If You Clean Fish, You Can Butcher Deer

Al Cambronne says it’s time to demystify the disassembly of deer.

Do you process your own venison? Why or why not? Including prep time, wrapping, and final clean-up, how long does it usually take you? What tricks you have found that make the job easier and more efficient? Join the form discussion here.

If you’re still paying someone else to process your venison, maybe it’s time to try doing it yourself. Yes, it’s some work. But is it worth it? Absolutely.

In our book Gut It. Cut It. Cook It.: The Deer Hunter’s Guide to Processing and Preparing Venison, my co-author and I are very up-front about what you can expect if you’re a beginning butcher. Start in the morning when you’re fresh, and set aside at least a half-day. The guy who brags that it only took him an hour to butcher his first deer—and it will be a guy—definitely isn’t counting prep time and clean-up. Ask his wife how long it really took.

Besides, this isn’t a race. Take your time, and you’ll be more likely to still have the same number of fingers when you’re done.

So Why Go To All The Trouble?
Let’s just say that saving money and enjoying better-quality venison are only part of the story. The real reason to do this yourself is the satisfaction of being truly self-reliant. It’s like the feeling you get from changing your own oil, building your own deck or remodeling your own bathroom—only far more powerful and primal.

You can do it. It’s not easy, but it’s not all that hard, either. In the interest of food safety, keep your venison clean and pay attention to those time-and-temperature basics . Other than that, you can’t really screw this up. As long as you follow some basic guidelines like those in Gut It. Cut It. Cook It., you won’t ruin the flavor of your venison by cutting it up wrong. This isn’t a delicate surgical procedure; your deer is already dead.

If your steaks aren’t perfectly symmetrical, and if they don’t look exactly like the ones being grilled by that TV chef with the funny hat, it’s OK. They’ll still taste delicious. And remember, you’ll be cutting some of the less tender cuts into chunks for burger, sausage, or stew. You never planned on them being pretty anyway. They can be any size and shape you like; it just doesn’t matter.

But what if the very best cuts, even those precious backstraps, turn out lumpy and ragged? And what if your first cut wasn’t nearly close enough to the ribs or vertebrae? After you get done scraping out the rest, what if half the left backstrap ends up in shreds?

It still doesn’t matter. Those shreds and scraps will work great for gourmet stir-fries and fajitas. You’ll no longer need to chop them up right before they go into the frying pan. You’ve already done it ahead of time.

You can do it. If you can clean your own fish, you can butcher your own deer. If you haven’t already, why not give it a try?

Al Cambronne is co-author of “Gut It. Cut It. Cook It.: The Deer Hunter’s Guide to Processing and Preparing Venison.” His most recent book is “Deerland: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness.” On Twitter: @AlCambronne.