This Fall was the first season that I took a big game animal, field dressed it, and broke it down into kitchen-friendly, freezer-ready pieces. My two initial takeaways from this process are:
A. The meat starts resembling something you have handled hundreds of times in the kitchen more quickly than you would expect. The word "butchering" harkens some grisly images to mind, but once you remove the offal, it's a minimally bloodless process.
B. I basically learned everything I needed to from YouTube, so I am confident that you can too.
Confidence in the field is key, and confidence only comes from exposure and experience. To head afield with a gun or bow in hand is to carry with you a tremendous amount of responsibility—the weight of which can be more than sufficient a deterrent for many would-be hunters.
One of my favorite things about hunting is the immeasurable amount of great writing on the subject, from practical lessons to artful prose. I won't attempt to tackle any of those things here, but I do want to share a few resources that gave me confidence heading into the field knowing that I could manage the mess I made if and when I shot a deer.
1. There are several methods for breaking down a big game animal, depending on the size of the animal and how deep into the backcountry you find yourself. For starters, here is a basic primer on field dressing a deer courtesy of MeatEater's Steven Rinella:
2. The method demonstrated above works great when your quarry weighs 100 lbs dressed out, but if you find yourself 6 miles deep on a trail and have a bull Elk down on the ground, more work is required to get it out in a timely manner to preserve the meat and complete the hunt. In this instance, you will have to break down the animal into manageable sized parts. The video shown below accomplishes two things, it shows how you break down an animal but also approaches the field dressing from an entirely different method—something that I'm hoping will reinforce the fact that while the methods may vary the end goal is the same, a freezer filled with well-handled meat.
In this video, Randy Newberg explains the "Gutless Method" of breaking down his Montana Elk.
3. Whether you break down an animal into quarters, drag it out whole, or utilize the gutless method, it is absolutely essential to break down your meat into kitchen-friendly pieces before you freeze it. You can't thaw an entire Elk quarter to make a stew recipe that calls for 1.5 lbs, even if you had a freezer that could accommodate an Elk quarter.
WWhen it came time to field dress my 2019 Idaho Whitetail, I opted to break it down into front quarters, rear quarters, backstraps, tenderloins, and neck. There wasn't much rib meat available as the bullet tore up the ribs pretty succinctly. It wasn't necessary to quarter the deer to pack it out, but I wanted to take the extra time in the field to go through that part of the process in preparation for future hunts where it may be required.
At this stage, most people would take the meat to a local meat processor which there's nothing wrong with, but you'll pay per pound to have him do something you could easily do yourself with some investment in time and preparation. I found this video by the Bearded Butchers to be MORE THAN sufficient for learning to butcher a deer. It is long (over an hour) but I watched it twice over the course of the past year just to ensure familiarity with what was expected of me.
4. Once it came time to butcher, my Dad and my grandpa assisted, mostly to save time as we were outside and there was a snowstorm blowing in. We worked methodically to break down the larger muscle groups and wrap the meat in cellophane and butcher paper. The meat got packed into a cooler and prepared for the trip home to its eventual place in the freezer. Now, when it comes time to prepare a recipe, I have cuts of meat that are ready to thaw and go.
For the backstraps, I didn't even have to thaw them before seasoning them and dropping them in the Sous Vide, I simply added 1 hour to my cook time and the result was divine.
My favorite book on Venison—which covers field dressing through dozens of useful recipes is Buck, Buck, Moose by Hank Shaw. If you are remotely interested in harvesting any species of Deer, Elk, Moose, or Pronghorn, Hank's book is a must-have.
Watch these videos, then watch them again. Your time afield is precious and you don't need doubts creeping into the old noggin and distracting you from what could otherwise be a successful and memorable hunt.