Fall has finally come to the homestead and buck fever hits hard this time of year. Philip is an avid hunter and while he certainly scopes out the best bucks each year. Hunting on the homestead is not about trophies, it’s about filling our freezers with wild game. While using a local meat processor is convenient. It’s quite costly and the wait can be long. From our past experience in another state, quality is a concern. A butcher’s goal is to push out quantity. I would open a package and still have to trim gristle, fat, and silver skin left by the butcher. All of these things affect the flavor and tenderness of the meat. We take time to make precise cuts to get the most out of every deer we process. We’ve found that when we process our own meat, the quality meets our standards. We cut the meat to exactly our needs and we waste less. With the right venison processing tools, the job is so much easier.
Basic Venison Processing Tools
Whether you choose to field dress your harvest or transport the animal to the hunting camp for processing is determined by how quickly you can cool the carcass. It’s essential to cool the meat as quickly as possible to prevent spoilage. Since we hunt on our own property, we are able to quickly bring the harvested animal to the skinning rack. The term field dressing is commonly used for the initial gutting, skinning, and/ or deboning of the meat right where the animal was harvested. Depending on the size of the animal, some animals may only be gutted. Other animals might need to be packed out in quarters. The essential venison processing tools for this will depend on if you are bringing the deer into camp to butcher or processing the animal in the field.
Essential Tools for Butchering at the Skinning Rack
As with any task on the homestead, the right tools make all the difference! These are our must-have items in our butcher kit when processing our own game on the homestead.
Throughout the entire butchering process, quality knives are the most important tool you will use. A good sharp knife makes all the difference in your butchering experience. A sharp blade will make quick work of all aspects of butchering and allow you to make concise cuts. Not only is a dull blade miserable to work with, but you are also more likely to cut yourself as it takes more effort to make the meat cuts. While Philip uses a variety of knives, a good-quality filet knife is a good multipurpose blade that can be used for most tasks. He uses it as a skinning knife all the way to precision cutting when removing silver skin. A long or short blade might be preferred depending on the task.
Keeping your knife sharp through the entire process is essential! We have a fancy electric knife sharpener that Philip uses in the house. However, at the skinning rack, he uses a simple honing rod. To use a sharpening rod, put the heel of the blade at the top of the rod and draw the knife down. Work both sides of the blade sharpening each side. After use, a honing rod can be cleaned. Use a bit of vinegar to remove any grease.
Hooked Blade for Utility Knife
When skinning a deer, the initial cuts need to be done carefully so as not to puncture the organs. Philip likes to use a gut hook for this job. While you can purchase a special knife, hooked blades are made for utility knives. These are inexpensive to buy and fit any utility knife that has replaceable blades.
Gambrel and Hand Winch
A gambrel is a helpful tool to hang a deer to butcher the animal. Usually made from heavy steel, be sure to purchase one strong enough to hold the animal you are butchering. Many are made for weights over 1000 pounds, but some are for much less. We use our gambrel with a hand-cranked winch that allows us to raise and lower the deer. The winch is a big help to be able to work more comfortably and easy for anyone to operate. We also have a scale that we can add to weigh the animal. We also have a gambrel system that can be used on the back of the truck, using the hitch as the base.
Other Helpful Tools
In some cases, we use a pair of loppers or a reciprocating saw when cutting larger bones. Technically, you can cut between most joints to make these cuts using only your knife. However, sometimes after a long day or very late night, we just want to get the job done!
A Quality Cooler
Finally, to finish butchering your deer, you need a clean place for the transfer of meat. We use a variety of coolers, but our favorite is the square coolers on wheels. This 60-quart large cooler is big enough that “most” deer will fit inside when properly cut. Keep in mind we bone our deer due to travel, which makes a big difference in size. These coolers have a drain. When aging meat, it’s vital to drain the water and displaced blood during the aging process.
A great way to help drain the cooler is to place a piece of 1″ PVC standing up near the drain on the inside of the cooler. It needs to be long enough to reach the bottom of the cooler but still allows for the cover to close. When it’s time to drain the cooler, open the valve and use the PVC as a handle, you can lift and push the meat away from the drain hole so the cooler can fully drain. It’s best to put the PVC pipe in first when you pack the cooler, as the ice sometimes creates a barrier, along with the meat that makes it difficult to reach the drainage hole.
While you can use a larger cooler, they can be hard to handle. Usually, it takes two people to lift and move them. Not to mention they will use a lot of ice. The 60-quart cooler on wheels is perfect when transporting your own deer meat.
Meat Processing Tools
Once the meat is properly aged, it’s time to begin cutting the different cuts of meat into usable portions. Processing your own meat at home is not hard, but it is time-consuming meticulous work. In addition to some of the helpful venison processing tools above, we use the following meat processing supplies when processing our own venison.
