There’s an old saying among big-game hunters that says, “The real work begins when the animal hits the ground.” In many respects, that is true. There’s field dressing, followed by getting your meat back to camp or a vehicle, hanging the animal in cool storage, and then transporting the meat to a processor who will turn it into steaks, roasts and sausages.
But Covid-19 has hit meat processors hard. Many were closed for several weeks at the height of the pandemic. During that time, farmers and ranchers had to postpone taking their hogs, cattle and poultry to processors, and that’s their main source of income. Now meat processors are backlogged for a long period. My brother-in-law runs a meat processing operation in Nebraska and, when I asked if he was processing any game for hunters this year, said his business is booked solid by ag producers until 2022! That means many hunters will have to process their own game this year. Fortunately, processing large game animals yourself isn’t that hard. It is time consuming, but with the right equipment and tools you may be surprised how little time it takes.
You’ll need a work area. I have a 4-ft. stainless steel table I bought just for this task. If you need a work surface, half a sheet of plywood set on three saw horses will do just fine. Make sure whatever you’re working on is stable and clean. Steel tables and synthetic counter tops can be cleaned with soap and hot water. Wood tables should be scrubbed a bit more and covered with sheets of freezer wrapping paper to ensure proper sanitation. Oh, and make sure your work area has adequate lighting both for safety and to see the task at hand.
You’ll also need a couple of sharp knives and a sharpener.I use my regular hunting knife for large-scale meat cutting, the fillet knife I use for cleaning fish to make finer cuts, and I have an electric knife that’s a Godsend when it comes to trimming fat. I also keep a pair of meat shears handy. If you plan to leave the bone in some cuts, you’ll need a bone saw too.
Two pieces of processing equipment will make the job go much faster. An electric meat grinder is outstanding for making burger and sausage meat. And a vacuum sealer will help keep meat longer in the freezer, plus it can be used for other chores such as packaging garden vegetables for freezing and even sealing reloading components or ammo before storage to guard against moisture.
You’ll also want to have a healthy supply of cling-wrap and freezer paper, items readily available at grocery stores and butcher shops. You’ll need a couple of clean bowels, a metal tray such as a cookie sheet or two, a cutting board, a wash basin to clean hands as needed, paper towels and a permanent marker.
The first step in actual processing is the least fun and can be the most time consuming. Cleaning the meat you want to process. Use a clean cloth and water to remove all traces of hair, blood and debris from the meat. Then trim off as much extra fat as you can. Pat dry the meat with a paper towel. You want meat that is clean, cool and dry to work with.
The meat is yours and you can cut it up as you see fit, or you can follow one of the many charts available online that show you what cuts of meat are found where on the animal. Make as many steaks, chops or roasts as you wish and collect all the meat trimmings in a bowel to be ground for burger and sausage meat. It’s wonderful if you have help. One person can be cutting the meat while another is packaging and labeling it. Take your time as rushing causes mistakes and accidents.
As meat comes off the cutting area, divide it into portions you’ll freeze. If a family of four will be eating game, package steaks in groups of two or four. I clean these a second time as they come from the cutter, dry them with paper towels, wrap them in cling-wrap, and then wrap each package a second time in freezer paper. You can use freezer tape when working with the paper or regular masking tape works fine tool. When a package of meat is fully wrapped, label it with a permanent marker and put it in the freezer.
Another way to do this is to use a vacuum sealer.Just put the meat in a vacuum sealer bag, seal it, label the package and put it in the freezer. Besides ease, this method also stores sealed meat in see-through packages so there’s no question as to what is inside.
With the main cuts of meat now in the freezer, it’s time to grind up the trimmings. This is where an electric grinder makes this process so much better. Some hunters buy pork fat from a butcher to mix in with the trimmings before grinding. This is because wild game has much lower fat content that domestic livestock and can be dry after cooking if this step is eliminated. I’v
e tried this but found the fat can clog up the grinder, requiring disassembly, cleaning and reassembly periodically. That takes time. Now I just go get a few pounds of hamburger with 20-30% fat content and mix that in after the game is ground. How much to use is a matter of preference, but I add a pound of store-bought burger in to every three pounds of ground game. For burgers, use a food scale to weigh out portions, wrap or vacuum seal them, then freeze. If you have a smoker, the ground meat can be made into tasty sausages by using one of the many sausage-making kits on the market. You’ll want to get a sausage stuffer to help with that.
Once you’ve processed game with the family or friends a few times, you’ll likely find it becoming a regular part of your fall hunting experience. It really isn’t difficult and the more you do it, the less time it takes. Most of the crew at Nexgen Outfitters has a lot of experience in game processing and we’ll be happy to answer any questions you have.