Care, handling of deer from field to table

The thrill of the hunt can continue at the dinner table if the game isn’t handled properly along the way. Game meats are excellent sources of protein and similar in composition to domestic animal meats. Calorie and fat contents vary with the age and species of the animal. 

Be prepared for the hunt. Remember to bring a sharp hunting knife, a small hatchet, a whetstone or steel, about 12 feet of light rope or nylon cord, plastic bags, and clean cloths or paper towels. Other essentials include proper clothing, binoculars, fresh water, a compass, a map and matches. In warm weather, you may want to bring ground pepper and cheesecloth. Sprinkle the carcass with pepper and cover with cheesecloth to repel flies. Abide by game regulations for hunting, transporting and storing game.

Bleed, field dress, and cool the carcass promptly. Improper temperature is meat’s worst enemy. The surface of the carcass may be contaminated with bacteria that can spoil the meat unless growth is stopped by chilling. Clean your hunting knife often with clean water and a cloth to prevent contamination of the meat.

Cool the animal quickly. Cool the carcass by propping the chest open with a clean stick and allowing air to circulate. Filling the cavity with bags of ice will also enhance cooling. To aid cooling in warm weather, the deer may be skinned if you have provisions to keep the carcass clean. Use ground pepper and cheesecloth to protect the skinned carcass from contamination by flies. In cool weather (28 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit), wrap the carcass or quarters in a sheet and hang to chill in a ventilated shed. Do not allow the carcass to freeze. Freezing may toughen the meat. 

Wear plastic surgical gloves during field dressing.

1. Place the animal on its back with the front end elevated and spread the hind legs. Support the carcass in position by placing rocks or sticks on each side. 

2. Cut along the midline of the belly from the breastbone to the anus. Avoid cutting into the paunch and intestines by using the handle of the knife and the heel of your hand to crowd the guts away. Cut around the anus, loosening the bung so it will come out with the guts.

3. Cut the diaphragm — the thin sheet of muscle and connective tissue between the chest and the abdomen — free from the rib cage by cutting through the white tissue near the rib cage. 

4. Reach forward to cut the windpipe, gullet and blood vessels at the base of the throat.

5. Pull the lungs, heart and guts out of the animal. If you like variety meats, save the heart and liver in a plastic bag and put on ice.

The game may be processed commercially or at home. Be sure to keep the carcass cool until it reaches the locker plant. Keep the carcass out of direct sunlight and allow for adequate air circulation.

For immediate use, store the meat in the refrigerator and use within two or three days. Keep raw meat and cooked meat separate to prevent cross-contamination. 

Freeze game properly. Prevent “freezer burn” by using the right packaging materials. Divide meat into meal-size quantities. Use moisture/vapor-proof wrap such as heavily waxed freezer wrap, laminated freezer wrap, heavy-duty aluminum foil or freezer-weight polyethylene bags. Press the air out of the packages before sealing. Label the packages with the contents and date. Avoid overloading the freezer. Freeze only the amount that will become solidly frozen within 24 hours. Game will keep nine to 12 months in the freezer if properly wrapped.

Do not can the meat unless you have a pressure canner. Low-acid foods, such as meat and most mixtures of foods, should never be canned using the water bath method. Pressure and adequate time are necessary to produce safe canned meat.

Thaw frozen meat in the refrigerator or microwave oven. Cook game meats thoroughly. Foods thawed in the microwave oven should be cooked immediately. Refrigerator-thawed meat should be used within one to two days.

Game meats should be cooked to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. Big game animals usually exercise more than domestic animals, so game meats may be drier and less tender. Moist heat methods, such as braising (simmering in a small amount of liquid in a covered pot), may result in a better product. Chops and steaks may be pan fried or broiled.

The distinctive flavor of game meats is mainly due to the fat they contain. To reduce the gamey flavor, trim the fat from the meat. You may wish to add other sources of fat to maintain the juiciness of the meat. Spices or marinades may be used to mask the gamey flavor. Meat should always be marinated in the refrigerator.

If you would like to read the full publication on this topic, visit

This story is written by Karen Blakeslee, M.S., Extension Associate, Food Science.


Matt Young53 Posts

Matt Young is the Brown County Extension District director, as well as an agent in the area of agriculture and natural resources.


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