There’s no better way to enjoy the meat from a wild game harvest than to process it yourself. Processing wild game at home gives you ultimate flexibility in how you use that meat and it saves a great deal of cost. Plus there’s the satisfaction in knowing that you saw the entire process through from field to table.
When you get home from a hunt, staring at a cooler full of big game quarters and parts can seem intimidating. At this point in the process, it probably doesn’t look very appetizing. The temptation to offload this chore to a processor is understandable. However, it’s much easier than you think! Once you get started, you might be surprised how simple it is to clean, cut and package it.
In this first part in our wild game processing series, we’ll cover the basics for getting started – how to prepare, how much time to budget for processing an animal, and the recommended equipment and supplies for getting started. Have your own processing tips? Please leave them in the comments below! We always love learning new tips and tricks. Here are a few of our own…
GOOD RESULTS BEGIN IN THE FIELD
Here at Caribou Gear, we’re passionate about bringing home the best possible wild game meat. That effort begins as soon as an animal is on the ground. If something tastes gamey, don’t blame the deer. We’ve heard it all. ”They eat too much sage,” and a variety of other excuses. Age can certainly affect an animal’s tenderness. But if the meat is gamey or has a bad flavor, something went wrong between harvest and freezer.
We’ve already covered the subject of meat care in the field, so we won’t repeat it all here. See this previous article for some tips. Just keep in mind that the road to quality table fare begins immediately upon harvest. Here are the main points to remember: get the hide off immediately, keep it clean and use quality breathable game bags, allow air to circulate, get the core temperature down as soon as possible, and then keep it dry and cool until you can process it.
We sometimes hear folks say that they don’t use game bags because they leave the hide on. Sure, the hide keeps the meat very clean. But it also insulates the meat, even in cold weather. Then you’ll be processing clean but crappy meat. So what’s the point? Get that hide off and get the meat in game bags. Keep it dry and let it cool with plenty of air circulation. Do that, and what comes next will be much more enjoyable.
HOW MUCH TIME DOES IT TAKE?
There’s no doubt that processing a big game animal can be a bit time consuming. When you’re already pressing your luck with time off work to go on a hunt, it’s understandable that dropping your meat off at a processor might seem like an easy option. But whenever it’s possible, schedule an extra day or two at the end of your hunt to take care of the meat.
The time it will take you to process an animal depends on a few things. First, it depends on the size of the animal. An antelope or small whitetail doe might only take a few hours. Cutting and packaging a large bull elk can easily span a couple of days.
Second, it depends on how much help you have. When processing an elk, it sure helps to have a friend or two alongside you. This will make the process go much faster. While one person cleans and breaks down the quarters, another person can be wrapping and labeling steaks and roasts, while a third person could be running the grinder.
Time Saving Tip: One trick I’ll use to save time, particularly when I’m working by myself, is to set aside all the meat that’s destined for the grinder. Cube it into grinder-sized chunks and then freezer-wrap or vacuum seal it into roughly 5-pound packages. I’ll put these packages in the freezer and save them for later. Then during the off-season when I have more time, I’ll get them out of the freezer and make batches of burger or sausage. If you’re short on time, the grinding can easily wait until later.
Finally, how long it takes to process an animal will depend on your equipment. A high quality meat grinder than can do upwards of five pounds per minute, sharp knives and a few other tools can help speed up the process. Which brings us to the next point…
RECOMMENDED EQUIPMENT AND SUPPLIES
In order to process your own meat at home, there are a few “must-have” items and then a few items that are helpful but not necessary. We’d recommend that you begin with only the essential items so that you can invest in high quality equipment. Then, it’s easy to add those nice-to-have items later on.
Knives & Cutting Board
The first and perhaps most important thing you can buy is high quality knives and a big cutting board. This filet and deboning set from Knives of Alaska is our go-to set of blades for breaking down big game. Then, get yourself a nice big cutting board. Your spouse or roommates probably wouldn’t appreciate you cutting with sharp knives right on the kitchen counter. A cutting board that’s around 16”x 20” will do for just about any task.
Clean Cutting Tip: One way to make sure you end up with great tasting wild game is to put only clean meat on your cutting board. Before you drop that big hindquarter on your cutting board, first rinse the surface of the meat with a solution of cold water and vinegar and then pat it dry. If your meat is hanging in a garage or somewhere you don’t mind getting the floor messy, you can do it right there. Otherwise, you can do it in a very clean kitchen sink. Just take a bowl of cold water and a little distilled white vinegar and use a clean rag to wipe down the surface of the meat. Remove hair, dirt, grass or anything else that’s stuck on. The water-vinegar solution is a naturally anti-bacterial and it will clean the surface without leaving any taste. Once the surface of the meat is clean, you can drop it on the cutting board and get to work.
