Home Deer Butchering 101

December 3, 2010

in Butchering, DIY & Crafts, Field & Stream, Hunting

Our excellent deer-hunting adventures have culminated in an epic seven-deer butchering session, with at least ten people helping. My in-laws have a tradition of inviting friends over and doing it as a group, which takes place in their nice, insulated garage/shop.

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Here are the deer shot during the season, awaiting their skillet-bound fate. Most of them were shot during the previous weekend and have spent a week hanging outside (we usually let our deer hang, weather permitting, for several days to a week in order to age them and thus tenderize the meat). These here have actually frozen somewhat in the process, but they mostly thawed by the time we butchered them after we moved them into the shop the night before.

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You can see that the shop has been decorated with the glory of deer seasons past.

At this time, let me just say that butchering the whitetail is not hard because this particular species of deer is not very big. It’s nice to have help, but one can also do it alone if need be.

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We begin by removing the feet. To do so, hold a foot in your hand, bend it downwards a little, and cut through the hide and the cartilage at the joint where the foot connects with the rest of the leg. If you hit the bone, look for a different angle to cut – you don’t need (or want) to be cutting through any bones.

An important note: There have been cases of the CWD, or Chronic Wasting Disease, in our area. Now CWD is a neurological disease that affects deer. There have not been incidents of people becoming infected, but hypothetically there could be. This is why, if you are in the South-Western Wisconsin or any other CWD-confirmed area, you shouldn’t eat any animals that appear sick, and avoid sawing through any bones to keep the marrow contained. Also, avoid using deer bones, brain, glands, spleen, or, like I said, marrow in your food. Because of this potential threat, we debone our deer completely.

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With the feet removed, you now want to skin your animal, which you start at the neck. That icky-looking area is where the bullet went through, and all that stuff will need to be trimmed off.

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Basically, skinning involves cutting through the hide all the way around the neck and then cutting through the film-like connective tissue between the skin and the muscle to release the hide.

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Until you get kind of halfway-down.

An important word of caution: It is not uncommon for two people to be working on the same carcass at the same time. Please be careful not to cut the other person you are working with – watch out for their hands, fingers, faces, and so forth. If you are an observer, conscientious or otherwise, don’t stand too close. Personally, I have never seen there be an accident, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t happen.

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When you get halfway down the carcass, you may want to start pulling. The help of another person is usually really useful at this point.

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Like that.

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Here’s that elusive white tail.

The more backwoodsy types often ask me if we do anything with the hide, such as tanning. We don’t – we just take it down to a guy in a town at the bottom of the hill to be traded for a hunting knife or a pair of (cheap) gloves. It is not worth more than five or six bucks. But I’ve heard of (very few) people tanning the hide themselves. If you are interested in that sort of thing, consider this Driftless Folk School Class. That one is over now, but there might be another one in the future.

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With the deer thus skinned, it’s time to start breaking it down into quarters (= cut off the limbs). We usually start with the front quarter (= leg). Once again, you gonna wanna be cutting through a joint between the torso and the shoulder, avoiding any bones. It can be done! Just keep looking for the right spot. You can also do this with a lying-down carcass but it’s easier when it’s hanging.

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See? The so-called “front quarter” (one of the front legs) is starting to come off.

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Next, let’s remove the back legs, or “hind quarters.”

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Next, we are going to remove the “backstraps,” or loins – two tender muscles on each side of the spine running the entire length of the back. This is a highly-prized cut, and, next to the inner loin nestled up against the back inside the body cavity, it is the most tender part of the deer. Sometimes people call these backstraps “tenderloins,” but I believe it’s actually roughly an equivalent of a cow’s sirloin.

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Love my brother’s-in-law facial expression.

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Here it is.

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One of the sides will be covered with a thick layer of connective tissue, which needs to be trimmed off.

I like to cut it into about four sections and freeze each section individually to be grilled whole later. In the past, we’d cut this piece into butterfly steaks, but later decided that the less cutting we do during butchering, the less of the meat is exposed to air, and, hence, susceptible to the potential freezer burn. Besides, I prefer whole chunks to individual steaks anyway. It’s more primal.

