How to Process a Deer: Start with Sharp Knives

Knife Safety Tips and Keeping Your Blades Sharp and Ready

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How to Process a Deer: Start with Sharp Knives

Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Ellen Grunseth – Deer hunting and processing has been a family tradition for as long as I can remember. As kids, my brother and I would joke that this was our family’s “quality time.” Today, I am grateful for the knowledge and experience as I pass the tradition on to my children and teach them how to process a deer.

After harvesting and field dressing the deer, we bring the animal home for processing. We hang it from its hind legs — high enough off the ground that the animal can’t be reached by our barn cat. If the weather is 32° F or lower, it can hang for a week. A cold deer is harder to skin and will add time to the overall processing.

My husband prefers to skin the animal as soon as possible. He starts by making a slit in the hide on the inside of the back legs, up to the knee. Then, going around the knee, he pulls down on the skin. He works from top to bottom to avoid getting hair on the meat.

After the animal is skinned, he removes the loins which are located along the backbone — from the neck until just about to the hind quarters. He makes a cut along the backbone first, then starting from the top and working down, peels the loins out. This process works much better when the deer is warm. It involves more knife-work and finesse when the deer has been hanging for a while.

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He quarters the animal and brings it into the house. If we can’t get to it right away, we put the quarters into the refrigerator to work on when time permits.

Before Deboning the Quarters

• Make sure your work surface and tools are clean. It is helpful if the cutting area is at the correct height to avoid getting a sore back from hunching over your task.
• Have a separate work area for wrapping the completed roasts and steaks. It is best to have one person designated to this position if possible. Freezer tape and paper need to stay clean to work best.
• Have cutting boards set out and sharpen all knives ahead of time.

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Knife Safety Tips

  • When I learned how to process a deer, the first rule was to cut away from yourself. The lesson that needs to be taken away from this age-old rule is to be mindful of where your blade is moving and where the edge will end up if you slip.
  • Always hand a blade handle first and edge facing up when passing a knife to someone.
  • A dull knife is far more dangerous than a sharp knife. Dull knives won’t bite into material and are liable to slip when cutting. Also, dull knives need extra force to be used. Using extra force increases your odds of slipping and hurting yourself/others.
  • Keep your knife clean and oiled. Especially folding blades. Corrosion can cause steel to weaken and can affect the knife’s cutting ability.
  • Knife storage is also important. A knife is not currently in use, it should be sheathed or folded. A fixed blade should not be stored in its sheath for long periods of time (one month+) because this can cause corrosion.

Honing vs. Sharpening

Sharpening is defined by the act of taking material away from the edge of the blade. Usually, this is accomplished by “grinding” the edge of a knife against an appropriate sharpening stone or apparatus. The process of sharpening includes setting an edge’s bevel so that both sides meet evenly to form a proper symmetrical edge.

The best angle for sharpening knives is a 20° angle. It provides an excellent edge for kitchen cutlery and fillet knives which work best when processing meat. It is commonly used for higher quality blades, and possibly the most often used.

Honing is really just the process of preparing and maintaining an already sharp edge. As you polish out the rough surface of the edge and slowly work the wire edge into a more durable state you are making your blade more efficient.

how-to-process-a-deer
Photo by Lansky Sharpeners

“Rule of Thumb” Ideas

1. Make sure to have a knife sharpener handy. Accidentally cutting into the bone or cutting board can take the edge off.
2. Having the meat cold (but not freezing) makes handling the meat and trimming it much easier.
3. Deer fat and tallow will carry a “wild” taste when cooked. We remove all fat and tallow from the meat we are processing. This is easy with a sharp knife and cold meat.
4. If there is something on the meat that you wouldn’t want to see when you thaw and cook it months from now, cut it off.
5. Depending on what you want your end product to be, cut the cleaned meat into the desired size. We typically try to save as many roasts as possible. Anything too small to be a roast will be used for canned venison or hamburger later on.

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How to Debone a Deer

First, determine if you have a front or back quarter. Front quarters have a shoulder blade that you will have to cut along. You want to get your knife as close to the bone and shoulder blade as possible, without cutting into them, as that will make your knife dull. Front shoulders have a lot that needs to be cut out, lending itself to more scrap meat than roasts. Hind quarters have less bone and tendons to negotiate. And, if you study the meat, you can see where the muscles come together to form natural places to cut — giving you nice sized roasts to wrap and freeze.

Trickier sections to clean are the ribs and neck. Some people prefer to make a roast from the neck. As my family appreciates more canned venison and hamburger, we clean the meat and put it in the scrap meat pile. The same with the ribs. Some people keep the ribs intact to grill. We take the scrap meat off the bones. Knowing how to process your own deer gives you the option to make the cuts you and your family like best.

In the past, I have canned small pieces of cleaned venison left after cutting the roasts to the desired size. The processing time with the pressure cooker adds significant time to processing the deer, but in the long run, makes for a very quick meal on those busy nights.

Recently, however, my family has started grinding the meat, mixing it with seasoning, and making seasoned burgers. We have used straight venison, which can be slightly dry when cooked. Another variation is to add about 50 percent ground pork to the ground venison and seasonings to make the burgers.

Knowing how to process a deer yourself can be very rewarding when you open your freezer or pantry and see the results of your labors in front of you.

How do you prefer to preserve your venison?

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