My friend Claudia has totally put me on the spot. Which, to be perfectly honest, was a kick in the ass I probably needed.
She recently posted about venison. Venison that I acquired from my stepfather, and then delivered to her fridge after an appropriate hanging time. Her post basically forces me to write my post so you can see where she got her venison.
WARNING! The rest of this post contains graphic images of a deer carcass being butchered.
The first thing you notice when picking up a fresh deer carcass from a relative is how heavy they are. Whitetail doe average 140 to 160 lbs. It took two of us to haul the doe into the back of my truck, where she maintained the classic dead dear posture. Head thrown back, tongue hanging out.
A few things have to happen to "process" a dear. First you have to access the tendons of the legs so that you can suspend the body from a tree or some similarly high point.
I was advised that evisceration should be preformed head up. So I hoisted the carcass into the giant mulberry tree in the backyard, much to the delight of the dogs who sniffed the alien creature until shooed away but continued to watch with great interest in the entire process.
The third step is to actually make the incision. Heard the phrase "Stem to stern"? That's the cut I had to make. Carefully, so as to not damage the organs inside or pierce the stomach or intestines. Deer are ruminants. Meaning they have fermentation tanks for stomachs. Not a pleasant smell if breeched.
The viscera was caught by a recycling bin as it was trimmed out. Heart, liver and kidneys were set to the side for later use.
Step... um... The next step was to skin the carcass. This is the suckiest part of the whole process. You might think it was the gutting part, but you would be wrong. While gutting is fairly bloody and messy it is not particularly difficult. Skinning on the other hand is akin to opening a plastic bubble packed electronic device with a pair of blunt nosed safety scissors. You wind up with small cuts on your fingers from the plastic, longingly staring at the liquor cabinet at 11 in the morning. Mammal skin is designed to stay attached and it's slippery. By the end of the almost 2 hour long process my hands hurt from the cold and from gripping the skin tight enough to not have it slip through my fingers. The entire time I was thinking how all this work better be worth it.
Done. Sorta. The carcass has to hang, and age. Meat is the one case were freshness is not necessarily a virtue.
WARNING! Science content: Why hang/age meat?
Two things happen when you hang an animal to age. First, immediately after death, enzymes in the muscle tissue (proteases) start to break break down proteins in muscle tissue (proteolysis) causing the tissue to become tender. Second, moisture is lost due to exposure to the air. "Dry Aging" is the preferred method for most meat connoisseurs as opposed to "Wet Aging" where the meat is packed in a vacuum bag and is left to soak in the released fluids (blood). Wet aging leaves the meat all metallicky tasting. Gross. Sadly, most grocery store meat is wet aged.
The end result of aging/hanging is that the meat is more tender and typically more concentrated in flavor.
Seven days after all the joy that was skinning the doe I had this.
A carcass ready to be broken down. I used the basic butchering guide for a lamb as they are relatively similar. Plus the book I was referencing recommended it.
The rear cut was made first.
Then the front half of the carcass was boned out. (The visible mold was trimmed away)
Leaving lovely bones for stock. I removed the lower section of ribs on both sides. You might notice the dark red blood on the side of the carcass. That was were the bullet hit and dropped the deer where she stood. Brutal but ultimately painless death. She didn't know what hit her.
The hind quarters were next.
The tenderloins had been previously removed and gifted to Claudia. She made them amazing. This left me with the loins (backstrap) and the haunches.
The haunches are going to be used in an experiment in ham curing. (Future post) The majority of the meat left was converted into Sweet Italian sausage or vacuum sealed and frozen for later use (loins).
I am still trying to determine my like or dislike of the sausage. I am, as you might be aware, a pork guy and the texture of ground deer is quite different from pork. So the sausage is strange to me. Not really a flavor issue so much as texture. Whitetail deer is a sweeter flavored meat that pork, so that changed the flavor profile of the sausage a bit. Like I said I am still figuring out if I like it or not.
What I really did like, do like, continue to like, is the country pate that was made with the liver. But that is another post.
When my stepfather called me bright and early that Saturday morning asking if I was still interested in an entire deer, I jumped at the offer. When I got it home and ready to process I wasn't sure I could go through with it. After the first cut into the skin and belly I knew I would be fine. Waiting on the meat to age was just a matter of the occasional poke at the carcass and a sniff to make sure nothing was starting to "turn". I learned a lot during this ongoing process. I am grateful to my stepfather for the gift of the deer, and not to get all new agey or mystical I am grateful to the deer for her life. I hope to do right by her.
The most important thing I learned? Knowing where your food comes from and how much work is involved makes you appreciate the meals produced that much more.