Processing and cooking wild game are skills as important to bowhunters as tracking and shooting. So says Joel Lickliter, aka “The Home Cookin’ Hunter,” who has an infectious passion for eating wild game. His website, Home Cookin’ Hunter, is a rich resource for recipes and butchering techniques.
Harvesting your own wild game with a bow and arrow is a rewarding experience. But that’s only the beginning. As a hunter, you get to watch the meat’s path from the field to your plate by playing an active role in field dressing, processing and cooking your meat.
If you lack the space or facilities to butcher your deer – or are more interested in jumping straight to the cooking – don’t worry. Wild-game processors will professionally butcher your deer for you, and process the meat into the cuts you desire. If that’s your preference, contact them before the season to learn their costs and hours of operation. Nearby archery shops can help you find a processor.
Whether you process your deer or take it to a processor, study Lickliter’s field-dressing and cooking tips. He’ll make your venison meals a pleasant feast. Let’s review Lickliter’s tips for handling wild game from its harvest to the dinner plate.
After the excitement of harvesting a deer wears off, the work begins. The first step is field dressing, which means removing the deer’s entrails to help cool its body to prevent spoiling. Bowhunting 360 has a great step-by-step tutorial for field dressing deer, found here.
Field dressing can seem complicated, but it’s a simple job if you have the right tools and knowledge. “When you’re field dressing an animal, go slowly and methodically,” Lickliter said.
Yes, mistakes can still happen, even with the proper knowledge, but they don’t need to ruin your hunt. For example, if a bad shot or knife cut pierces the deer’s abdomen, don’t panic. Lickliter recommends washing the body cavity with cold water.
Archery seasons usually start during late summer to early fall, which means warm weather that can spoil game meat quickly. “For anything above 40 degrees, I’ll shove ice bags into the body cavity,” Lickliter said. “Even with the ice, I want to get that deer skinned within eight hours.”
Skinning is a relatively easy part of processing your deer. Lickliter recommends cutting from inside the skin. If you cut from the skin’s fur/hair side, it’s easy to get hair on your meat.
Whenever possible, skin the deer quickly after harvesting it. This helps cool your deer quickly, and freshly harvested deer are much easier to skin. You can start the skinning process with a knife, and then just pull the skin away from the meat as you work down its body.
Before making any cuts into the meat/muscle, consider what you want to get out of your deer. “You need to decide what you like to eat,” Lickliter said. “Do I eat a lot of steaks? Do I eat a lot of burgers? Do I want to make jerky? Or am I going to get crazy and make summer sausage?” Your deer processor can help you decide which cuts fit your eating preferences.
If you’re butchering your deer yourself, proper equipment makes the job easier. “You don’t want to go into butchering with wrong tools,” Lickliter said. “Invest in the right equipment, like a quality knife, a bone saw and a deer hanger.” A deer hanger resembles a heavy-duty coat hanger, and works great for hanging deer from a tree or garage rafters.
For packaging venison, Lickliter likes vacuum sealing, which is the easiest way to seal venison for freezing and storage. Vacuum sealers are user-friendly, and protect your venison from spoilage and freezer burns.
Lickliter organizes his vacuum-sealed venison to prevent waste. “I portion it, label it and date it,” he said. “I know when that deer was shot and what’s in that package. When I pull something out of the freezer, it’s exactly what I need. I’m not wasting what I worked hard to harvest.”
Some of the deer’s best meat comes from its front and back legs. Some bowhunters prefer to bone out their venison with fillet knives. Others prefer bone-in cuts. Deboning the shoulder’s meat can be a chore, so Lickliter leaves the shoulder bone in place. “You can detach that front leg with just a couple cuts, and you have two beautiful bone-in roasts,” he said.
Lickliter recommends deboning the rear legs. A back leg has large muscle groups that make great cuts. To separate these cuts, follow the muscle seams and cut the connective tissue between them. You’ll end up with meat slabs of various sizes and shapes. They can be sliced into steaks or cooked whole like a roast.
Cooking and eating wild game is your pay-off. If you or your guests dislike venison’s flavor, Lickliter offers a solution. “Take those steaks and soak them in an ice bath,” he said.
That process pulls blood from the venison and gives it a mild flavor. Lickliter recommends soaking the cut 24 hours, and changing the water every eight hours. Think of the ice bath as a marinade that provides delicious venison without disguising its flavor.
Lickliter’s favorite venison steak recipe includes butter, garlic, fresh thyme, garlic salt and black pepper. “I’ll create a butter bath in a cast-iron skillet,” he said. “The venison steak gets seasoned with garlic salt and black pepper. I’ll cook it on medium-high heat for three minutes on each side.”
While the steak cooks, add the thyme and minced garlic to the butter bath, and spoon it over your venison steak. The butter flavors the venison and adds fat, which prevents it from drying out. Venison is best cooked rare, medium-rare or medium. Well-done venison steak will be dry and tough.
Lickliter uses the remaining butter in the skillet to make a cheese sauce. “Take Gorgonzola cheese crumbles and whip it up in the butter until it’s a smooth consistency,” he said. “Then you have a gorgonzola cheese sauce that you can drizzle right over that steak.”
Tougher cuts like the shoulder have more flavor than the more tender steak cuts, but require slow cooking to make them tender. “My favorite thing to do with a shoulder is to take garlic, onion, Worcestershire and beef stock, and throw it into a crock pot with a whole shoulder that has been rubbed down with a barbecue rub,” Lickliter said. “Let it slow-cook for eight hours on low, and you’ll have fall-off-the-bone tender venison barbecue.”
Lickliter’s final tips for better venison are all things you do long before your steak sizzles in hot butter. That is, good shot placement ensures good venison by killing the deer quickly. That means dialing in your equipment with lots of offseason practice; maybe with some coaching. If you need a coach, a place to practice, or a place to buy equipment, you’ll find everything you need by clicking here.