The look on my friend’s face told the story. The venison steak he had so proudly prepared for our first camp meal of the year tasted awful, and he immediately pushed his plate away. “This tastes sour, too gamey for me. It even smells bad, like a road-killed skunk!”
That is a common reaction to anyone dining on spoiled venison. And it is too bad because venison in the form of deer, elk, moose, and caribou is uncommonly tasty, meat fit for royalty. But in this case it was not the cook who was at fault or his recipe. No, it was the hunter’s fault. He failed to take care of the meat properly in the field before bringing it to a butcher.
Over the last 50 years or so I have talked with guides, outfitters, hunters, butchers, restaurant owners and renowned chefs about how they avoid that dreaded gamey taste in venison. And each of them told me that the secret to finger-licking—OMG that tastes good—venison starts the moment you pull the trigger.
FIELD TO FREEZER
Lousy tasting venison can come from any animal that is stressed. Pushing a mortally wounded deer during the bloodtrailing process—one that has been shot in the liver, leg or paunch and then pushed for hours—often results in adrenaline-soaked muscles, which in turn causes gamey flavor.
The best tasting meat comes from a fawn or yearling animal that gets dropped in its tracks, field dressed immediately, then brought to a cool place. Younger game animals undoubtedly produce tender cut-with-your-fork steaks, chops and roasts. On the flip side, an old trophy buck tagged during the peak of the breeding season is going to be tough and full of foul tasting testosterone, fit only for sausages, stew meat and burgers.
That said, your first chore after tagging is to eviscerate the animal as soon as possible so you can cool the carcass, especially if daytime temperatures are in the 80’s and 90’s. Use a sharp knife, and slide the cutting edge just under the hide from the sternum to the anus without puncturing the stomach or intestines. The stomach contents of a gut shot deer will definitely taint the meat, especially if you shot the deer on a warm evening and didn’t recover it until the next day.
Now tie off the bladder, cut cleanly around the anus and then remove the entire tract. Meat tainted by urine and feces will undoubtedly taste like, well, urine and feces, so be extra careful here. Next cut through the diaphragm, sever the esophagus, and remove the heart and lungs. Now slice through the connective tissue surrounding the entrails, and roll the entire contents out onto the ground, making sure you drain the carcass of any blood.
CLEANLINESS MEANS QUALITY
You must also keep in mind that the better you clean the animal, the better the quality of meat you will have. Take a rag or a roll of paper towels, and clean out the body cavity of excess blood, body fluids, partially digested food particles, urine, feces, broken bones, dirt, field debris, etc. Many butchers recommend that you not use creek water to wash the meat as it may be infected with various forms of bacteria, so I wait until I get back to camp and use a high-pressure garden hose to wash out the body cavity. Be sure to wipe away excess water after hosing the carcass.
If you do not intend to mount the head, split the breastbone to the base of the neck to help get the heat out. Keep in mind that the neck holds lots of heat and is home to several strains of bacteria used for digestion. This is the first area to spoil.
COOL IT DOWN
With a hacksaw, small axe or proper saw-toothed buck knife, split the pelvis bone to help cool the hindquarters. If you have no cutting tools, and the animal is small, stand it on its hind legs, grab the tail and yank up forcefully. In most cases this should crack the pelvis. You will need a hatchet and hefty hand saw for larger animals like moose, elk and mule deer.
It is very important now to open the body cavity with a stick, and raise the animal off the ground. If it is an elk or moose and you cannot immediately get it back to camp, you may have to quarter the critter right then and there, and drape the meat over a pile of logs…or anything else to allow air to circulate all around the carcass to help cool it down.
Smaller animals can be hanged in the shade. It makes little difference if you hang one by the neck or back legs. Do not, however, remove the hide until you are actually ready to butcher the animal; otherwise, the meat will dry out, get tough and actually blacken. Once the carcass has cooled, the hide will help keep it cool. It will also continue to protect the meat from dirt, debris and insects.
AVOID THE AGING MISHAP
There is little fat on a game animal, and it starts to rot immediately. A deer is 95 to 99 percent lean, and the leaner the meat the faster it deteriorates. Thus you cannot hang a deer for any extended period of time in the hopes of tenderizing the venison.
For the catch of a lifetime, make your own lure and land a sea-run rainbow!
by Steve Hickoff / Mar 1, 2013