Do You Trust Your Butcher?

Al Cambronne offers tips for choosing a venison processor who will do the job as carefully as you’d do it yourself.

In my last blog post, I encouraged those of you who aren’t yet processing your own venison to consider giving it a try. It’s incredibly satisfying to know you’ve done it all yourself—from pulling the trigger to washing the dishes.

But maybe you live in an apartment or dorm where deer butchering is for some reason not encouraged. Maybe you don’t have a garage that’s cool enough in September or warm enough in December. Or maybe this just isn’t a job you want to tackle yourself. It’s OK. I butcher my own deer, but I no longer change my own oil—and every once in a while, I call a plumber. So it’s OK to call a butcher, too.

If you do, check around before the season begins. Ask a few questions. If you can, take time to swing by for a visit.

Here are four things to verify:

Will you be getting back the venison from your deer—and only your deer?
You have no control over how other hunters handle their deer once it’s down. Make sure your processor has a foolproof system in place to ensure that you’ll only be getting back venison from your deer. Verify that butchers work on just one deer at a time, and that they clean their equipment and work area thoroughly before starting on the next one.

Are storage areas are cold and work areas are clean?
Is there a cold-storage area in case the weather warms up? Or, is there just an extra-long buck pole out behind the shed? If you’re dropping off a deer that won’t be on the butcher’s schedule for several days, will it be kept frozen until the day it’s butchered? Are work areas clean and in close proximity to soap and water?

Is your butcher is a professional—preferably a year-round professional?
Every deer season, small-town butchers all across America take a break from beef and pork so they can concentrate on venison. These pros are the ones most likely to have the skills, facilities and hygiene you’re looking for.

This doesn’t mean the unregulated backwoods processors that pop up every fall are always a bad bet—just check them out carefully. If their work surface is a knife-scarred sheet of plywood that’s still bloodstained and crusted from last year’s deer season, and if there’s no running water anywhere in sight, then you might want to keep looking. If they’re reluctant to even show you their work area, that might be another reason to keep looking.

Does your butcher have an open-door policy?
The best have nothing to hide. You might even be able to see their work area when you’re standing at the front counter; if not, they’ll probably be OK with a quick tour. I know of one operation that has a window between its work area and its retail showroom. If you want to stand next to a freezer case full of bacon and sausage and watch these pros at work, then go right ahead.

And that’s how it should be.

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.