Congratulations, you got your deer, elk, antelope, moose or bighorn sheep. You stalked it through the trees or sagebrush and had a clean shot.
You field dressed it and hefted it into the back of your truck, careful to cool it with ice.
While many hunters take the animal they plan to eat all year to a processing plant – which is definitely the easiest approach – this year you could consider cutting it up yourself.
“It’s a labor of love,” said Jim Rice, a Dubois hunter who processed his first animal when he was 16, more than 50 years ago. “I get a real sense of satisfaction of being able to clean my own meat up and make my own sausage and all that.”
But don’t worry, you didn’t need to start learning when you were 16. It isn’t as intimidating as it sounds. Rice and Laramie taxidermist Kevin Monteith break down the process from when you pull up to your house to wrapping each cut in plastic wrap and freezer paper.
Make sure you have someplace cool, such as a garage, basement. Pull the skin off as soon as possible to further cool down the meat, and plan to let it hang overnight or about 24 hours. Never put your game in a plastic bag. If you need to put it in something, use breathable game bags. When you hang it, the cooler and more controlled an environment, the longer you can let it hang. Try and keep it around 40 degrees. The warmer it is, the faster the meat will begin to degrade, so the less time it should hang. With pronghorn, consider not hanging at all and just putting it on ice and cutting it up.
Make sure your meat is clean and free from hair, dirt, pine needles and other debris. You can use a light brush or pick it off by hand. Don’t begin cutting the meat until each piece is clean. Also clean around the shot wound. Remove any pieces that might have lead or other pieces of shot in it. Then cut off the crust of the meat if it has been hanging.
Before you start cutting, consider what cuts of meat you want to have. Do you like roasts? Steaks? Stew meat? Would you rather have a freezer full of hamburger meat and sausage? Rice likes to make as much sausage as he can, so typically he just saves the tenderloins on a pronghorn. The rest he grinds into hamburger. Other hunters prefer a larger variety of cuts. When you know what cuts you want, you’ll know how to approach the quarters.
Remove meat first by muscle sections. A hindquarter, for example, has three or four big muscles. Go from the tendon where it is attached to the bone and peel the muscle back and apart by hand. “You end up with the muscle groups separated, and you get an entire piece of muscle.” Follow along where the meat attaches to the bone to get the maximum amount of meat. Don’t pass over the ribs, either. While trimming them can be arduous, the amount of meat you’ll get adds up.
Tendon, even in beef, is tough. It’s particularly tough in wild game. So is sinew, the thin, almost translucent material separating muscles. Make sure you remove as much as possible. If a piece has bits of sinew and tendon woven through, consider grinding it up for hamburger instead of setting it aside as a steak or roast. Similarly, trim the fat. Many hunters say fat is what can make game taste, well, gamey.
Use a meat grinder – you can buy them online at places like Cabela’s or Sportsman’s Warehouse – to make your hamburger. The tenderloin can be cut into steaks. Pieces like the hindquarter can be used for roasts. If you aren’t sure what you want to use throughout the year, you can always make larger roasts or more steaks and grind it into hamburger later.
Separate meat into useful packages. Are you cooking for one or two? You might want smaller hamburger or steak packs. Are you feeding a growing family of five? Make them bigger. Wrap each portion in one or two pieces of plastic wrap and follow with freezer paper. Make sure no meat is exposed. Vacuum sealing also works well and can keep the meat fresher longer and prevent freezer burn.