Processing the meat into usable pieces

Processing the meat into usable pieces:

It's great to have friends come help for a share of the meat.
It’s great to have friends come help for a share of the meat.

You need:

4-5 medium sized bowls for different designations of meat.

a cutting board and a sharp knife for each person helping

a meat grinder set up and clamped in place.

a box of quart and or gallon sized freezer bags

a permanent marker/sharpie

(a box of snack sized bags if you only have one dog)


a stock pot for bone boiling

a heavy pot for fat rendering

I really love to throw a party and roast a whole haunch of venison on the grill. Therefor I wash both haunches, triple bag them in plastic grocery bags or garbage bags, and toss them in the freezer.

It is pretty easy to cut the meat off the shoulders; the front legs.  If you have a piece an inch or so thick, cut it into stewing chunks and put it in a designated bowl. Have another bowl for smaller pieces and strips to be ground up into hamburger. Have another bowl for the stuff you want to use for dog food. Gristle is fine in stew and hamburger, but too much sinew clogs up the grinder, and you will get a feeling for what works well for stew meat. The shoulder blade is cool looking- too bad it is really too soft to make a stone age hoe. There is good meat on it; just follow the flat of the bone with your knife. Once the meat is off the forelegs I put all that into a giant stock pot on the woodstove and simmer it forever with a half a bottle of leftover wine. The wine helps the mineral leach out of the bones. We all need to eat more bone broth. It is so good for your joints. Read some of the studies quoted on the Weston Price Foundation’s website.

The torso is a lot of work. Some people waste it. I wouldn’t. The fat on the hind end is thick and stiff. There is usually a lot of thin sheets of fat over the ribs as well. I put that in my black iron pot on the woodstove to render. Leave the lid on; it has an odor. Mixed half and half with beeswax it makes a good candle. I used to save paraffin candle ends to mix with it and give it color, but I found out it gives off unhealthy gases so I just use old beeswax from my hives now. It is too soft to use straight; your candles would sag comically.

The neck has lots of good meat on it for stewing and grinding. If you are willing to take your time you can get lots of little bits out from between the complicated bones of the neck. Detach the long muscles for hamburger and throw away the windpipe. Once I had a deer given to me who had regurgitated food in her esophagus. It smelled really bad and I had to wash the meat a lot, but it made good chili.

Inside the rib cage there are a set of tender straps of meat along the backbone about ten inches long and 2-3 inches wide.  Detach them easily by running your knife along the sides of the spine and under along the ribs.They are delicious to fry up or grill right now to give you strength to get all this meat processed. Just wash, pat dry, rub with a little salt and garlic, and throw it in a pan with some oil or grease. Very primal. Yum.

The meat on the hips is great stewing meat, very tender. You could really make pounded chicken fried steaks from a few chunks of that. It is similar to haunch.

If you don’t want to roast your haunches whole like I do, many people slice them perpendicular to the bone and grill that as a steak. I find that a bit tough, plus it is a cut easiest to make if your meat is frozen solid and you are cutting it with a band saw. If my good buddy Terry Price would care to include instructions for her grandmother’s pounded venison steaks in a comment, that would be a good use, plus jerky, stewing, or hamburger.

The last meat I take off the rib cage is the fatty, gristly flat muscles on the outside of the barrel, and the strips of tough dry meat between the ribs. If your knife is sharp it is easy to run the blade along the edges of the ribs and take out the dry little strips. You could throw that in the grinder but I put that in the designated dog food bowl.Satisfied that I have gotten the good of the torso, I carry it out to the field and offer a few encouraging yips to the foxes.

Wash a tenderloin and lay it out on a longer cutting board if you have one. Trim off little messy bits. Notice the shiny pale sinew on top. Run your knife blade under it and slide the blade along, detaching it. Start with little bits until you get the hang of it. Don’t take off any meat if you can help it. Eventually you will be pulling off the sheet of sinew and scraping the meat away from it as it lifts off. I would think you could use it to sew with if you were so inclined. It is very strong stuff. Once your tenderloin is all prettied up, cut it into 2 or 3 pieces. I do three. Wrap and freeze, meticulously labeled. You would be so mad if you accidentally gave this to your dog.

