Even before I started hunting deer, I had a pretty good idea about home meat processing. My college buddy, Steve, had killed a small deer on public land outside of Kirksville, and he asked me to help him retrieve it and give it to his father for slaughter.
The father, Big Ken, was a union meat cutter for national supermarkets and a virtual wizard with a boning knife. He watched in awe as he turned that carcass into steaks, chops, roasts and a meat platter that would become ground venison and eventually delicious venison sausage.
That was not my first introduction to improving dead animals. Every fall and winter of my childhood, we would go to my grandparents’ farm near High Ridge to slaughter pigs and cattle. I eventually went from being a little kid in everyone’s way to operating the shredder, skinning, trimming fat, and sawing really hard.
Plus, he knew how to turn the squirrels, rabbits, and pigeons we shot into table food. Similarly, you could wield a knife to clean fish, turtles, or frogs. Still, when I saw that the state Department of Conservation was offering a free program on turning a dead deer into dinner staples, I signed up.
Field to Freezer is offered annually at the Jay Henges Shooting Range and Outdoor Education Center near High Ridge. This year, the presentation is scheduled from 6 to 8 pm on Tuesday, October 4. Pre-registration is required through the online link at short.mdc.mo.gov/4cX.
Led by local processors and conservation department staff, those who attend the program will see a step-by-step demonstration that takes the deer apart piece by piece. Beginning with a discussion of field dressing techniques, participants can see how to skin and butcher their own venison.
The show will highlight equipment that makes every step easier with a focus on safety, not just with sharp objects, but also making sure meat doesn’t become contaminated and how to prepare packages for long-term storage.
At the session I attended a couple of years ago, the most common concern was how quickly the hunter had to act in the field to make sure the food source was kept safe. Obviously, it is most essential earlier in the hunting seasons. Bowhunters last week had a chance to harvest their money on days when the heat index topped 100 in Missouri.
The cooling process begins with field dressing. Opening the body cavity and removing the internal organs allows the body temperature to drop more quickly. During the November portion of firearms season, it is generally much cooler, but any delays should be avoided if possible. Putting ice blocks, like milk jugs filled with frozen water, inside the deer can offer some protection, but getting the job done efficiently is the best strategy.
Removing the skin makes a significant difference in the meat’s ability to dissipate body heat. As is the case with squirrels, rabbits, and other small animals, the sooner you can start skinning your deer, the easier it will be.
A few years ago I started using a procedure that skips the field dressing process. The “gutless” method is most often used for those who hunt in remote areas where it is difficult to remove the entire animal. It is also an option for hunting in CWD areas because carcasses should not be removed from those handling locations.
A video from the conservation department shows the process, which begins with the skinning and removal of the back muscles. Each of the four legs (quarters) are removed without opening the body cavity. I keep unscented plastic garbage bags for temporary storage to clean the meat with a cold water rinse and eventual refrigeration.
Removing the meat from the bones is the final step before grinding or cooking. The Field to Freezer program identifies specific cuts of venison and explains which ones are best for the chopper. To turn those parts into chili, spaghetti, sausage, or summer sausage, you have to rely on your own special recipes.
John Winkelman has been writing about outdoor news and issues in Jefferson County for over 30 years and is the associate editor of Outdoor Guide magazine. If he has story ideas for Leader’s outdoor news page, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can find more outdoor news and updates at johnjwink.com.