In the first of this four-part series we looked at in-field techniques for skinning and packing a game animal along with the factors that affect taste and tenderness. Today, we hear from professional chef Albert Wutsch on how best to handle meat in camp or at home in the effort to produce the most tender game meat with the tastiest flavor. Wutsch serves as the guest chef at Outdoor Solutions’ Field-to-Table culinary events. Chef Wutsch is also a culinary educator and regularly writes for publications and has published several books.
Handling Meat in Camp and at Home
The first step of handling our game meat no matter what hunting camp looks like is to hang the carcass or quarters and skin as soon as possible. The objective is to get the body temperature down as fast as possible. If we’re in the back country or at a cabin, the end result should be the same, having wholesome quality meat at the cutting board. Nature provides a natural hook on the hind hocks to hang the animal or quarters.
Once the animal has been skinned, remove the windpipe and esophagus from the neck before aging. Many times, when animals are shot with a rifle, the bullet impact will force stomach matter back up into the neck, which will sour the very usable neck meat.
After skinning, inspect the carcass. Look for entry and exit wounds, previous injuries, etc… This will give you an idea of what you’re going to face when butchering. Remove any and all bloodshot meat before aging. Do not try to salvage this meat, as it will sour fast, will have bullet and bone fragments, and most of all, the bloodshot will permeate surrounding muscles and ruin good usable meat. Now it’s time to remove muscles such as the tenderloins, flank, and ribs to prevent waste and poor yield. The tenderloins are the most tender cut on the animal. They don’t need to be aged and, if you hang them for a week, they will shrink and dry, creating more work and poor yield. The tenderloins, flank, and ribs can be removed and placed in the refrigerator and be processed at a later date.
Aging is one of most important factors that affect taste and tenderness. Aging allows the muscles to rest and relax, resulting in a more tender cut of meat. The aging process also helps develop earthy tones and natural flavors. Remember if we get something on the meat that shouldn’t be there such as the tarsal gland scent and let the meat hang for a week, we can be developing unwanted gamey flavors. Don’t try to cook the meat the same day you shoot it. The meat will shrink, contort out of shape, and be very chewy. The muscles need to relax for the first 24 hours before cooking and butchering if possible.
There are two types of aging; dry and wet. Dry aging is hanging the game with hide off and the outer surface fascia of the meat dries up. The best time and temperatures are five to seven days at 35-45 degrees. After seven days, the aging process slows way down. The meat should be hung out of direct sunlight, away from where the birds, cats, and dogs can get at it. If you choose, wrap in breathable game bags. Most importantly, if you do not have the correct temperatures and conditions, it is not necessary to age. If you think it’s too warm, it is too warm, if you’re worried about too many bugs, it’s too warm. Quarter your meat and or cut into smaller muscles and place on a rack uncovered in your refrigerator. The refrigerator is the perfect temperature and humidity for aging.
If you cannot dry age, your second best option is to wet age. This is when you would cut the meat into muscles and vacuum seal. Leave the sealed meat in the refrigerator for five to seven days before freezing. Make sure the bag has a good seal when wet aging and freezing. Wet aging works the same as dry aging but slower and, of course, you won’t have a dry surface on the outer muscle.
If you cannot age the meat, it is OK. Too many people think this step cannot be skipped. Let the meat rest for the first 24 hours, then go ahead and fabricate (cut larger pieces into smaller, usable cuts). It is more important to retain the moisture in the meat than it is to age in poor conditions. Game meat has very little or no fat so retaining the moisture and not over cooking tender cuts is of upmost importance.
Once aged, fabricate the carcass or quarters into sub primal cuts. It works much better when there are more than one person doing this process. Set up butchering stations with sharp knives, cutting boards, wrapping station etc., have all your supplies and equipment ready, including space in the freezer.
I recommend that you fabricate your game animal into muscle groups. This is called butchering by seaming the meat – taking it apart by following the seams between muscles. Learn to identify the muscles and which are tender and which are tough. Package and label by the name of the muscle so you know what they are when removing from the freezer. Once you understand how to pair the correct cooking method with each muscle, you are ready to cook tender and tasty game dishes. Knowing the muscle groups, which are tender or tough is extremely important. Always mark the animal, date, etc… on the packaging.
Freeze meats in either butcher paper or vacuum seal. It is most important to wrap as tight as possible with little or no air to prevent freezer burn. The best temperature to freeze game meat is at zero or below. When freezing meat, spread your packages out in freezer. The faster the meat freezes the higher the quality and longer it will last. The next step of having tender and tasty game meat on your plate is to determine what’s for dinner!
Our goal is to get good, wholesome quality meat from the field to the table for everyone to enjoy the fruits of your harvest.
Good Cooking, Chef Wutsch