The next thing you’ll need is a big enough surface. If you have enough counter space at home, a kitchen counter works just fine. Just bring in one quarter at a time from the garage, cooler, or wherever the meat is stored. If you don’t have enough working space in the kitchen, it’s easy enough to set up a table in the garage or wherever you have space. Wherever you decide to work, just make sure you have a plan to thoroughly clean up afterwards. Otherwise your spouse may not fully appreciate you having brought home the bacon.
The next thing that we’d consider a must-have item is a set of heavy-duty plastic tubs or meat lugs. As you’re working through each piece of meat on the cutting board, you need a place to put it. I like having at least two clean tubs in front of me while I’m working. Having three tubs is nice. Trimmed steaks and roasts go into one. And all the trim and burger meat goes into the other. When I finish each quarter of the animal, I then pause to wrap or vacuum seal the finished products before moving on to the next quarter.
Freezer Paper, Etc.
The last things you’ll absolutely need are some freezer paper, tape to seal it and a sharpie to label it. With a great knife, a cutting board, a few meat tubs and these items, you can break down any big game animal on your own.
In order of importance, the next thing you’ll probably want to invest in is a high quality meat grinder. Don’t cheap out and save up for a good one. You’ll be glad you did. The frustration of a sub-par grinder isn’t worth the headaches. Plan to spend about $400 or more. I use a grinder that’s .5 horsepower and grinds 4-6 lbs. per minute. It grinds meat as fast as I can load it into the tray. With a high quality grinder, grinding your own burger or sausage is easy and fun to do. Along with your grinder, purchase a stack of poly bags and a bag sealer. This will make it easy to store your ground meat in consistent 1 lb. packages. Most grinders should include a funnel for stuffing these bags.
Grinding Tips: When you have meat ready for the grinder, don’t run it through the grinder if it’s completely thawed. Instead, stick it in the freezer for 30 minutes to an hour until it’s firm – not frozen solid, but just on the verge of becoming firm. Your grinder will operate much more smoothly with partially frozen chunks of meat and the texture of your ground meat will be much better. If you plan to double-grind the meat (usually a good idea) put the tub of single-ground meat back in the freezer for a half hour before you grind it again. Again, this will keep the meat from becoming mushy. Your grinder will operate more smoothly and the resulting texture will be improved.
Another tip is to add a little cold water to each batch of ground meat. Most sausage recipes call for a splash of water. But even in wild game burger, a little water will improve the moisture content and texture. Try adding a few tablespoons of cold water for each pound of meat, or roughly a cup for every five pounds.
It’s not essential, but a rather inexpensive item that can be very helpful is a kitchen scale. A scale can help you wrap steaks and roasts into somewhat consistently sized packages for easy use later on. For example, for my family of four people I cut and wrap most of my roasts or steaks into 2 lb. packages. I’ll also save a few larger 4 lb. roasts for bigger parties and special occasions.
Packaging Tip: When packaging meat, whether it’s vacuum sealed, wrapped in freezer paper or ground meat stored in poly bags, take the time to label everything. On each package, I write the species and the specific cut of meat. I also write the state or location it was taken so that I can keep track of which is which. This also helps me keep track so that I’m using the oldest meat first. Finally, I use my kitchen scale to weigh each package and label the weight on each one before I put it in the freezer. I find this to be very helpful later on. If I have six people coming over for dinner, I can then quickly grab an appropriately sized roast or package(s) of meat for whatever recipe I’m making.
It’s certainly not a must-have item, but eventually you may want to invest in a quality vacuum sealer. Again, these can be expensive. But it sure is useful. In addition to packaging meat, I use my vacuum sealer for marinating, sous vide cooking, prepping meals for hunting trips, and much more. If you aren’t able to invest in a vacuum sealer right away, don’t worry. Freezer paper will work just fine. When using freezer paper, just be sure you squeeze any air out of the package as you wrap the meat, and seal it as tightly as possible to keep your wild game fresh in the freezer. Exposure to air is what will eventually cause freezer burn.
Finally, if you consistently make your own ground meat or sausage, it would eventually be helpful to invest in a sausage stuffer. Most meat grinders will come with stuffing attachments. These work okay, but a dedicated sausage stuffer is much easier to use. It can be used for stuffing cased sausages or for putting ground meat or bulk sausage into poly storage bags. Again, you can use the stuffing attachment on your grinder – but as soon as you use a separate stuffer, you’ll realize what you’ve been missing.
CONTACT US WITH QUESTIONS
If you have questions about meat care, field care or processing at home, please let us know. If you have your own tips or ideas, please leave them in the comments below! Click here for our location and contact information. We hope you get to enjoy processing some delicious wild game meat this year!
Ready for the next part in this series? Check it out here, as we cover the details for breaking down a hindquarter, identifying specific cuts, and preparing them for the kitchen.
By Ryan McSparran
Ryan is an outdoor writer based in Colorado, and is proud to be a part of the team at Caribou Gear.