It’s finally fall and life on the homestead takes on a whole new focus. The hustle and bustle of the spring and summer seasons are slowing down, though Philip and I don’t know how to live any other way. We continue to hustle no matter the season! September brings the opening of archery season in Kentucky. Hunting is a very big part of how we stock our fall pantry. Philip is an accomplished bowhunter and this allows us an extended hunting season that lasts through the New Year. Here at Kowalski Mountain we do all of our own deer processing at home. We’ve heard horror stories about the long wait times necessary to have meat processed by a processing facility. Learning new skills to do your own game processing ensures your meat is ready in a timely manner.
Before I met Philip, I had some experience processing meat. I had a front deer leg that needed processing, so armed with google and the best knives I had, I tried my best. Unknown to me, processing the front leg is probably the most difficult section to process. I finished that experience with one takeaway, “Kiss your butcher, you are more thankful for him than you know!”
Prior to our first hunting season together, Philip told me that he processed all his own meat. I cringed outwardly at the thought of trying that again. He reassured me that it wasn’t difficult. He also had the tools that make the entire process a lot easier. I hung tightly to my motto…. “Kiss your butcher, you are more thankful for him than you know!”
Our Fourth Fall Season
As Philip and I experience our fourth fall season together, I still giggle at my motto. As the lead butcher, he still gets a big kiss, as I really appreciate what he does! At this point, we have processed at least 4 pigs, countless ducks, turkeys and chickens and so many whitetail deer that I have lost track. Our 4 freezers that are currently in use are always full! We also have the privilege of sharing the abundance with our family members. I never worry about lacking meat on the homestead.
Deer Processing at Home
Philip has not always processed his own meat. I hope that we are finally finished all the meat from the last batch that he had processed by a local butcher shop I found that I would have to do the finishing work on my meat each time I opened a package. Gristle, nasty fat, and just poorly processed cuts always left me frustrated when trying to get a meal pulled together after a long day of work.
I’ll admit, I have gotten spoiled by the clean, neatly cut packages of meat that Philip produces. He’s right, with the correct equipment, the job is not hard, but it is meticulous work that can lead to hours on your feet.
Our First October Harvest
On our latest trip to Kowalski Mountain, we were extremely fortunate that Philip was able to get a doe during the early part of the archery season. While we were both hoping to bring home more meat, I will admit that I was thrilled that we were able to process all the meat in just a few hours. One year we brought home three deer from a single hunting trip. We brought in reinforcements to get that meat processing done! Read about it here.
Successful meat processing begins in the field. While I won’t be focusing on the field dressing process in this post, the most important thing is to complete the skinning process and remove the internal organs as quickly as possible. Handle the meat as cleanly as you can and cool the meat. Due to Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) that is affecting deer in some parts of the country, there are additional requirements that we follow since we will be traveling through the states. While neither Kentucky nor Florida has any case of CWD, we are still required to debone all the meat that we will be traveling with as well as follow other guidelines that prevent the spread of the disease. While this certainly increases the work that we must do in the field, I think it makes home processing quite a bit easier.
Resting the Meat
After deer have been harvested it is important to rest the meat before processing. Aging the meat leads to more tender and flavorful meat. The best method of aging meat is in a walk-in cooler where the meat can be kept at optimal temperature and airflow. However, we don’t have access to a large cooler when doing our deer processing at home, so we age our venison in coolers with ice. We are careful to drain the water and replace the ice constantly to maintain the meat at the best temperature.
Deer meat should age for a minimum of three days. A rule of thumb is a doe should age three to five days, while a buck might need to age eight to ten days. We generally age our venison a minimum of one week.
Philip was right that having the right tools make deer processing at home so much easier. A sharp knife is the key to successful meat processing. The knife needs to have a fine point and slice meat like butter. A good knife sharpener is essential to keep the knives sharp.
We also have large meat tubs and commercial meat containers with lids to store the large quantities of meat that we are handling. A large cutting board that covers the table is an amazing tool that enables us to spread out to get the job done. Though in the past we used an assortment of small cutting boards.
A good meat grinder with a strong motor enables us to ground large amounts of meat at a time. While commercial grade grinders are available for sale at hunting supply stores, most home meat processors don’t need a commercial machine for processing their own deer meat. A burger press makes pressing burgers simple and quick. Plus, tools that make wrapping the meat easier is also helpful but not required. Philip’s last purchase was a meat band saw that we use when we process our pigs. It makes it easy to cut chops and ribs. Which we don’t use for deer processing due to the restrictions of travel.
Getting it Done
The first step in processing the meat involves, removing any fat from the meat. Deer fat is not flavorful and quite disgusting! We are careful to remove as much fat as we can. All the tendons and connective tissue are removed as well as the silver skin. It’s important to remove as much as possible because the tough silver can bind up the grinder if we are careless in its removal.
Philip has learned to identify the different muscle groups and cuts of meat. Some cuts are easier to manage, but all require attention to detail and patience. Home processing of meat is meticulous work. Being so involved in the processing of our own venison brings an intimate connection that has been lost in our modern commercialized food industry.
Cuts of Meat: Backstrap and Tenderloins
The backstrap is the most coveted cut of venison meat. Philip carefully removes the thick silver from this cut and tries to trim it nto precise cuts. Uneven meat cuts lead to meats that can’t be cooked evenly. Once he cleans, the backstraps we slice it into steak. Any small pieces that are not large enough for steak are cut into what we call bites. Bites are essentially stew meat cuts that we use for a variety of meals, not just stew! They make it easy to pull out a package of precut bites and whip up a meal.
