How To Do Your Own Big Game Meat Processing

Meat Processing: Make short work of what can be hunting’s most tedious chore.

Processing your own game meat can bring about the same sense of self-accomplishment as reloading or tying flies. But even more so, it is the final step that binds together the whole act of hunting. Along with these reasons, with the rise of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Canada, more and more hunters are also looking at processing their own wild game for safety’s sake.

For many years I cut and wrapped all my own deer, antelope, sheep, caribou and even tackled a few moose and elk. I ground my own burger and made and smoked all my own sausage with nothing but a hand-grinder and a Little Chief Smoker. My only other tools were good knives and a hand meat saw that constantly wandered off track. Needless to say, over time, this labour-intensive approach wore out my interest in processing the big critters — so I often ended up taking my moose to a commercial meat cutter. In those days I lay awake many a night trying to dream up a way of constructing a motor-driven grinder and even took the plunge to actually try and build one. The results were resounding failures.

Oh, how times have changed. Today, one can buy 1.75-horsepower motor-driven grinder that can process 22 pounds per minute, sausage stuffers of all sizes, meat-cutting band saws, jerky slicers, meat tenderizer/cubers, burger presses, smokers of all sizes, vacuum packers — the list marches on. But even without the state-of-the-art, home processing your game can go smoothly.

Before You Start

One does not want to end up with a product that bears no resemblance to something you or you family would find palatable. So, before you start, I believe there are two fundamental questions you must first ask. Do you want to tackle every aspect of processing your own game? Or do you want to only take on a portion of it?

For example, you might cut your own deer, but then take the trimmings to a professional sausage maker. Or you may want to jump right in and tackle it all. For the purpose of this piece I going to make two assumptions that yes, you want to have a go at it all  — but only on a deer sized animal (a great place to start). Simply put, deer are easy to handle and, if you are careful, even a beginner can’t go too far wrong.

Before I even touch on the essential components to a meat processing arsenal, you, as the potential meat cutter, should have a sound understanding of the anatomy of a deer and where the various cuts are to be found. There are a whole array of charts and guides out there to give a novice a good idea of where round steaks are to be found. So the first step is to obtain a deer cutters’ chart/guide and familiarize yourself with where each cut is found. I divert for a moment, as this is where some may differ in their approach to the actual cutting process. If you want to save yourself some freezer space and some money to boot, skip the purchase of a meat cutter’s band-saw then do as I do; bone out all your cuts. All you need is a couple of good knives including a boning knife, a hand meat-saw and a clean working area.

Making the Cuts

After adequate aging, and while the deer is still hanging, I first remove the back straps (loins) and tenderloins with a boning knife. I then remove each front shoulder, one at a time, and bone-out each separately, laying the cuts and trimmings aside until both shoulders are completed. During this cutting process make sure you remove all remaining shot-up tissue and discard it. It is also important at this stage to decide just how large you want your roasts, how thick you want your steaks and just how much burger, stew or sausage meat you want. If, for example, you want a lot of burger you may just want to use some of the less attractive cuts for that. I then move on to the hindquarters and repeat the process until all that is left is the spine, neck and ribs. I then bone out the neck for burger or sausage and lastly, I remove the rib cages with the meat saw and then crosscut the ribs to a length of about three to four inches. All my cuts and trimmings are now ready for the next step. (This is also a good time to set aside the meat for burger and sausage, as it will be dealt with later.)

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention processing birds. Because birds can take up a lot of freezer space, as soon as I get them home or can legally do so, I fillet the breast meat off the breastbone and remove the legs from the carcass. These pieces should then be packaged and identified as to species, general age of the bird and dated. My only exception is that if I have late-fall, high quality birds that I wish to roast, these I would set aside for that special Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.

Storage Know-How

Ordinary freezer paper or zip-lock type plastic bags just won’t hold a candle to a vacuum packer for keeping your meat, fish or birds as fresh as the day you put it in the freezer. If, however, you would prefer not to lay out the money for a vacuum packer, I would suggest you wrap meal-sized portions in good quality freezer paper then date and identify each package as to cut and species. I also would go one step further and place these packaged portions in zip-lock bags for additional protection. While it won’t match vacuum packing, it will certainly enhance the longevity of your hard earned meat.

The Loose Ends

Let’s now deal with those trimming and the next must have on my list of equipment, a meat grinder. And they come in all sizes, from a small food processor with a grinder attachment to commercial style grinders that can literally eat their way through a moose in no time at all. Here is where you may want to share the cost of a larger grinder with a hunting buddy, especially if you are going to tackle a moose or elk each year. If deer are all you will ever process, a small grinder with a sausage tube is all you need. When making burger and sausage, I always like to mix in a bit of beef fat, however the amount should be varied to your tastes. As a beginner I would also opt for commercial sausage mixes and only move on to exploring other recipes as you gain experience, especially if your family has any doubts about your prowess as a sagely sausage maker.

Another item on my equipment list is a smoker — there are now any numbers of commercially manufactured smokers to choose from. For the most part it boils down to size and your personal preference as to what smoker will meet your needs, or you may even want to build your own. But for smoking fish, meat, sausage or even birds, they are a fine addition to creating a wonderful variety of taste treats like no other. Just follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for what it is you are smoking and you and your family will love the result.

This is the time of year to start thinking about picking up those meat cutting guides/charts as well as the processing equipment that you will need, so that come fall you are not only in the know, but also have the necessary equipment to make it a process you can look forward to.

Canned Meat

I have canned fish, Mountain sheep, moose, mountain goat and caribou — all turned out great and it certainly allowed me over time to sample sheep meat that, for example, had been taken years earlier. With the advent of vacuum packaging I no longer can meat, but for those of you who want to give it a try, invest in a proper canner; a good quality pressure cooker and buy proper cans for the product to be canned.

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