From animal to meat: The art of butchering deer


Editor's note: This is part of an occasional hunting series by Staff Writer Keith Whitcomb Jr.

RUPERT -- Butchering deer is easy.

I say that after having watched a pro do it with kitchen knives last Saturday in front of a group of 20 or so people who signed up for a workshop hosted by the Bennington County Conservation District at "The Old Gray Barn" off Route 30. My tune may change if I get the chance to do it myself this November.

[Fair warning, this article contains a graphic, detailed account of the cutting apart of an animal.]

The deer we butchered was a fallow deer raised on a farm in Pownal. The doe had not produced any young, we were told, so it was slaughtered and hung in a freezer for two days. Eric Nuse, a former Vermont game warden, led the workshop and said once a deer is field dressed it should be hung anywhere from two to four days. This lets microbes break the meat down which makes it better to eat. How long it hangs depends on the weather and if it can be kept from scavengers.

I rent an apartment in Bennington and already I see some obstacles to prepare for -- such as where to hang a dead deer if I bag one.

Nuse said when field dressing a deer your life can be made easier and cleaner if you cut down the cartilage joining the ribs to the sternum. Many people don't do this and have to reach in up to their elbows to remove the animal's innards. The skin comes off fairly easily depending on how sharp your knife is.

A sharp knife is key to the entire operation. Nuse showed us how to sharpen knives using a whetstone, which runs about $30, require special oil, and will last a while. Hold the knife at a 22-degree angle and make a slicing motion as though you were peeling the stone. If you slice one way twice, slice the other way twice. Dull knives are dangerous. Whether sharp or dull, always cut away from yourself.

To take the deer's legs off, Nuse said there's a spot just bellow the leg joint similar to a knuckle. Cut around it, then snap the leg off sideways. By now the skin is around the deer's neck like a shirt being removed and it's time to take off the head.

For some reason I'll never understand, here is where "the willies" came upon me. Nuse first sliced the muscle that joined the deer's head to the base of its neck. I cringed until he proceeded to cut around the throat, then with some effort decapitated the deer.

You can tan hides yourself but there are places you can have it done for a fee. We didn't get into that much. Personally, I'd hate to throw any bit of the animal away. Nuse had a lot to say about bones, though. They make the best stew stock. Nuse said he puts them in a pot and sets it on his wood stove for hours on end, then adds onions and spices.

The actual butchering of the deer is not so complicated. With a sharp knife one can follow natural seams in the muscles and separate them from the bones. Nuse showed the group where to slice along the shoulders and the hindquarters, then how to cut those pieces of meat into steaks. If something gets messed up, worst case scenario it becomes stew meat or hamburger.

Well, the worst case scenario is actually when you don't cut away enough of the bullet wound. Nuse said when doing so you should remove a little more than you think you need to because bullet fragments can be more spread out than they appear on the meat.

Once the major muscle groups are removed, how much time you spend cutting off smaller pieces of meat is up to you. Nuse said he likes to saw the ribs off and grill them right away -- we did just that at the workshop -- but they can also be cut into individual pieces. Most of the meat at this point is going to end up as stew, burger, or stir fry.

Deer meat can be wrapped up and frozen, if you're looking to store it for the long haul, say a year or so, you might invest in something that can vacuum seal it in packages to prevent freezer burn.

At the end of the workshop we had a picnic and ate grilled venison. We all got to take home some meat, too. I made off with a few steaks and some meat for the crock pot. The steaks I ate that night, and the next day the stew meat went in with some potatoes, carrots, asparagus, and garlic. I threw in some apple cider, whiskey, and curry. Unlike most stews I slap together, this turned out pretty good.

Watching a dead deer become meat costs $15 and a drive to Rupert -- money well spent. When all was said and done, looking at what the deer had become, it was hard to remember what it had been before.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.


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