Some of the most common inquiries we get at MeatEater involve aging wild game meat. Recently we tackled whether or not the process is worth it. It is, but we didn’t discuss how to do it.
The majority of hunters don’t have access to a temperature and humidity-controlled walk-in-cooler, which is the ideal place to age venison. Assuming you’re one of those people, here are some tips for aging meat in the field and at home.
Aging Meat in the Field
On backcountry hunts, it’s often necessary to break down an animal into quarters in order to get it out of the woods. It may have to stay in the mountains with you for a few days, so you’re going to need to hang it after the animal is gutted, skinned and quartered.
First, allow the meat to cool off the ground with plenty of air flow. This cools the meat down very quickly, which is crucial. The dry rind will form fast, protecting the meat from bugs, dirt and moisture loss.
Get the quarters or boned out meat in a good game bag that allows air flow, but keeps bugs and dirt away from the meat.
Next, find a cool, shady, breezy spot to hang the meat. Ideally it will be high enough above the ground that any scavengers can’t reach it. Even in early archery hunting seasons when temperatures commonly exceed 40 degrees, meat will last days before spoiling if you pick the right spot to hang it.
Keep the meat dry at all costs. Wet meat spoils much faster than dry meat. If need be, build some type of cover with a tarp, contractor garbage bag, or pine branches to keep rain off the meat. Don’t wrap it up; the meat needs to breathe.
If you’re hunting in cold weather with a few friends and you tag out early, your meat might hang in camp for a few days. This may be all the aging you need. If that’s the case, you can just butcher it up and throw it in the freezer when you get home.
Aging Meat at Home
The entire MeatEater crew regularly ages big game meat at home without the aid of a walk-in cooler. If you want to build your own dry-aging space that will create very specific environmental conditions, you can find plans for building one on the internet. However, we’ve had very good results over the years without one.
You can hang and age all types of hooved game animals, including deer, elk, antelope, wild sheep, moose, and bison. Bear fat spoils easily and goes rancid quickly, so we don’t recommend dry-aging bear meat, especially if the meat has any chance of getting warm. The same goes for wild pigs if you don’t have access to a walk-in cooler
Start with clean, dry meat. Remove any hair, debris, dirt, and bloodshot meat. If meat is tainted on the surface or internally with gut or intestinal material from a poor shot, you need to get rid of it. Carve it away if necessary, and rinse thoroughly. It’s OK to rinse the meat, but dry it well before hanging.
You can hang bags of boned out meat, but we would much rather hang meat on the bone as quarters or whole animals. Boned out meat has much more surface area, which means it will dry out much faster and you’ll be forced to trim a lot more rind.
At home, we pay a lot more attention to aging in that narrow 33-40 degree average. If you shoot your deer at a time of year where outside temperatures are staying close to that average, you can hang a whole deer or quarters in your shed, garage, or barn. Even if it’s reaching the 50s during the day but dropping into the 20s at night, you’ll be fine for a week or so.
If you’re hanging meat in a tightly enclosed space, like a small shed, or anywhere else without adequate air flow, it’s not a bad idea to crack a window or open a door. Some people will run a fan, but be careful about overdoing it; you can really speed up the drying process this way.
You do need to check the internal temperature of your meat regularly. Jab a meat thermometer into the center of the quarters near the bone. If it starts edging into the mid-40s and stays there, get your meat cooled down by placing in in the freezer for an hour, or get it butchered and in the freezer immediately.
Aging Meat Basics
There’s a lot of debate over how long to dry age and hang meat. We generally go at least a week, but usually not more than two weeks. You can certainly go longer than that if the conditions are safe to do so, but we’ve found that past two weeks, you’ll start to lose a significant amount of meat to drying.
There’s other factors to consider when deciding how long to age venison. A young animal generally requires less hanging time than an old one. Animals that don’t die within seconds of being shot can have a stronger “gamey” or off flavor. You can hang an animal that didn’t die quickly for a longer period of time to mellow out those flavors.
If you’re working with a whole deer, gut it and hang it with the skin on-just don’t let it freeze or getting the hide off is very difficult. Hanging with the skin on prevents the meat from drying out but you’ll still get the benefits of aging.
If it’s so cold meat will freeze solid in your barn, or so warm it’s going to spoil in in the garage, you’ll need to hang or rest quarters in an old refrigerator. A lot of folks do this and run a fan on low power periodically over a bowl of water. You can get very close to achieving ideal aging conditions doing this.
It’s not the best idea to dry age smaller cuts of meat like tenderloins, backstraps, or even bone-in ribs in an outside environment for very long. They dry out fast and there won’t be much meat left after a couple days. Instead, try dry aging steaks or roasts on a wire rack above a cookie sheet in your refrigerator for 3-7 days. An even better alternative is to try this wet aging technique.
I live in Colorado, which is a dry environment where outside humidity levels rarely reach recommended levels, but I’ve never had any problems with dry-aging meat here. I just butchered a cow elk whose quarters hung in my garage for ten days, and the meat is some of the best I’ve ever eaten. If you live in an arid environment and are worried about losing meat to excessive drying, you can set up a humidifier in your garage while your meat ages.
Don’t worry too much if any white mold forms on the outside of the meat after several days. Just wipe it off. Black, grey, or green mold is more of a concern. Cut well below and around that area to remove the mold, toss it and get the rest of your animal butchered and in the freezer.
Storing meat in a cooler on ice is not a great way to go about aging. There’s no air flow, and the meat tends to get wet. It’s fine to do this for short-term transport, but we would recommend getting it butchered without aging instead of allowing to sit on ice in a cooler for extended periods of time.
If you’re still leery about giving dry aging a try, give it a go with a single quarter and butcher the rest of your deer or elk without aging. That way, in the unlikely event something were to go wrong, you won’t ruin an entire animal. Chances are everything will go just fine, and you’ll become a believer in dry-aging your venison.
Feature image by Chris Gill