Now depending on your available amount of time, patience, ambition, and on how many deer you still have to process, you can remove or not remove the rest of the meat from the carcass. First-time butchers with only a single deer to process might want to trim off every bit of flesh for hamburger, but the thing about us is that we usually don’t.

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Instead, we just tie the remaining carcass, above, to a tree to serve as a bird feeder for the winter. By spring, protein-eating winter birds, such as woodpeckers, chickadees, starlings, and nuthatches, will pick it clean because they are after the high-energy fat/suet. Just be sure to tie it well and high up in a tree out of reach of thieving dogs or coyotes.

That said, this time we also removed some meat from around the neck for grind. Bucks apparently have more of it than does.

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Here Jacob is showing where it came from.

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At this point, it’s time to break down the quarters into usable pieces of meat. We usually start with the front legs. Here is one.

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And here’s the back leg.

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We usually start at the bottom of each leg. The goal here is to break this piece of animal into individual muscles, and this is done by tracing the connective tissue “seams” between the muscles with a knife.

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See? The muscle is starting to peel off.

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It’s handy to have a scrap bucket by you when you’re doing it. Some of this becomes dog food.

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The skinniest, toughest muscles towards the bottom of each leg are usually ground. As you can see, we don’t work too hard removing the connective tissue from the meat that’s headed for the grinder. The connective tissue is the white stuff, by the way.

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This powerful motorized grinder will grind it all right up. The meat is usually ground twice, and then used either in the homemade pork-and-venison sausage my in-laws make every year or in a variety of dishes that normally call for ground beef, as long as they include a lot of other ingredients, such as chili, tamale pie, Bolognese, pasties, and so on. Now you CAN use ground venison in meat-only dishes (things like hamburgers, meatballs, and the like), but because venison is so lean, you need to mix it with at least a third of ground beef and then enrich your hamburger mix with some milk or cream. I don’t like adding eggs because I find that it makes hamburgers tougher.

Of course, you can always get a jerky gun and make your own “deer sticks” (you will still need to mix your venison with part beef), but that’s usually more work than I care for.

Some people choose to turn the entire front quarters into hamburger, though I usually try to salvage larger pieces for “stew” – a loose term used in our family for the pieces which can be used in stroganoff, stir-fries, stews (the connective tissue melts beautifully when the meat is braised in liquid for a long time), jerky, and so on.

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This is what I’m taking about. How much you will trim these pieces before packaging will depend on how much overall time you have, as well as on exactly how much of a control freak you are you aspire to excellence in all things. As you may have noticed, I prefer doing more things to doing things better, and it’s easier for me to trim those just before cooking anyway.

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Here you can see Jacob is starting to break down the larger hind leg. The same principle applies – examine the quarter, locate the seams, and use them as guides for separating the muscles.

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There will be three large single muscles/roasts in the hind leg. Those are the ones I like to leave whole to make into pastrami, my favorite deer product of all time.

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Here is one.

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Here is another. I like to package them individually.

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Everything in between becomes either hamburger or “stew,” such as these pieces above, depending on how big a chunk you have in front of you.

BUT DON’T THROW AWAY THAT CARCASS JUST YET!!! There’s more treasure to be found in its depths. Specifically, this:

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Sorry, Virginia. I know this is no shirtless Rob Pattinson in this picture… there’s just no way to present this part of the buffalo in the way that is both glamorous and discernible. It’s pretty much gotta be one or the other, and since this is a tutorial of sorts, after all, I had to go with discernible. There’s no way I could skip it altogether though – the most tender, delectable meat comes from inside the cavity, where it is tucked neatly underneath the spine.

Now the outward-facing sides of these muscles have been exposed to air during the aging process, and will now look dark and leathery. The dark and leathery stuff will need to come off, which is what’s happening above. This is why some hunters prefer to remove those at field-dressing time.

