The last time I took a deer into a processor was in 1998. I was a senior in high school and had arrowed a clueless two-year-old in September. Normally, my dad and I would have packed that buck full of ice and butchered him ourselves, but we had just butchered a deer my dad had shot a few days earlier and didn’t feel like cutting another one up.
It didn’t take long, once we picked up the meat, to realize that it was subpar. At least the packages of meat that didn’t contain snack sticks or summer sausage were. It was a brutal lesson, with the worst part being the burger. I vowed never to have that happen again, which meant I had to figure out how to own the whole process. This is pretty easy to do with steaks and chops but can be a little trickier while working with trim that will eventually become ground meat.
There are several parts of the process that can influence flavor and quality of all the meat, but it all starts with the moments after recovery.
If you were to ask any one of the older hunters I grew up sharing camp with, they’d all tell you that hanging a deer for days is the first move. In the right, cool, temperatures it certainly can be. Especially if you have a place to hang the deer that will keep insects, dust, and other debris at bay. But most of us don’t.
If you don’t, or you happen to shoot a buck during beach weather temperatures, it’s time to solve this problem. For me, that means getting the hide off as quickly as possible while minimizing all contaminants, even if I break a deer down in the field (I often do). I always separate the meat, at least into quarters but usually into fully boned-out chunks, and then get them bagged and exposed to layers of ice in a cooler or a refrigerator.
Once this is accomplished, you have some time if you need it.
Whatever parts of the muscle, or more likely, the parts that hold muscles together, that you leave on a steak can be cut off once you eat them (or prep them for the grill). Whatever you leave on your trim for burger is going to end up in your ground. It’s simple, but if you don’t want to eat it, don’t leave it on your trim.
Venison silver skin, fat, ligaments, and other undesirable parts of a deer that aren’t muscle don’t taste very good. Deer fat is generally bitter, unlike beef fat. This is probably the number one reason why folks think venison, particularly ground venison, tastes gamey. This is also probably the number one problem most folks have, which is that they don’t trim their meat enough to get rid of the stuff that will simply add in an undesirable flavor and can taint the whole batch.
The quality of ground venison starts with proper field care, but really hinges on what exactly goes through the grinder. Take your time when you’re cubing up your trim, and clean it as meticulously as you can. This can be tedious but should ensure a higher quality batch of ground venison.
I’m sort of a purist when it comes to venison, although I can’t tell you why. I typically don’t mix in beef fat or any seasonings. I like clean, ground venison that is just clean, ground venison. It’s amazing for tacos, spaghetti sauce, and other dishes. If I want meatballs or some burgers for the grill, I’ll mix an egg or some bread crumbs into a pound to hold the whole thing together. Other folks have their own preferences on what to mix in, which is perfectly fine. It doesn’t matter, but if you want the job of grinding your meat to be easier, then consider its condition when you start.
I tend to freeze all of my burger meat throughout the fall, and then in January or February, I’ll put it all in the sink to start thawing. Since I probably do around 100 pounds a year, I know that even 12 or 15 hours in a dry sink won’t thaw the bags completely. It’ll just get them about halfway there, which is what I want.
Chunks of half-frozen venison go through the grinder well. They don’t gum up the whole system and get blood everywhere. This makes the process of grinding and bagging pretty efficient and can help with cleanup.
A small, ½-horsepower grinder is usually pretty affordable and should be able to handle a recreational hunter’s venison needs for years. This, along with the knowledge of how to care for the meat, is all you need to ensure a year’s supply of clean, tasty ground. That is, of course, provided you can fill a few tags each fall.