One of the great benefits of bowhunting is that it provides an ample supply of nutritious meat. As bowhunters, we get to be part of each step of taking an animal from the field to our plate. Butchering a deer at home can seem like a daunting task, but it’s actually more manageable than you think. Here’s how to butcher a deer in five easy steps.
There’s a few ways to butcher a deer, but each method follows the same principles: Remove the hide, remove the meat, keep the meat cool, and package it for the freezer.
If you’re hiking deep into the woods or hunting large game like elk, it might not be possible to drag or carry out an animal. In these circumstances, hunters complete the first steps of the butchering process in the field. This is called the gutless method, or quartering. Watch the video to learn how this is done (and then skip ahead to Step 4 to see what happens next).
The easiest way to process big game is to field dress the animal and then bring it to a processor. How do you find a game processor? Check Google or visit your local archery shop. Another resource is your state’s Hunters for the Hungry program. The website lists the deer processors in the state that are part of the program.
Maybe you’re ready for the challenge of butchering and processing your deer at home. This is actually the most common method for avid deer hunters. After you field dress the deer, you’ll take the steps of skinning, quartering, and processing the meat into individual cuts. Let’s get started.
You don’t need many special tools to process a deer at home. You just need a few essentials:
- Knife sharpener or extra blades
- Bone saw
- Contractor garbage bags
- Cooler with ice
- Clean work surface
- Rubber gloves
- Gambrel, rope and pulleys
Step 1: Field Dress
Once you bag your deer, follow state laws regarding tagging and reporting the kill. Next, take photos and remove the internal organs. This helps to cool the meat and prevent spoiling. It also lightens the load for carrying your quarry from the woods. Although it might seem like an undesirable chore, field dressing is simple and provides an interesting anatomy lesson.
The most important tool for field dressing is a sharp knife. Work with a short blade for best control over the cuts. To keep your hands clean while you work, wear latex gloves.
While field dressing, your primary goal is to remove all the organs without puncturing them, especially the stomach and bladder. To achieve this, use your blade deliberately and take your time. It only takes a few precise cuts to easily remove the innards.
The guts are connected to the body in two areas: the windpipe and the anus. If you sever those connections, everything else will lift out.
Always cut the skin from the inside-out. This makes it less likely loose hair will stick to your meat and protects the organs from being punctured. For a complete step-by-step guide on how to field dress a deer, click here or watch this video.
Next, load your deer into your vehicle. If the weather is warm, pack the chest cavity with bags of ice to keep the meat cool.
Step 2: Skin the Deer
If the weather conditions are appropriate, use a gambrel to hang a deer in a garage or in a shady area to age. There is some debate on if you should skin a deer before you age the meat, or if you should leave the skin on to prevent it from drying out. The choice is yours.
When you’re ready to begin skinning, you have several options. Hoist the deer using a gambrel or simply lay it on a table. You can even skin the deer while it’s lying on the ground.
Next, begin the skinning process outlined in this video. Remember to make cuts from the inside of the skin to the outside. You’ll notice that once you get started, the skin can be pulled away from the meat without much cutting. Pulling off the skin will prevent you from accidentally cutting the meat, and it reduces the amount of hair that sticks to the meat.
Step 3 Quarter
The neck, legs and backstraps make up the largest groups of meat. Separating these from the carcass will make processing them easier.
The front legs are very easy to remove, because they are connected to the body by only muscle. Use one hand to pull the leg away from the body, and make a cut starting at the armpit using the rib cage as a guide. Continue this cut until the leg is free.
The backstraps are located on either side of the spine. To remove them, feel for the spine and make an incision down the length of the spine, using the bone as a guide. Starting on the top or bottom, use one hand to pull the meat to the side and your knife to free the meat from the bone.
The key to removing the back legs is cutting the joint that connects them. Use your knife to cut the connective tissue around the joint until it separates.
The neck can be sawed off for a bone-in roast, or it can be deboned. This meat is excellent for slow cooking or as ground meat.
To help cool the meat, place these quarters into a cooler filled with ice or a spare refrigerator. The meat can stay in the cooler for several days as long as the ice is replenished.
Step 4: Separate Muscle Groups
You’ve now broken your deer into several large pieces of meat. The next step is to turn these large sections into smaller cuts that are ready to be used in your favorite recipes. The general idea is to cut meat away from the bone and to follow the natural separations in the muscle groups.
The front legs offer many possibilities for making cuts. The easiest is to use a saw to cut it into two pieces: the shoulder and the shank. Both cuts can be slow-cooked with the bone in for a tender and flavorful wild game dish. Alternatively, the meat can be cut from the bone and cubed for stew, or ground for burger.
The rear legs have several tender muscle groups that are great for a host of recipes. You can cook these muscle groups whole, like a roast. Cook them medium rare, slice thin and enjoy. These muscle groups can also be cut into steaks.
While there are many ways to enjoy backstraps, the simplest is to cut them into four or five-inch sections. These pieces can be grilled or seared in a cast-iron skillet then served medium rare like a steak.
Step 5: Package, Label and Freeze
Your meat is now portioned and processed how you like. Unless you have a huge family, you cannot eat the meat fresh before it spoils, so you must freeze a large portion. If properly stored in a freezer, your venison will remain delicious for up to a year.
Air is the enemy for your meat. This is what causes the dreaded freezer burn. You can use a vacuum seal or freezer paper to protect your meat. Vacuum sealers make the process simple; with a push of a button, your meat is packaged for the freezer. (Be gentle with vacuum-sealed meat. The seals can break with rough treatment.) When using freezer paper, wrap the meat as tight as possible to prevent air from getting between the meat and the paper.
Label each package, indicating the cut and when it was placed in the freezer.
Disposing of a Carcass
All that should be left of your deer is a pile of bones and the hide. In most localities, you can treat these like regular household garbage. Place them in a contractor garbage bag and place it in your trash receptacle or bring to the dump.
If you live in an area with Chronic Wasting Disease, check your local laws concerning the disposal of a deer carcass. You might need to take it to a designated area for disposal.
Once you’ve successfully harvested a deer and processed the meat, all that’s left is to enjoy your venison with family and friends! A freezer full of venison will provide great meals and the satisfying feeling that you are self-sufficient.