Big game hunting can provide you and your family with a lot of high-quality natural meat. If you choose to process it yourself, you have even more control over your food supply. Processing your own big game animal is not the overwhelming task it may seem at first glance. If you break it into easy-to-follow steps and have a few simple supplies available, it should go fairly quickly.
If you have hunting buddies or folks who are interested in helping, you can assign each person a task and make an assembly line operation out of it. If you have several animals to process at once, this will speed things up considerably.
Supplies You Will Need
These are things that I have found I use when I cut up my big game animals. You can probably get by with less if you really had to.
- A sturdy table
- Knives (I use a thin boning knife for all of my cutting)
- Cutting boards
- Sharpening stone and steel
- Propane torch
- Freezer paper
- Freezer tape
- Plastic cling wrap (optional)
- Freezer bags (optional)
- Permanent Marker
- Seasoning (if you make sausage or jerky)
- Meat grinder (optional)
- Cooler for hamburger scraps
- A large trashcan with a heavy-duty garbage bag liner
- Pruning shears (optional)
- Hacksaw (optional)
Processing your big game animal starts right after the shot. Your goal will be to get the animal cooled down as fast as possible after it is dead, and this starts with removing the entrails. I am a meat hunter and have never saved the cape of any of my animals. If you want to get yours mounted, you will need to adjust accordingly.
I always start by turning the animal so its belly is facing downhill if possible; that way, gravity will help the entrails to fall out. After you have the animal positioned, find the bottom of the rib cage/sternum and cut through the skin into the abdominal cavity, being careful not to cut too deep into the entrails.
Once you have an opening, work with your knife sharp side up, sliding it under the skin and lifting to cut. I prefer a moderately thick-bladed knife for this work since it cuts through the rib cage without too much extra effort. Split the animal open, slicing through the sternum up to its neck and down to its tail. Then slice through the windpipe as far up into the neck as you can reach.
Once the windpipe is severed, grab it with your hand and gently tug the entrails out of the body cavity, using your knife to cut through any connecting material. When you get down to the bottom near the anus, you will need to split the pelvis open to remove the last bit of intestine. A thick-bladed knife helps here also. Near the center of the pelvis, you will find a slight ridge: Place your knife in the center of it pointing toward the animal’s chin. Give the back of your knife a sharp hit with your hand, and if you are in the right spot, the pelvis will split right open.
I always carry a plastic bag for storing the heart and liver. A traditional hunting camp meal is fried heart and eggs. The heart and liver should be soaked overnight in a bucket of water to help remove excess blood before you process it.
Getting your animal hung up and skinned is a very important part of getting it cooled down. Animals that are cooled quickly have less of a chance of tasting gamey. I learned this in my later years, since we always left the hide on until processing while I was growing up. So if you don’t get the hide off right away, all is not lost.
Another advantage of skinning right away is that warm animals skin so much easier than cold animals. I use a nice sharp pocketknife for all my skinning.
To skin your animal, you will want to hang it by its hind legs. I start skinning by taking pruning shears and cutting off both front legs right behind the first joint. This makes it much easier to skin them out when you get down that far.
Now start at the hind legs and cut through the skin all the way around both of them just in front of the joint. Then take your knife and split the skin from where you made your cut all the way down each leg to the tail. Pull on the edges of the skin and cut the membrane where it adheres to the meat. Keep working your way around each leg until you have the skin coming free all the way down to the tail.
At this point I usually just slice through the tail and leave it attached to the hide. From here on you can usually pull the hide off if it is still warm. Grab a handful of loose hide and put some weight on it, and it should peel right down. If it is cold, the membrane will hold the hide much tighter to the carcass, and you will need to use your knife more.
Continue down past the front legs all the way to the neck. Once you get to the neck, you can take a hacksaw and saw through it and remove the head with the hide. If you will be tanning the hide, you will need to cut through it to remove the attached head.
After the hide is off the carcass, you will notice that your animal is covered with loose hairs. Never fear, as this is one of the reasons God invented the propane torch. Use it to singe all the stray hairs off the carcass.
After your animal is skinned and hung, you can start cutting it up right away or let it hang and age a little. Aging allows the meat to start breaking down, making it more tender and some say tastier. You will want to remove the two tenderloins that lay right along either side of the spine inside the body cavity. If you leave them on the carcass to age, there is a good chance they will dry up and not be worth using. Also, organ meat shouldn’t be aged. Just soak overnight in water to remove the blood, then slice and package for the freezer.
Prop open the chest cavity and, if the animal is still warm, you can put bags of ice inside to cool it off. If you cannot get it cooled off, you will want to cut it up as soon as possible. Aging should be done in a cool place. You can age for several days if the weather cooperates. Keep a close eye on the carcass to make sure it doesn’t start to get rotten.
When the carcass has aged to perfection (or at least where you want it), it’s time to start cutting things up. Deboning is simply cutting the muscle groups away from the bones. I always debone everything on my big game. If you wish to cut bone-in steaks, you will need a bone saw.
You should start by cutting out the backstraps; these are the filet mignon. They are located on both sides of the backbone from the front shoulders all the way to the rump. Start by running your knife up and down both sides of the spinal ridge. Make sure and cut all the way down to where the ribs are connected. Then work your way down the ribs, trying to stay as close to the bone as possible. You should end up with two long, narrow pieces of meat.
