The Care and Preparation of Venison: Lessons from ‘Old Joe’


Deer hunting season in the Midwest stretches from September to January. As the weeks and months roll by, weapons and deer patterns change, but a huge benefit to success is a freezer loaded with venison. For me, a venison diet not only is healthy, it cuts a grocery bill in half.

During the late 1980s, I actually cut all ties to civilization and moved to the mountains where I lived completely off the land for a couple of years. I fished and hunted every day and ate what I caught. This meant that although I ate squirrels, rabbits, quail, turkey, trout, bass and panfish, I lived primarily on venison.

To tell you the truth, before I became a modern day mountain man, I didn’t care much for venison. But I learned a lot about it, mostly from an old backwoods resident who lived about a mile down our extremely bumpy path that served as a road with no name. He was my closest neighbor. “Old Joe” paid no attention to the seasons and never came across a good reason to leave the county in which he was born. Venison had been a staple of his diet in his long and rather contented life.

Old Joe didn’t know how to read–never saw the need–but he knew as much as anyone about living off the land. That made him my mentor. Under his tutelage I not only learned to like venison, but I also came to prefer it to beef. And to this day, venison is mostly what I eat throughout the winter.

The secret to good venison is not the way you fix it, like everyone says. The real key is in naturally aging the meat before you butcher it. If you age it properly you can fix it any way you prepare comparable cuts of beef, except frying it like hamburger, unless, of course, you have your processor mix in pork fat with it. I don’t use processors, mainly because it is hard to find one willing to hang a deer for a week or so before they butcher it.

The beef we get from the store is heavily marbled with fat, while venison has almost none. This marbling makes beef tender, and muscles from this animal are not very firm because cows and others similar rarely run. In fact, they are discouraged from any real exercise and are fed a diet specifically formulated to make them tender and big in a hurry. But even with those advantages, all beef is hung and naturally aged at least a few days before butchering, and the very best beef is aged up to two weeks.

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On the other hand, hunters shoot an animal that is so solidly muscled and fit—it can literally “run like a deer.” They field dress it as soon as they find it, which is good. But they usually drop it off at the processor the same day and the processor usually butchers it within 24 hours, which is bad. The few butchers who process deer do it cheaply and quickly, much like a production line, and the truth is sometimes the deer you bring in is not the deer you get back in neat little packages. If you can find a butcher who agrees to hang your deer for a week or more, it is well worth a few extra bucks for the service.

If weather permits, you can hang it yourself before taking it to someone. The ideal temperature for this is 45 degrees, but as long as the carcass doesn’t freeze or the room temperature doesn’t get over 65 degrees, the meat will age just fine. Hang it somewhere indoors, not outdoors where any flies can get to it.

Old Joe taught me a simple method for determining when to butcher a deer that I still use to this day, and my stomach has never suffered from eating venison a single time: Hang the deer whole and sniff-test the body cavity every day. When it begins to smell like it is turning sour, butcher it. What you are smelling is the blood and the exposed tissue of the cavity, which will begin to turn and you’ll know it a couple of days before you plan to prepare and eat it.

I also hang the deer with the hide on. Most think you should skin a deer right away so that it will cool quickly, but the hide doesn’t make much difference when left on an animal that is no longer producing body heat. Leaving the hide on prevents the meat from drying out and flies from getting to it. If it is relatively warm on the day I down it, I’ll sometimes pack the cavity with a couple of bags of ice to cool it quickly. If it stays so warm that I can only hang it for two or three days, I’ll butcher it and then soak it for a few days in heavily salted ice water. Actually, soaking it in this for a day or two is a good idea, regardless of how long you are able to hang it. You don’t really need all those complicated marinades.

My method for butchering is not fancy; it’s so simple, anyone can do it. I simply separate the major muscle groups for the finer cuts and cut chunks of meat off for stews everywhere else. Never cut or saw through any bone. The marrow is very bitter and will taint the meat, even if you remove the bone later. Don’t worry about scent glands on the outside. It’s what is inside that counts. Also bitter are the fat deposits or tallow, but only if you cook them. Some of this I remove as I butcher it, but most of it is easier to cut away with an electric knife as I’m preparing the meat to cook. If it’s white, it’s not right. If the only thing you place in the pot or skillet is red meat, you have a real treat.