While you are cutting all this meat up and filling the bowls, I hope somebody else is grinding the hamburger designated pieces, bagging up dinner sized quantities of hamburger and stew meat and labeling it with contents and date, and filling up snack size bags for daily dog portions. If not it will give you a break from working too long in one position.

Always scrub everything with hot soapy water and especially clean all your knives, saws, the grinder, meticulously. My husband even likes to bleach the cutting boards, but I think hot soapy water is less toxic and does a fine job. Careful cleanup after a big butchering job is very important. But remember, this is a good clean animal and you are giving so much more attention to cleanliness than would ever happen in a commercial abattoir. You are doing a good, responsible, respectful thing by using this animal as human beings have used them since ancient times. Then hunting wasn’t a sport; it was life, and hunters gave thanks to their gods for the deer.


Disjointing the carcass

Disjointing the Carcass:

Now you have a clean, skinned carcass. It’s time to make it into useable pieces. Set up a clean area where you will be cutting the meat off the bones and putting it into the meat grinder, preparing for freezing, etc.  I clear and clean my kitchen table, set up my meat grinder, get out bowls, freezer bags, sharp knives, etc. I will put up an article on my simple Mexican grinder which you can access by searching the posts, since I don’t seem to be able to create internal links yet.

My father used to saw down the spine like they do at butcher shops. Now that we know about prions we don’t do that. The likelihood of you harvesting a deer with a wasting disease is low, but this is apparently the same kind of sickness as Mad Cow Disease, so you understand why you are safer just not opening the spinal column or the brain. My friend uses brain in tanning her hides but she doesn’t eat it. Besides, sawing down the spinal column is a lot of work.

Start by removing the forelegs.butchering deer (30) This is amazingly easy. Pull the leg out away from the ribs and cut the thin layer of muscles holding it to the chest cavity, then cut through the thin layer of muscles, running your knife around the shoulder blade, as shown. The leg will just lift away. Take it into the preparation area. Grass and leaves are hard to pick off.

Now for the choicest cut; the tenderloin, also known as the backstrap. This is venison filet mignon. On a young animal I have cut barbecued medallions of venison with a butter knife. It is to drool for. Turn the spine towards you and feel the two long columns of meat on either side. butchering deer (52)They go from the diagonal edge of the haunch muscle all the way down to the neck. Imagine your own back, and feel where those long backstraps begin. Start by inserting the knife along the edge of the spine. it will stop at the ribs. You can run the knife all the way along the edge of the tenderloin, and it will pull away easily from the vertebrae. You will now notice that there is a sheet of membrane over the tenderloin, with a coating of fat on it, which you need to peel away to see the whole of the backstrap. (I do save deer tallow for candle making. Up to you.) Now that you see the outer edge of the backstrap, put your fingers in there so you can know where to cut. You need to make that oblique cut at the top where the backstrap comes off the leg, and then just gently pull and cut so that it lifts out. butchering deer (56)It gets smaller as it heads into the neck but that is still delicious. Later you will tidy it up and remove the tough, iridescent sheet of sinew. Put it reverently in a bowl and carry it into the kitchen.

For the next step the deer has to come down. The haunches are easy to remove, but the carcass is still pretty heavy so I would generally lay it down on a heavy black plastic bag or something I could wash, like an old sheet. Grasp the hind leg firmly and pull it out and away from the body. Cut the thin belly wall between the haunch and the belly area, and open the leg out as fully as you can. If you push down on the edge of the crotch you can feel where the leg connects to the hips. This is where the ball joint is. Cut through the meat and keep pushing until the joint opens up and you can see the ball coming out of the socket.  The photo shows the pelvis in the left side and the leg opened out to the right and upwards. You would then slip the tip of your knife into the socket of the hip joint and sever the tendon that keeps the ball attached to it. This releases most of the tension.

