The finest cut: How you should butcher your own deer

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2008 - 9:24 AM

More and more hunters are handling the cutting themselves to save money and ensure the quality of the meat.

Dave Kannegaard keeps things simple when he butchers his deer. "I use a knife most Minnesotans already own,'' he said, "a fish filleting knife.''

As Kannegaard spoke on a recent day, he and his son, Chuck, were preparing to process a registered buck a friend of theirs shot the night before. Though amateurs, the pair have butchered their deer and those killed by their hunting group the past seven years.

"We butcher our own deer for a lot of reasons,'' Chuck said. "One is cost. It just got to the point where bringing deer to a processor got pricey. Another reason is that by butchering our deer ourselves, we know what the end result is -- we know what we're eating.''

Deer processing is being considered anew not only by an increasing number of hunters, including the Kannegaards, but by commercial butchers. Reports the past year about lead bullet fragments in venison have caused some professional processors who cut up deer for food shelves to get out of that game.

Requirements that processors serving food shelves attend special meat-cutting classes caused some of the butchers to quit -- a decision, some of them said, made easy by low profit margins in that part of the business.

Some hunters, meanwhile,who have switched from copper-jacketed lead bullets to all-copper bullets, or bonded bullets that don't fragment much, say they have no choice but to butcher their own deer. To do otherwise risks mixing their venison with lead-bullet-killed deer at commercial processors, most of whom combine trimmings from many deer to grind hamburger and sausage.

"Processing our own deer just makes us feel better,'' Chuck said. "Because we're doing it ourselves, we know we're not eating any bloodshot or damaged meat. We know we're eating deer we've shot, not those someone else has shot.''

• • •

Dave Kannegaard begins by cutting off the buck's legs, front and rear, above the knees -- careful as he does not to touch the scent glands on the lower portions of the back legs.

The amputations are accomplished with a large tree-pruning shears.

The Kannegaards like to skin a deer as quickly as possible after it's been killed. The colder a deer gets, the more difficult the hide is to remove.

"If it's freezes, it's that much tougher, still,'' Chuck said.

Dave begins to skin the deer by cutting around the animal's neck, just below the rope that suspends it from a pole-barn rafter. Encircling the neck, he cuts through the hide, then runs the knife down the animal's midsection.

Then he cuts the skin the length of the inside of the animal's legs before pulling the hide off the carcass from the neck down.

This is a cold day, and the deer has been hanging about 18 hours, so the hide pulls off reluctantly. To aid the process, Chuck and Dave sometimes use their knives to encourage the hide's separation from the carcass. But mostly they tug and stretch, and tug and stretch some more, until the hide is fully removed.

"When I get the hide off, with my knife I follow the neck bones from the point at which the animal is hanging by the rope, down to the bottom of the neck,'' Dave said. "Then I cut around the neck, using the knife to remove the neck meat in one piece.''

Some processors make roasts out of the neck, but the Kannegaards prefer to use neck meat for hamburger.

Next, the animal is turned so meat along the top of its back, or backstrap, can be cut out. Again, employing the knife gingerly, Dave works along the bones so as little venison as possible is wasted.

"This is the meatiest part of the deer, and it's usually quite tender,'' he said. "It's where the T-bones and sirloins come from.''

The Kannegaards' intent in this "field butchering'' process is to remove the animal's four quarters and place them in a large cooler with the neck meat, as well as the backstrap, and the inner tenderloins, or meat from the inside of the animal's back.

"The inner tenderloins, or the meat along the inside of the animal's back, is the tenderest of all,'' Dave said. "A lot of hunters don't know where they are and throw them away. Or they cut them while field-dressing, or leave them in too long and allow them to dry out.''

Next, with the tree pruners, the rear legs are cut off at the hip joint. Then, with a knife, the front legs are removed from the carcass (unknown to many people is that a white-tailed deer's front legs aren't connected by ball and socket, but instead mostly by muscle).

"The rear legs are where you get your sirloins, roasts and round steaks,'' Dave said. "Down by the bone of the rear legs, I 'burger' that, and I also burger all of the meat from the front legs.''

Their cooler now full, the Kannegaardswill remove the meat to a table at one of their homes, or that of a hunting partner. There, finer cuts still are made of steaks, chops and roasts, and the meat is cleaned and packaged.

"The best part,'' Dave said, "is that when the meat is lying on a table at home, I know it's a deer I shot, and I know everything is clean. The hunt begins with scouting, and it ends right there.''

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