After the backstraps, I begin work on the front shoulders. Take a front leg in your hand and pull it away from the carcass. Start cutting the thin meat and membrane holding on the shoulder and it will come away free in your hand.
Take the the leg to your cutting board and cut all the muscle groups away from the bones. After both front legs are done, move on to a hindquarter. These are connected a little more securely with a ball joint, and you may need some help getting it cut from the carcass. After you have the hindquarter off, remove the muscle groups the same way as with the front legs. I have never made ribs from a game animal, but if you wish to, you can cut them out next, with either a bone saw or a heavy knife.
When you finish deboning, you should end up with a pile of bones with attached meat scraps. As a teen, it was my job to cut every possible scrap of meat off the bones for hamburger. All of these scraps, plus leftovers from steak and roast cutting, should be tossed in a cooler as you go.
Cutting And Packaging
Selecting the cuts is based on experience and personal preference. As an example, we are not big steak eaters in my family, so the only steak I cut is from the backstraps. Everything else goes into roasts, stew meat, stir-fry meat, and hamburger.
To start cutting and packaging, take one of the muscle groups you deboned and start cutting off tendons, dried meat (from aging) and membranes. When you have a nice clean chunk of meat sitting on your cutting board you need to decide what you want to use it for.
Roasts are generally one single muscle, so I clean them and wrap them whole. Roast-sized chunks of meat usually are best for making jerky as well. Jerky should be cut long and thin and dropped into a marinade you have prepared beforehand.
Steaks are cut across the grain of the meat. Take a nice big muscle, and you will notice something like wood grain running up and down it. Always cut at a right angle to this grain. You can make your steaks as thick as you like, but remember that wild game is much leaner than beef, and thin steaks will tend to dry out quickly when you cook them. Stew meat is cut into cubes roughly one inch square, while stir-fry is cut into strips about twice as long as they are wide.
Once you have a pile of meat cut, it is time to start wrapping. Separate your meat into meal-sized piles (obviously this will vary depending on your family size). Then take one pile and wrap it in plastic cling wrap. Next wrap it in freezer paper, tape it shut, and immediately write the date and contents on the outside of the package with a permanent marker. Now you can place it in your freezer.
The plastic wrap may seem redundant, but I have found it helps protect the meat from freezer burn for an incredibly long time. If you are working alone, you probably will want to debone, clean, cut, and wrap all in one sitting on each part as you remove it from the carcass.
While you are cutting up, watch out for diseased meat (toss it if in doubt), bone fragments, bullets, and bloodshot meat. Bloodshot meat is meat damaged by shooting the animal in a meaty area. It may contain fine bone and bullet fragments and is laced with blood. It will taste off and not store well due to being filled with blood. Continue cutting and wrapping until you have the entire animal in your freezer. Then, if you didn’t have any help, it is time to clean off all the scrap meat possible from the bones and what is left of the carcass.
When you are done, you may have a cooler full of meat scraps. If you don’t want to do the work, you can haul it to the butcher and have them grind it for you. You can even have them add beef suet to the mix in order to get a milder, juicier burger.
If you want to grind your own, set up your grinder and start cranking. You can purchase beef suet to add to your burger, or if you have a nice fat animal, you can add some the animal’s own. If you like, you don’t need to add anything and just use the ground-up meat. It will be drier than you are used to, but it is still very good.
I have found it is best to grind the meat once on a medium or fine setting. Be prepared to stop often to clean the plate since it will plug up with all manner of things. I leave the plate a little loose, and it seems like it doesn’t fill up with gristle as fast that way.
If you want to make sausage, it is best to add your seasoning before you grind. This really gets it into the meat. You can make adjustments by mixing in more spices later if you think it needs it. When we are making breakfast sausage, we always fry up a little when we first start so we can make any adjustments right there. Sausage is kind of like wine, since it gets better as it ages and the seasoning permeates the meat. Hamburger and sausage should be wrapped the same as the other meat, or it can be put in freezer bags.
The Rest Of The Animal
So what do you do with the rest of your animal? Most states require that you use all edible portions of your animal but say nothing about the rest. You can toss it in the woods if you have permission of the landowner and let scavengers clean it up. In some areas, your local dump will have a place specifically for carcasses.
If you want to be more sustainable, here are a few ideas on how to use more of the animal.
You have a nice hide that you removed. In some areas, the Boy Scouts collect them to sell. You can use it yourself by turning it into rawhide, or you can use the animal’s brain to tan it.
The antlers (if there were any) can be used for many craft items such as knife handles, pistol grips, and powder measures, or they can even be cut into buttons or dice. The bones can be boiled for bone broth, or you can extract the marrow, which is very nutritious. They can be used much the same way as antlers for crafting purposes including making primitive beads, fishhooks, needles, and arrowheads.
The small intestine can be turned into “gut” and used for cordage or a bowstring. Tendons or sinew can also be turned into cordage, and it makes a fine backing for a primitive bow. The hooves or tarsals can be used for making rattles or as trim on Native American dress. The tail can be sold or traded to fishermen who tie their own flies.
Big game hunting is just one of many steps in controlling your own food supply. Everything you can do on your own, without outside help, means more independence for you. There is nothing wrong with shooting a deer and dropping it off at the butcher to have it processed, but if you do it all yourself, you know for certain what is in every package in your freezer.