The round white ball joint is in the center of the photo.
The round white ball joint is in the center of the photo.

Now you can finish cutting off the leg. Make a curving cut up towards the spine so that that meaty area comes away with the haunch.  Anything that stays on the hip can be trimmed off for chunks of stew meat. The leg comes off looking like a ham from the grocery story. Saw off the hind legs above the hock just like you sawed off the front legs. Carry that to the kitchen.

The torso has a lot of good meat on it, but it is an awkward thing. I just wrap my arms around it and carry it to my kitchen table, where I will get every bit of meat off it I can. Once that thing is out of the kitchen, though, things look a little less barbarous.

Skinning a deer: getting the hide off


Skinning: Getting the hide off

butchering deer (9)Starting takes the longest; after you get it started it is very easy to skin a deer.Taking care not to cut the Achilles tendon, which would dump the carcass on the ground and not improve your day, make a horizontal cut through the thin skin and white hair on the inside of the leg, below where the stick is going through the leg. I tend to make a cut in several short cuts to control it better. Again, stay away from the tendon.  Grasp the cut edge of the skin and pull it back a little, and then make a perpendicular downward cut down the leg towards the crotch. Now you can expand the cut, pulling the thin skin away from the leg as you go and slicing through the membranes that attach the skin to the body.butchering deer (41) This is easy and obvious; just lay the blade parallel to the body and draw it towards you across the connective tissue so that the skin comes away. Do this on both sides until you have cut all the way around the leg and the skin is starting to hang away from the leg.  Keep pulling the skin away, making small slicing cuts through the membranes that attach the skin to the body. At some point you are going to have to saw off the tail to keep going. Grab the tail in one hand and saw rapidly at the base of the tail until it comes away in your hand. (I guess if I had plans to tan the hide for a rug or something I would be more careful.) Any saw is fine. I use a hacksaw. Here you see the very fatty deer butt with the tail sawed right off.butchering deer (43)

By this time you have the skin off the haunches and can shuck the skin off the back with a steady pull and a few flicks of the knife. Don’t worry when you start to pull the thin layer of meat away close to the shoulders. Unless you are planning to use the hide, it’s really such a small amount of meat that I just let it go until we get to the neck. If you are using the hide you’ll have to remove it when you are scraping the hide. More on that later. Here you see the hide halfway off. See the little bits of cellophane looking tissue you have to cut through as you are shucking the hide down- just like a sweater.butchering deer (44)




When you get down near the forelegs you can remove the skin the same way you did on the other end, with a lengthways cut along the inside of the leg, running in from the edge of the body cavity. I like to use as much of the upper joint of the foreleg as I can, because that tough gristly muscle makes delicious stew meat. Saw the leg off  by grasping the knee firmly in one hand and sawing through the leg at a safe distance from your hand.butchering deer (26) Continue to pull the skin down the neck, like pulling off a sweater. At this point I do go through the muscle attached to the skin and it becomes more difficult to remove the skin, requiring lots of small slicing movements. The neck meat is great, so make the effort to go as far as you can before you saw the head off. I have a friend who actually does a chunk of neck in the crock pot and she says it is the best. I’m leery of spinal matter so I just try to get as much meat off those tricky cervical bones as I can with a sharp knife. butchering deer (24) Anyway, saw the head off by grabbing hold of an ear- or whatever works for your hand- and saw away until it comes loose. This is not rocket science.

