cavity of my field-dressed deer,” Fenson says of his own experience with this. “He left the skin on and hung it by the back legs. It was hot outside, and I wasn’t sure the technique would work. Once the sun set and the insects disappeared, we skinned the animal, and the meat was cold to the touch.”
In this method, intact hide works like an insulation sleeve and holds the ice’s freezing temps within the carcass. In addition, methods like this aid in that aforementioned, and crucial tip: keep things dry.
“It’s best to use bagged ice or ice packs to chill meat if refrigerated space is not available, rather than direct water contact,” Dr. Sebranek agrees. “The issue again is that bacteria love water. Short-term contact, such as washing with cold water followed by drying is OK.”
Hang Kills That Are Over 2½ Years of Age
Hunters know that a fresh kill is loose, limp, and difficult to handle. Hanging goes a long way in firming up muscles for cutting and shaping a harvest. To this end, Fenson lends wisdom when it comes to when and why to hang your harvests, as well.
For Fenson, his general “rule of thumb” is to “age, or hang, animals over 2½ years of age.”
“A young deer or elk can be cut after a day or two and be extremely tender,” he adds. “The older the animal, the longer and tougher the muscle fibers can get. Aging will encourage enzyme growth to help break down the muscles and make them more tender.”
Dr. Sebranek lends scientific basis to this, noting that “Meat has proteolytic enzymes that slowly break down meat proteins to soften the texture and make it more tender. It is a slow process at 38-40°F and will require about 14 to 21 days.”
“Monitor your wild game when it’s hanging, because it can dry out excessively,” the good Dr. continues, “meaning you will have to trim the dark, hardened edges when butchering. Finding the balance can be difficult and only big, older animals will need aging for ultimate tenderness.”
Tackle That Next Venison Harvest Like a Pro
All in all, following even just one of these tips is guaranteed to double your chances of prolonging the usable life of your next harvest. Combine them all, and you’ll be preserving and dining on your next round of venison like a true pro.
Want a few recipes to put that venison to excellent use? We’ve got you covered there, too:
- Unique Recipes for Venison You May Not Have Tried Yet
- Duck Commander Unveils ‘Best’ Venison Backstrap Recipe
- Trek to Table: How To Turn Fresh Game Meat to Delicious Jerky