Proper Handling of Venison Makes for Excellent-Quality Meat

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With deer season underway in Burke County, many folks will be filling their freezers with fresh deer meat. Venison when handled properly can provide excellent table fare, or, handled carelessly will have the quality of a boot sole. Many people who do not like venison have had bad experiences with improperly handled or prepared meat. Many factors affect the quality of venison, including deer age, stress prior to harvest, field dressing, contamination of meat, cold storage temperature, aging of carcass, butchering and packaging.

Meat from mature bucks over the age of 4 that are harvested during rut sometimes can have an off-flavor and tend to be tougher than does or young bucks. Mature bucks are still very edible when handled, aged and butchered properly.

A clean, quick kill provides the best-quality venison. Meat quality can decline in animals that are stressed or run extensively immediately before death. A deer should be field dressed immediately after death, but this can be postponed up to a couple hours if weather conditions permit.

After field dressing, the carcass or quartered meat should be cooled and stored at 34-38 degrees Fahrenheit. The carcass is easiest to skin shortly after death, but skinning can be postponed as long as the carcass is quickly and thoroughly cooled. Tenderness is generally improved when the carcass or quartered meat is aged at least a week at 34 to 38 F with good air circulation around any exposed meat. Air circulation around exposed meat causes its surface to dry—the dry layer should be trimmed off during butchering. Tenderness improves during the cold storage aging process until around 16-21 days as rigor subsides. The meat that will be ground and the tenderloins do not need to be aged. Avoid freezing during the aging process as it inhibits aging and speeds spoilage after thawing. The meat should be kept clean and dry throughout field dressing, cold storage and aging processes.

After the aging process, fat, cartilage, bruised meat, dried outer meat and non-muscle material should be removed from the muscles using a sharp filet or boning knife while working on a clean, cool cutting surface. Fat can cause off-flavor in venison, so remove as much as possible. Several chemicals causing off-flavor are stored in fat, and it usually leaves an aftertaste in the mouth and is less palatable than beef, pork or chicken fat. Cartilage, such as tendons, ligaments and fascia (silver skin), are responsible for much of the toughness in meat.

Venison should be quickly frozen after butchering. Meal-sized quantities of meat should be placed into freezer bags, removing most of the air before sealing. When the meat will be stored in the freezer for more than a few days, the plastic bags should be wrapped in freezer paper and sealed with tape and labeled. Meat prepared and stored in this manner maintains good quality for more than a year. Vacuum sealing can prolong storage and does not require a second layer of freezer paper.

By handling your deer in the proper way, you can add some excellent healthy protein to your family’s food supply, and have a lot of fun in the process.