Dispose of unwanted parts as responsibly as you can. I have a friend who uses my hides for tanning and to make drum heads. Some people make hooves into Native American style rattles. Deer legs are so thin and dry that they don’t smell or leave bloodstains, so they make a great gift for a dog. We live on a farm, so I just throw the bones including the grisly-looking ribcage out in the field and watch to see what comes to clean up the scraps. As for the guts, if you would like to avoid sending compostable biomass to the landfill, dig a really deep hole for what you don’t use and cover it with dirt and something heavy. Dogs will dig deep for such a treat and then you will wish you had dug deeper. I have been lucky with a foot and a half; about the depth you would bury a departed pet….butchering deer (21)




Field dressing and hanging a deer


If you get to the deer before the heart stops beating it is a good idea to cut the throat, both out of mercy and to allow the heart to expel blood from the body. I think most hunters feel gratitude at this moment, and I think it is appropriate to thank the deer as well. If you are in an area where it will not pose a nuisance to field dress the animal there, go ahead and grasp the furry lumps at the inside of the bend in the back legs, and cut them away. They are scent glands and will make your meat smelly.

butchering deer (8)

Note 12/26/2012: Really, even a doe. A young man gave me a doe which had been hanging for a day and a half without the scent glands removed. I have never butchered a gamier deer. It was actually nasty, and I am not the squeamish type.

Put the point of your knife through the skin of the belly at the edge of the breast bone (really just cartilage) and run it shallowly up to the anus. Do NOT pierce deeply. Go back to your breastbone and grab the edge of the ribcage with one hand while sawing down through the sternum. Be careful not to cut into any guts or you will contaminate the meat with smelly stuff. Actually you can make that cut later if you want, but if you do it now you can sort of let everything slide out at once, and blood will drain out and not coagulate in the throat area when hanging.

Go up around the genitalia and look for a tube running to the anus. Grab it and cut  the skin around it. You should be able to pull out the entrails easily.  Heart, lungs, and liver is great dog food as long as the deer is healthy. I remember seeing what looked like parasitic lesions on a liver my mother cooked once. Cooked it was fine for the dogs, but I didn’t want it.

Once your deer carcass is empty it is a lot easier to move. But it is also easy to gut a deer hanging up. I am a woman so I have less upper body strength and I always ask the guys to get the deer hanging for me. What you want is an overhanging limb or a cross-member in a shed.butchering deer (40) Tie a decent rope over it and get a piece of wood about as thick as a sturdy broomstick to put through the deer’s back legs. Tie the rope to the middle of the stick and make slits big enough through the thin area between the back legs and the Achilles tendon, where you removed the scent glands. This would be like if you feel above your heel, only the deer’s heel is above his back elbow; bottom of the hock, if that makes sense. You can do this on the ground and have someone tie off the rope when they heave the deer up, or tie the rope where you want it and hold the deer up while you push the ends of the stick through the holes in the legs. Needless to say don’t cut through the tendon.

butchering deer (7)

Usually we let the deer hang overnight to cool and stiffen, It is helpful to put a stick or something inside the body cavity to hold it open a little. Note somebody stuck a hammer in there. Whatever.

Always a great idea to hose it out well if you have access to water where it is hanging. I have been given carcasses that were messily shot or inexpertly field dressed that were nasty.butchering deer (5)

Note 12/26/2012: My neighbor has a pulley system hanging from the crossmember in his barn so a little kid can raise or lower a carcass. A mental leap too great for this Neanderthal.

More notes on gutting: Now you have your deer hanging and ready to skin. If you haven’t gutted it in the field out of consideration that someones dogs will find it and have a heyday rolling in it, now’s the time. Put a big sack under it to catch the guts. An old dog food bag, etc. If you haven’t removed the scent glands, do it right away. Gutting in this position I always start near the top but I don’t cut around the anus until I have the genitalia removed and the cavity open so that I can grab the sphincter and lower the guts into a bag. Just easier to control the fall.  Be careful not to damage the bladder which is pretty obvious; that’s the transparent bag full of yellow fluid that you don’t want on the meat. Also be careful when removing the liver, which is also obvious; the big lobed dark brownish red organ with a smaller greenish yellow organ attached to it. Be very careful of this little sucker- if you cut the gall bladder you will have horrible green bile all over the place that stains and ruins the taste of whatever it touches. Remove this by cutting into the liver around the bile duct, pinching the bile duct closed if you can. As I said previously, heart, liver, and lungs are good dog food, as far as I’m concerned. Liver is wonderfully nutritious, and there is nothing wrong with eating heart and lungs, so you could use them in sausage or something, but I never have. Unless you are really hard core and are going to try to use the intestines for sausage casings or something, leave them alone. They come out together if you can catch them in a bag. I have had a deer given to me that had a messy wound in the belly. The only thing to do then is empty the body cavity and hose it out until it smells ok.