To remove these from the cavity, trace the knife around and underneath the tenderloins (for these are the true tenderloins here) and pull them out. I just throw those babies on the grill – they don’t need any embellishment beyond maybe a pat of compound butter, but even this is more gourmet than most people who actually shot a deer this year would bother with.

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And finally, you package it. I like to package stew and hamburger in 1 to 1.5-lb packages, and wrap each of the loin sections individually. Pastrami muscles are wrapped individually as well, although you usually wanna smoke two at a time. We either wrap the meat in saran or put it in Ziploc bags…

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…And then wrap them in freezer paper. Don’t forget to label your packages! You want to make sure to put down the cut and the year, because, I promise you, three years from now you could be staring at that package and wondering how old it is.

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Finally, it doesn’t hurt to grill one of the loins right away, especially if you have a hungry deer-butchering crew to feed. That’s what the pioneers did in the above picture…

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And that’s what we still do today. Wait, the pioneers didn’t really have any meat thermometers in the Big Woods, did they now? Nevermind.

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And here is some thirty pounds of venison going home with us.

The End!

Now, was that helpful? Off-putting? Charming? With the internet, you never know.

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

1 JMT December 3, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Helpful and Charming! Thank you.

P.S. Now I am hungry.

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2 wiscochef June 22, 2011 at 8:10 am

i love it!

nothing starts my day quite like a cup of coffee and a photo tutorial of butchering!

it was truly informative!

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3 Sofya June 22, 2011 at 11:33 am

That’s what we’re here for!

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4 Ruth December 3, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Well, I have to admit that it solidified my lack of desire to do any of that myself…..but it did make me hungry for venison! My father-in-law usually gets as many deer as allowed and thus has more than enough venison to share with the family, but so far this year he hasn’t had any luck at all, so I suspect we’re going to miss out this year. Might have to do my own hunting next year so I can have my venison steaks!

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5 Sofya December 4, 2010 at 9:22 am

Ruth, that butchering is work, for sure! It’s best when you have a crew.

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6 Sarah Cortes December 3, 2010 at 6:50 pm

Yes, that was helpful, the way I was shown, we didn’t remove the feet, I thought they just got in the way later. So I ended up struggling with them for a while and eventually removed them at the shoulder anyway. I pretty much just skimmed through the article, I will read more thoroughlly later. Looks like you guys grind right away, I think I like that idea. currently we keep all the scraps whole, then thaw and grind months/weeks later. Scraps for us are as well anything too small/mangled to bother to stew, no matter how tough it might be, like the leg muscles, if theyre sizeable enough to get semi-uniform bite-chunks out of, or marinate for steaks/roasts, they never go into the grinder.

You know, I was thinking about trying rendering the deer fat, then adding to grind to make it more palatable, instead of pork or beef. I also want to try making pemmican, thought I think it’ll be an aquired taste, if at all !

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7 Sofya December 4, 2010 at 9:20 am

Cool idea, Sarah! Let me know how it goes with rendering??

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8 Kristi December 4, 2010 at 3:17 am

thanks, this was VERY helpful, especially figuring out where those tenderloins were..!!!

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9 C December 4, 2010 at 6:06 am

Love the tutorial! I became acquainted with hunting after I got married, and I LOVE everything I learn from your blog. You inspire me to consider going hunting with my man. :) You also inspire me to want him to shoot something so I can cook it. Your blog is one of my top-two favorites– really well done.

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10 Sofya December 4, 2010 at 9:19 am

Aww thanks C, that’s sweet of you to say!!!

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11 Moriah and Eric December 7, 2010 at 7:30 am

Eric went to the deer butchering class and learned a lot of stuff. We are so Thankful that he went because he shot his first deer the following day!
-M

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12 Sofya December 7, 2010 at 11:51 am
13 jon spencer December 15, 2010 at 3:29 pm

For me those inside tenderloins come right out after field dressing and at least one is usually sliced thin and fried before the night is over.

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14 Sofya December 15, 2010 at 4:02 pm

Same for some folks I know.

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15 MaidMirawyn June 3, 2011 at 6:12 am

I am a ridiculous amount of empathy, so I can’t hunt or butcher. However, I have lots of family in South Georgia, so I’m not opposed to it. (hey, it’s a valuable survival skill!) In fact, I wish I could get venison more often!

