Many people wouldn’t even consider eating a mountain lion, whether because its a cat, or because its a predator, or many other reasons. I was eager to try it, as I’d heard wonderful things about it. So I decided to go all out, and made a cougar ham slow cooked in an Adobo sauce (made from various chili peppers, onions, garlic, and some spices). It turned out spectacular, like a pulled pork.
If you haven’t noticed yet, I love to eat. Nothing is more satisfying than a home-cooked meal made from ingredients procured by my own hands. Whether its tomatoes grown in the garden or a lean trimmed elk roast that I cut out by hand in a cold October garage.
One of the ways I maximize the flavor and the satisfaction that comes with it, is by butchering all my own animals. It started long ago, when as a child I watched my Father bring home deer to be butchered on the kitchen counter.
Many years later, more out of necessity than desire, I began carting my own deer carcasses into the kitchen. Being a bit of a germaphobe, as well as a bit picky at the table, I couldn’t fathom leaving the cleanliness of my food to the hands of some game processer. Just the look and smell of those outfits is enough to make me toss my lunch, so I was determined to do it all myself.
In the beginning, I’ll admit it wasn’t great, but I have become pretty good at it. I think its important to share a couple of the advantages that I have by doing it myself:
I am in complete control over what gets used and how. Being particular about my food, I like to know it was well cared for both before and after it was butchered. I always take great care of my animals, trying to get them gutted, cleaned and cooled as soon as possible. I have seen overwhelming evidence that the crucial time between death and the freezer has a huge impact on the flavor and quality of your meal. Once the carcass is cleaned, and cooled down, comes the aging. I think that aging the meat is very important, second only to the quick cleaning and cooling of it. Call me crazy, but I like to age my venison a minimum of four to five days. I actually wait until the first signs of decomposition start to show. When little specks of white mold start showing on the carcass, its time to start cutting. Much like a good piece of fruit, the best flavor comes right before it spoils. Obviously this must be done in a state of refridgeration, lucky for me, October temperatures here hover around freezing.
Not only does the flavor and texture of the meat improve, but its easier to handle and separate. Meat peels right from the bone, leaving a clean white surface. All the hard work of removing tendons and silver skin is also simplified, little to any coaxing is needed to fillet them right off of your favorite cuts. The meat itself takes on a softer, stickier texture, it almost feels greasy in a way, like near room temperature bacon. Another benefit of butchering my game at home, is the ability to cut the meat the way I want to cook it. I have recently explored many different bone-in cuts that not only increase the quality of my meats, but also cut down on waste. When cutting bone-in pieces, you get to eat all the meat in between the bones that is typically discarded.
Some of these great examples are cutting whole T-bone steaks. Since some deer arent that big, I actually cut them as Cross-bone steaks, basically, two T-bones that haven’t been split in the middle. I cut them about 1.5” thick, and sear them in a pan, till rare (120*) at the center near the bone. The only way to improve backstraps and tenderloins is to serve them together on the bone, with butter and rosemary.
Another great cut that I’ve tried is a bone-in Frenched rib rack. This is done by again leaving the backstraps attached, and sawing the backbone and ribs out. You can then either cut lengthwise down the back, splitting the two, or go really fancy and leave them whole.
Sawing the shanks is another great way to use bones that are almost always discarded. Cooked slowly the shanks are a very tender and tasty piece of meat.
I also like cutting out the meaty ribs of deer and elk. Cooking them twice, first in a pressure cooker, and then again in the oven. This melts off the undesirable fat from the ribs. I then season them a second time and slow cook them in the oven, it makes for an extremely soft and tasty meal.
All these custom cuts and preparations can be done at your own pace, and even cooked without having ever been frozen. I love a good fresh celebratory meal during the hunt.
I like to use a good fillet knife for processing my game. The flexible blade and the razor-sharp edge allow me to skin the dried rind off of most of my meat, exposing the perfectly aged and protected meat below. It also allows me to shave off any damaged parts, leaving as much meat as possible.
I start out with a sharp knife, and regularly sharpen it during the process, to keep the edge from dulling. The sharp blade easily separates broad tendons like those found on backstraps, just like skinning a fish fillet.
Many people grind a lot of their meat into burger. While I enjoy and love a good burger, I rarely grind mine until Im ready to eat it. Part of the reason I think so much meat is ground by so many, is because of the large scrap piles of meat that accumulate during the butchering process. I try and avoid this as best I can by keeping the meat in the largest pieces possible, and the scraps that I do get, I set aside for bottling.
Bottling venison is an often-overlooked process. I have had spectacular results putting my venison into jars instead of the freezer. A big benefit to this approach is no need to keep the meat frozen, and subsequently no loss should a freezer go down, or a power outage.
If those reasons arent enough, then the simple fact that it tastes so good should be enough. Bottled venison is extremely tender, and when bottled together with other ingredients like tomatoes, onions, or even a complete recipe, it is a whole meal ready to eat. One of my favorites is a simple chilli that consists of venison, tomatoes, roasted red or green peppers, onions, garlic, barley and black beans. Thrown together in a bottle with some salt, and cummin, it makes a delicious meal that requires nothing more than a source of heat to bring it to life.