Now that we have the carcass hanging empty and clean, if the weather is cool it is fine to let it hang overnight for the meat to stiffen. This makes it a little easier to handle. Some people even let them hang for a few days because that tenderizes the meat. I haven’t done this.

Harvesting a deer before the Barn Meeting

butchering deer (40)First you have to know what the Barn Meeting is. Every year our friends Roy and Gloria have a gathering in a 100-year-old barn on the property they rent in Bedford County, Virginia.  People come from all over the world to play music and praise the Lord. Usually about 50-65 people show up. It’s a wonderful time, but it’s a lot for Gloria, and folks eat. People contribute if they can or feel moved to, but during the past few years we have been thinking that the numerous deer chewing on Gloria’s vegetable garden should also be asked to contribute; see photo.

Our friend Andy has been really interested in coming early to help out with this, and I said I would show everybody how to turn Bambi into tasty chili, so a plan took shape. In faraway Miami, Andy purchased a top quality crossbow, a camo suit, and a can of scent controller. Every day after work he practiced his archery skills long into the night. At last came the big day, and he, his lovely wife, and his crossbow in its special case made the trip to Bedford County, Virginia. At 5 am he was on the move, stealing through the woods in full camo with his crossbow cocked, odorless and full of confidence. You know it. Not a deer came near. The second day, same deal. Except he got lost. He was getting really tired, and was starting to worry. But finally he heard a still small voice in his head say “Listen!” so he sat down and listened, -and heard cars on a road. So he headed out and someone lent him a cellphone to call Roy and get a ride home.

And here’s something else. Our good friend Andy, a devout Christian, family man, respectable guy who works in an office and wears a suit, is a Colombian of partial Lebanese descent. He looks like Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Especially when he hasn’t shaved in a few hours. Sorry, Andy. We love you, but you know this. So the guy who saw this Arab looking man come staggering out of the woods, in  full camo, carrying a crossbow, had some serious guts to stop and lend his phone.

After the third day of no luck despite much prayer and hunting, we decided to go buy some ground beef at Sam’s Club. The chili had to be ready the next evening, and we needed a lot, so, no choice. We all felt so bad for Andy. Somehow we kept on not getting in the car, and the day kept getting older. Roy and Gloria were in prayer,  so Andy and his wife decided to take a walk, and our friend Kelly and I tagged along. Not fifty yards from the front door Andy spotted a deer about 100 feet off the road. “Go get your crossbow!” I hissed.

“It won’t be there when I get back…”

“Who knows, – get it!” we all whispered. He went tearing off. For maybe five minutes we stood and stared at the deer, a small doe, talking to each other- nice weather, nice deer, yes, yes, while she stood still hoping we wouldn’t see her. So when Andy got back, he took aim and let fly. Thwack! She took off- I knew that was the sound of the arrow hitting, but she moved off pretty fast. We went to look, and found the arrow had gone through and kept going about 20-30 feet! It was bloody so we knew she had to be wounded. I was worried we’d have to search but luckily she had only gone a few yards. He had hit her right behind the shoulder, through the lungs, and she had died quickly. She was young and tender, and just the right size for what we needed. It was perfect. We felt that God had used the hunt to teach Andy to listen, and to show us that He provides exactly what we need when we need it.

So now we all joyfully hurried to get her skinned out and disjointed so we could have the meat chilled to work on in the morning. Here is how you do it:

These links are giving me trouble, but they will at least get you to the Search page where you can click on the post.

Field dressing and hanging a deer

Skinning: Sharpening your knife

Skinning: Getting the hide off

Disjointing the Carcass:

Processing the meat into usable pieces: