Hunting is about connection. A way to rediscover a formative time in our history when we provided for ourselves. Although today’s pursuit is seldom a life-or-death struggle for the hunter’s survival, the essence of that link between predator and prey endures. For many modern hunters, though, the hunt ends when their deer hits the ground.
Aside from a simple field dress, many avoid additional dirty work, taking their deer to a processor or butcher after killing it, leaving behind a whole animal and returning later to pick up a couple dozen neat packages wrapped in butcher paper. Taking a deer to be processed diminishes the connection formed when hunters see their hard work come to fruition—when a deer goes from wild animal to sustenance. It’s a vital step in a hunter’s journey, and one that is surprisingly easy to undertake.
There are numerous ways to butcher a deer. The easiest and most common way begins by dragging the deer out of the woods and hanging it up, positioning it head down. Hanging the deer with the thighs or “hams” at about eye level allows gravity to help with the skinning process, causing the blood to drain away from the best cuts of meat. Once it’s hung, but before you can start butchering, you have to skin it out.
Start skinning your deer by cutting completely around the back legs just below the joints. Using the first cut as an entry point, slit the hide from the knee joint to the hams on both side of the animal. Next, sever the tailbone. You can then start peeling the hide down the body by pulling it away from the tissue, all the way down to the front shoulders. After doing that, cut off both front legs at the knee and then peel the hide past the front shoulders down to the base of the skull. Remove the head with a saw, and if done properly, the entire hide should come away, leaving the carcass ready to butcher.
Breaking down a carcass is surprisingly simple. It starts by removing both front legs. Grab the shanks and push the leg away from the body, making small cuts around the leg between the front shoulder and the back until the legs are detached. Cut the shank meat from both front legs as well as the larger chunks from the shoulder, as they make for good roasts. Then move onto the neck. This can be simply sawed off, along with front flank and brisket cuts. The next step is removing the vital tenderloins or backstraps. These are, of course, the prized cuts of any animal and should be removed carefully. Start by making a long cut from the rump to the base of the neck, holding tight to the backbone on both sides of the spine. Start peeling the meat from the backbone slowly and carefully, making small cuts where necessary with your blade along the bone. If done right, both backstraps should separate in whole pieces.
Next, remove the easily accessible shank meat from both rear legs. Follow the sinew, or silverskin, lines around all the large muscle groups. This gives a sort of blueprint to follow while removing the meat from the bone. Peel the meat away from the bone along the silverskin lines, cutting where necessary to get large, seamless chunks of meat off the leg. You should be able to peel away both hams—which make excellent roasts—easily along with all the thinner slices of “steak” meat.
The rib meat should now be removed. Cut along the bones, removing as much as you can. Not as tender or fatty as beef, this meat should still be tossed into a bowl along with all the other rough-cut pieces of meat you’ll eventually grind into burger and sausage.
The good thing about butchering your own deer is that when you screw up, it’s not a huge deal. Aside from the backstraps—which should be treated like gold—most of the rest of the meat can find its way into a stewpot, frying pan, or meat grinder with little attention paid to which cut is which. If it looks like a steak, it’s a steak. If it looks like a roast, it’s a roast. Don’t overcomplicate the process and it becomes easier and eventually enjoyable. Ultimately, it’s a way to come full circle with the deer you hunt and the meat you eat.