Bottling meat is a slightly different process than you may be used to, do yourself a favor and look into it.
When I do grind venison, I like to do it just before cooking. I also add in some pork fat, either straight fat, or fat with a little meat. This, as well as some good seasoning and some garlic and onions mixed into the burger will make one of the best hamburgers you will ever eat.
Butchering an animal myself has led me to several practices while still on the mountain. One of them is a valiant effort to get the animal out whole if possible. Sometimes it is just too difficult, and an animal must be halved or quartered for extraction. I always prefer to get them out whole, this minimizes the amount of meat lost. For every cut that is made before the butcher table, there is meat lost. Whether it be from drying, contamination, or some other reason.
Keeping the animal whole keeps as much meat as possible protected from the elements.
Another field tactic that I use is the gutless extraction. Some of the places we hunt here in the Rockies are quite close to home. Almost every year, one or two of the deer or elk we kill, are close enough to home, that I can have them home, skinned, and washed out within thirty to forty minutes after the coup de gras is fired. That being the case, I will often leave the guts in the animal until we reach a vehicle. This avoids getting the chest cavity contaminated with dirt, leaves, or any other debris. The animal is then gutted, and transported home where it is skinned and washed in preparation for the aging process.
Another big lesson I have learned, for antelope, in particular, is to get as much blood out of the animal as you can. In my experience, one of the best practices is to take head shots. This leaves the circulatory system intact, allowing it to evacuate its volume even after brain-death has occurred. Obviously this practice is not recommended for an animal who’s head you intend to mount, or save. But for antlerless and meat hunts, it works great. Not only does it empty most of the blood via the headwound, but it does little to no damage to the eatin bits of the animal. And its much easier to gut and clean.
I cant believe how much venison I could have enjoyed so much more over the years, instead of suffering through it. It doesn’t take a huge amount of effort to put these things into practice, but it will make a night and day difference in how you enjoy all that beautiful game meat that you work so hard for. I hope these tips help make your meals better and more memorable, and please feel free to offer any tips you may have!
A few days ago, I mentioned an unfortunate even that I chose to turn into a positive. As I returned home from my brothers house one evening, I noticed a young deer laying on the side of the small two lane main street of our rural town. I quickly pulled over to confirm my sad suspicions, the poor little guy had been hit by a car. I tried to access his prognosis, which turned out to be quite poor, both his back legs had been broken dooming him to to death. I contacted the local Police, so he could be euthanized quickly to end his certain suffering. But I didn’t want his suffering to be in vain, so I decided to turn this sad affair into something positive.
Following through of course with the legal requirements applicable, I called my brother, and we took the young deer back home, where I fully intended to butcher him to avoid further waste. In just a few minutes, we had him cleaned, hung in a tree, and washed him down with cold fresh water. The evening air is still quite cool here in the Rocky Mountains, especially as it flows down from the canyons no more than a mile away. So we left the deer hanging overnight, before putting him into an iced cooler for a weeks worth of aging.
That was a week ago, and this past Saturday morning, it was time to turn what could have been another foul roadside surprise, into something that would make even our Mother proud.
My brother and I set to work, with sharp knives, butcher paper, and my dog Benson staring with wide eyed attention at what must have seemed mountains of juicy and tender cuts. Benson knows a good meal when he sees it.
The deer was fairly small compared to the deer we were used to butchering. He probably was last years fawn, which didn’t leave a particularly large amount of meat. But I’m not one to sniff a gift fish. We quickly turned the small deer into a bunch of neatly little white wrapped packages, destined to become some of my critically acclaimed hamburgers, some savory Sunday roasts, and perhaps a spicy pot of chili. But we decided to save the very best for last, and for that, we needed a sawzall.
We left the carcass of the deer complete, stripping everything but the backstraps. And when we were ready, cut two complete bone in ribeye roasts.
With the deer now completely butchered and packed away safely in the freezer, we discussed this rare springtime delicacy. Its not often to have a fresh never frozen rib rack in the springtime, so I suggested to my brother that he turn this prize into an unforgettable Sunday supper. We discussed the hows and the why’s, and in the end, he bathed the little rack in a puree of garlic, rosemary, and olive oil. And thus it rested overnight in the fridge, destined for the next days dinner table.
What happened next involved much butter, and about twenty minutes in the oven above four hundred degrees. After searing the outside of the rack in hot butter, it was brought up to an internal temp of 130. Then rested, before being served with fresh vegetables. The delicate and delicious meat was then picked from the bones, even Benson got to gnaw the leftovers.
Its hard to beat such a fine meal, prepared with care and skill. But it was even more savory perhaps, because of the knowledge that we had turned what could have been a terrible waste into something that was positive and enterprising. I am still saddened at the suffering this poor animal endured, but grateful that we were able to stop it, and turn it into something beautiful. -CBM
Special thanks to my Brother Spencer for the help, the pics, and for sharing his talent.
I spent some time in South America, and one of my favorite meals was a humble little slice of meat similar to a chicken fried steak. I love them soaked in some good lemon juice, with a good side. They also make a great hot sandwich, I couldn’t tell you how many of them I ate from little street carts.
The only way to make them better, was to add my own flair, made from the Elk we take from the mountain.