Meat processing is a survival/preparedness skill. But first you have to have some place to do this work. Here’s how to get started.
by Leon Pantenburg
It has been decades since a commercial butcher processed any meat for me. After my first deer harvest, I took the carcass to a friend’s grocery store, and he did the work while I watched and helped. I learned enough in one afternoon to get started.
A few years later, when I’d moved to Idaho, meat processing in my garage was down to a science. A pulley in the ceiling was attached to a gambrel, and the deer was attached by the hind legs. The rope ran through the pulley, and was tied to the gambrel and the tow hook on my pickup. We backed up the truck as needed to raise or lower the carcass. We could skin a deer in minutes.
We also had two tables from Costco strictly for meat cutting. We set everything up, and created an assembly line of cutters and wrappers. My brother Mike and I, working together, could take a medium-sized whitetail or mule deer from being skinned to neat, white meat packages in the freezer in under two hours.
But you may not have any meat cutting setup available, especially if you have to travel to hunt. For years, I have hunted in Mississippi and have to fly all my gear there. On successful years, I fly back a cooler full of frozen meat.
Here’s how to improvise a meat processing area for deer.
- The garage is the traditional place for meat processing. In years past, I have used a picnic table, a plastic table, or, most recently, scrap lumber on a couple of sawhorses. I used the carport Thanksgiving 2014 because the weather was so nice.
- Cover the working area with a clean blue tarp. I like to wipe the tarp down with a mixture of bleach and water to sterilize it before getting started.
- For boning out a deer, you need a minimum of two knives: a good fillet/boning knife and a slicer of some sort. The fillet knife will do most of the work. I generally use my hunting knife for slicing, or borrow a kitchen knife from my mother-in-law. I also use a cutting board, and pans from her kitchen.
- Use plastic gloves. This makes the cutting a lot more sanitary, IMHO. While you can scrub your hands before cutting, you don’t know what pathogens or nasty germs might still be under your fingernails after gutting the animal.
- Get freezer bags with the double zip closure. The best way to wrap meat for long-term storage is to first cover it with cellophane, forcing out all the air with your hands. Then wrap it again tightly with butcher paper. Using this method, I have successfully kept meat frozen for two years with no sign of deterioration or freezer burn. But this year, I opted for just the freezer bags. Turns out that was a good choice. Somebody at the airlines opened my locked cooler and pawed through all the meat. They might have unwrapped the packages if they couldn’t tell what they were.
- Some folks claim you shouldn’t use water on meat to clean it. I always take the garden hose, place the meat on another tarp, and use a high pressure nozzle to clean it. Pat it dry with paper towels and you’re ready to cut and wrap.
There are a lot of reasons for processing your own meat.
First is probably cost. Here in Central Oregon, the going rate for cutting, packaging and freezing a deer is about $80. Elk and larger game animals are more expensive.
Cleanliness. All commercial meat processing operations must adhere to federal and state requirements, but inspectors can’t be everywhere. Let’s hope the person handling your meat has good personal hygiene, washes his/her hands regularly and doesn’t have a runny nose.
Get your own meat back: I go to a lot of effort to make sure my deer is killed quickly and humanely, that the meat is cooled as quickly as possible, and that the carcass is clean. At a commercial operation, you take your deer in, and get some packages back.
Hopefully, you will get your deer meat. You don’t want it mixed in with that from a gutshot buck that was chased down, hauled home in the pickup box for several hours in warm weather and then driven around town to show off.
Involvement: IMHO, the best way to show respect to a game animal you have harvested is to use every available part. I save everything useable, and even some parts that generally get thrown away. I save all the trimmings, the heart and sometimes the kidneys. These become dog food or treats. I have ablack Lab, and there is no waste with her around!
Fellowship: Generally after a successful harvest, the guys I hunt with will get together for a meat-cutting party at someone’s garage. We chat, listen to music and have a good time while we process the meat. Everyone working together makes this job go quickly.
Even if you don’t hunt, you may someday have to process a big animal. You might get a good deal on a beef or pork quarter, and decide to save some money by doing the cutting and wrapping yourself. Or you might just want to add another do-it-yourself survival/preparedness skill to your collection.
This setup works for me. It should work fine for you.
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