The tenderloins are one of my favorite cuts. This is a simple cut to clean and process, but it is complicated to get in the field. Many hunters don’t even bother with removing the tenderloins from inside the chest cavity. We like to use as much meat as we possibly can. We don’t take the sacrifice of these animals lightly and are faithful stewards of their processing. I like to marinate and grill the tenderloins whole.
Cuts of Meat: Roasts and Steaks
The roasts are a group of muscles in the hind legs. The meat is cleaned from slime, silver, and any fat. Then I tie the roast to make sure it holds together while cooking. This is really about aesthetics, so the final product will cook in a pleasing roast shape. It is not required for cooking. Tying roasts are a simple technique of twisting the butcher’s twine into loops that tighten as you pull.
We eat a lot more steak than we do roast, so when given the option to cut roast or steaks, I usually opt for steak. Roasts can be thawed and cut later if we choose to cut more steaks.
Difficult Cuts of Meat: Front Legs and Neck
The front legs are one of the more difficult cuts to process. The legs can be easily deboned, but they have a lot of tendons and silver that is difficult to remove. The silver will melt when cooked in the slow cooker, so we usually opt for that technique.
The neck is a VERY meaty cut, but it’s full of large bones. Many hunters don’t bother with the necks at all. Philips’s mom, Joy Murphy, used to tell me stories that she would head to the butchering station when the men would come in at the hunting camp. She was ready and waiting for any deer necks that the men were going to discard. A large buck has a thick neck that contains a lot of meat.
In light of CWD, the neck is a cut that we have to process in the field. Depending on how long we will be in Kentucky, depends on how long I can age the meat. This year, we opted to just go ahead and cook it even though we had time. Philip helped me to cut the neck into pieces that would fit into my large 6-quart slow cooker. I put just a bit of water in the bottom and let it cook overnight. I didn’t season the meat at all.
When the meat is cool enough to touch, I simply pull it all off the bone. This cooked meat is great for quick meals on a busy night. Simply flavor and warm up the meat. Fajitas, venison over noodles, and shredded venison with barbeque are some of our favorites. This recent deer produced 3-quart size bags of cooked shredded venison from the neck alone, almost 7 pounds of meat!
As we process the meat, any smaller pieces that are removed that are not big enough for steaks go into the ground. Some of the cuts will be kept as bites, but most of them will become a part of the ground meat. We do add fat to our ground venison. Since we don’t currently have a source of our own fat, we get it from the butcher. Either pork fat or beef fat can be used. We weigh the meat prior to processing and add 20% fat to the meat as we grind it. We try to mix it as evenly as possible.
The first year Philip told me he added fat to the ground meat I was completely appalled. I was so excited to have access to lean venison meat that I was completely flabbergasted that he added fat to my almost 100% lean meat. I will admit that the added fat makes it cook better and I’ve comes to terms with it.
This year’s ground meat was over 18 pounds of processed ground meat. The meat is a little softer than beef, but we are accustomed to the texture and use ground venison almost exclusively for our ground meat. Interested in the tool we use to bag our ground meat, check it out here.
New Challenges This Year
This year our biggest challenge was learning to manage deer processing at home in a much smaller space. Since we have moved into the RV until we make the transition to Kentucky, this is the first time we didn’t have the option of spreading out in the large kitchen and dining room. Our workspace in the RV kitchen is only about 4 1/2 feet wide and 6 feet long! That meant that we couldn’t be working simultaneously on tasks. Previously Philip could be cutting and I could be wrapping the meat in different work areas. This year, he’d cut for a while, and then when our meat containers filled, we’d switch to wrapping. We’re determined to make it work, so we made it happen!
Stocking Up the Fall Pantry
Hunting is a big part of how we stock the fall pantry at Kowalski Mountain. A properly processed deer usually yields 30 to 40% of processed meat based on the live weight of the deer. Our doe weighed in at 156 pounds live weight. After processing, we yielded 49.4 pounds of processed, boneless venison. This is 32% of the live weight of the deer, which is right on target for the expected yield. One of the advantages of deer processing at home is that we are not wasteful with the cuts. Sometimes professional butchers are not as conservative in their cuts as we are.
We packaged 18.24 pounds of ground meat, 6.42 pounds of cooked neck meat which leaves 24.74 pounds of steaks, backstraps, and roast! A nice addition of delicious meat to the freezer!
Watch How We Process our Venison
This short video will take you on a whirlwind tour of how we do our deer processing at home. It took us about 6 hours to process the meat, you’ll get a condensed version taking you through the highlights!
Want to learn more:
Collaboration Project: The Fall Pantry Stock Up
This post and accompanying video are a collaboration project that I was invited to participate in. I was so tickled when this amazing group of bloggers invited me to be a part of the #fallpantrystockup project. Be sure to follow the hashtag #fallpantrystockup and check out the ways that these ladies’ stock up their fall pantries at their homes. Each of us is working towards the same goal but stock our pantries in unique ways. Even if you don’t homestead, every homemaker can keep a stocked pantry to feed their family. Check out their videos for ideas that may help you prepare your pantry this fall.
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.