Thanks for your delicacy in the photography. I found it very educational, even though I wouldn’t be doing it myself unless there’s a major social change!

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16 Heather June 14, 2011 at 6:30 pm

This post took me straight back to my childhood.

All the family/friend/neighborhood deer butchering was done in my grandfather’s garage, which was a very large heated block building.

As kids we would spend all night running back and forth from the house to the garage during butchering.

I learned something new from your post, in Pennsylvania I never knew anyone who put the carcass out for the birds.

During deer season in Pennsylvania, it is common for people to put out crates with signs “Deer hides wanted” along the road.

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17 Amanda August 16, 2011 at 9:15 am

Very helpful….actually passed this onto one of my girlfriends as we are “new to homesteading”…. I could never stomach being around butchering…but with me being a stay at home momma now…. this just might happen =) Thank you.

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18 Sofya August 16, 2011 at 9:23 am

Amanda, if I may, butchering is something that I’ve seen many people get used to real fast once they are actually around it physically (rather than imagining it/watching it). Not everyone, but many people, including myself! That said, to this day I don’t like killing the chickens myself (although I have) and may not look as they kill them. However, everything after I really enjoy. I am a lot more comfortable with killing and gutting deer (which I have done). And by the time you butcher a deer, it’s really like cutting up meat for supper. I am much more comfortable using a gun to kill things.

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19 Doug K October 4, 2011 at 2:00 pm

thanks, that is useful.. I’m not much of a hunter but my son is keen, got his first deer (mule) this year. We field-dressed it and took it to a processor, but if we get another next year I believe I’ll process it myself with the aid of your helpful post ;-) Field dressing was a bit gross I admit, even though I’m used to cleaning fish and pheasant.. just so much more of everything in a deer, blood included.

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20 Alison Brierley February 11, 2012 at 2:05 pm

What a great blog, very informative. Thank you. Ali x

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21 Bill M October 21, 2012 at 10:26 am

Enjoyed it. Thanks

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22 kym October 27, 2012 at 10:30 pm

Great article! Informative and funny!

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23 AL November 21, 2012 at 8:25 pm

Great post. Have you tried the golfball method of skinning deer? Alot less hair to deal with.

AL

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24 Sofya November 22, 2012 at 1:11 am

No, how does that work?

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25 AL November 23, 2012 at 6:13 pm
26 Mike Peterson December 13, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Thanks. Except for neck roasts and back straps, the rest of our deer will be canned with the pressure cooker.

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27 Prepper Jalapeno Gal March 23, 2013 at 10:27 am

This is awesome and made me hungry for some deer jerky and some deer chili. Can I re post this to my blog if I accredit it back to this page?

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28 Sofya March 23, 2013 at 3:11 pm

Sure thing!

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29 April March 23, 2013 at 11:29 am

This site rocks! I will start homesteading next year after I purchase my acreage and am always on the lookout for helpful articles. I will definatly keep checking back. You are very informative without being overbearing. Thank you for such an awsome site!

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30 Dannell June 27, 2013 at 1:53 pm

After the deer has been killed and is hanging. Do you have to have it hang in a cool place or is room temperature? I have never done this but I want to know what was the best time to just let it hang (1 week or 2 weeks)?

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31 Sofya June 27, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Like all meat, it absolutely has to be in the cold place to remain food-safe – for our family, it means hanging them outside in November, where temperatures are very low, like in the fridge. My family also owns a big commercial walk-in fridge where they hang all of our deer if the weather is warmer. We live in Wisconsin, in a cold climate. If you hang it at room temp it will go bad. The hanging time is a couple of days – about 3, 4 tops. Not as long as a week. And, of course, this is without the guts (but often with the head and the skin on – as a matter of habit in our case, either way).

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32 DB November 25, 2013 at 11:08 pm

Nice work…entertaining and informative. Just starting to butcher my first deer in more than 20 years…this is super-helpful stuff!

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