Our Basic Set Up
We like to do our meat processing at counter-height tables. If you don’t have enough counter space, the best way to add additional workspace is to use folding tables. Philip uses a 2″ PVC pipe that is cut to 18″ in length. The table legs slip into the PVC and add the extra height that is more comfortable when doing food preparation. Ideally, we like to have multiple workstations that allow us to cut, and wrap the meat at the same time. However, living in the RV makes that challenging. We make due, switching tasks throughout the processing day.
Meat Lugs, Bins, and Trays
Meat lugs with lids are a great addition to your meat processing supplies and are relatively inexpensive. We use a variety of lugs, trays, and bins to sort our meat while processing. Lugs are extremely helpful for mixing sausage or fat into ground venison. These food-safe bins are easy to clean. Personally, I consider the lids essential. Unless you have a dedicated refrigerator, they are rather large for use in most refrigerators.
As Philip cuts the meat he sorts it into bins until we are ready to wrap it. While we have both stainless steel food bins and plastic bins. He prefers food-grade plastic bins with lids. It’s easy to identify the contents in each bin. As he cuts, he adds steaks to one bin, bites to another, and all the meat reserved for the ground meat to another. The bins can be stacked and easily fit into the fridge until processing is finished.
Philip also likes to use trays. I think his affinity for food service trays comes from his years in the military. However, I will admit, they come in handy for a lot of homestead tasks. They are great for retrieving meat out of the cooler and moving it to the processing table without making a drippy mess across the floor. While they aren’t a necessity, they are a nice addition to our venison processing tools.
We like to use cutting boards that can be cleaned well. For that reason, we use plastic cutting boards. We have a huge cutting board that covers most of the table. However, I consider it a luxury item. We used a collection of cutting boards when we started. If we call in reinforcements on processing day, we still use our cutting board collection. The main goal is to protect your cutting surface, protect your knives and be able to keep a clean working station throughout meat processing.
If you plan to do your own meat processing, I recommend a good meat grinder as your first big purchase. When cutting your own meat, there is always scrap meat. Bite-size pieces we affectionately call “bites” are closest to stew meat. We package these for quick meals in one-pound packages. However, the rest of the scrap that doesn’t have another use becomes the ground. While you can use a grinder attachment for a KitchenAid, we think a dedicated grinder is best. We tend to do a lot of ground at one time which puts a lot of wear and tear on the motor of the kitchen aid. A good grinder usually comes with a sausage stuffer attachment, which is an added bonus.
One of the venison processing tools we find useful when processing ground venison is a digital scale. We add 20% fat to our ground meat. In order to accurately calculate the fat, it’s a good idea to get an accurate weight of the meat rather than an estimate. While I have a small food scale, we also have a large digital scale. It has a separate readout screen that is really helpful when weighing a meat lug that might be larger than the base of the scale. While we use the scale for a lot of things on the homestead, meat processing is just one of its uses making it a great investment for the homestead.
Packaging the Meat for Storage
Once the meat is cut, it’s very important to package it well for long-term storage. A good vacuum sealer is useful and we use it on occasion. However most of the time we wrap our meat. We use a two-step process. First, we wrap the meat in servings sizes appropriate for our family in plastic wrap. This creates a moisture barrier and makes it as airtight as we can make it using this method. Next, we wrap it in butcher paper. Some butcher paper, known as freezer paper, has a plastic coating on it, however, we purchased regular butcher paper in bulk. It’s just plain butcher paper which still works well to preserve our meat.
Once everything is wrapped, we pack it into paper bags to add another layer of freezer burn protection. It also protects the packages from getting ripped or nicked when I am digging through the freezer. The paper bags also have the secondary benefit of helping me organize the chest freezer. I date all my bags so that we properly rotate our meats and use the oldest meats first. You can read about my freezer organization system here.
Build Your Butchering Kit
When you first begin processing your own meat, the venison processing tools can seem like a big investment. Don’t feel like you need everything at once to get the job done! Some of the things we use are luxuries. While other items make a huge difference in your ability to do your own game processing at home. Evaluate what you have, what you can make do with, and what you absolutely need to invest in right away.
This list is not all-inclusive. Depending on how you are processing your meat, you may need to add a meat slicer, jerky-making tools, or possibly a meat band saw. The amount of equipment you invest in will be determined by how much of your own meat you process. At Kowalski Mountain, we process all of our meat ourselves. Which includes not only the wild game we process but also all of the meat animals we raise on the farm.
Consider the investment you make in your own equipment a trade-off for what you would pay in basic processing fees year after year. I looked up the processing fees at a local processor. They start at $1.45 per pound and go up from there with a minimum of $60 per animal for bone-in meat. If you process more than one deer a year, you will easily be able to justify the purchase of quality venison processing tools that you can use for many years.
Want to dig deeper into processing your own meat? Check out these previous posts.
Shop This Post
About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.