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Wisconsin sausagemakers can turn your venison into summer sausages, wieners, bratwurst and more. Try sausages from several shops to find the spice blends and smoky flavor that suits you, then follow these tips to plan your order.
Field care | The first cuts | The tender cuts
Roasts and steaks | Packaging the meat
Talking turkey with a sausage maker
The choice cut | Common mistakes people make
Editor's note: The discovery of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Wisconsin and concerns about contamination has hunters, meat locker operators and sausage makers examining their practices for taking deer from the field to the table.
Last fall, months before the CWD discovery, we sat down with an experienced hunter, instructor, meat processor and sausage maker to review steps all hunters can take to get the best meat products possible. Fortunately, we found all those skills in one person.
Lyle "Doc" Esser is a lifelong hunter and a master sausage maker for several grocery stores. His smokehouse and processing center is based at the Piggly Wiggly in Cross Plains, Wis. Esser has made sausage professionally for more than 40 years. He also is a seasoned hunter education instructor who led classes for more than two decades introducing adults and young students to safe hunting skills. We spoke with Esser and DNR warden John Daniels about field dressing deer, packaging your roasts and preparing meat for your sausage. Here's what they told us.
There are three things that commonly contaminate meat: water, dirt and air. The main thing in producing excellent quality meat from your deer is to take time to control those three elements. If you field dress your deer well, handle it carefully, bring it home promptly, cut it up cleanly and package it well, you can enjoy a variety of fine meals throughout the year.
As soon as you have shot a deer and you know it is dead, tag it with your license tag. don't move it or drag it until you have tagged it. Then attend to it right away. Some hunting groups are in the habit of shooting a deer and continuing their drives, returning to dress the deer later.
"I don't recommend that practice at all," Esser said. As soon as a deer is killed, blood and bacteria will settle in the animal. It's especially important to get going on dressing that deer if the temperature is warmer, in the 50s or 60s as opposed to the 30s or low 40s.
First, move the deer to an open location, preferably in the shade with clean vegetation on a slight downward slope, so you can empty the body cavity cleanly as field dressing proceeds. Next, prepare for field dressing. Take off some of your heavy clothing so you can work comfortably and safely. Take your time, take a few breaths and give yourself a few moments to calm down from the excitement of the hunt. You need to remain safety-conscious and calm now because you have work to do.
Wear disposable gloves to field dress game. You can buy disposable latex gloves at most sporting goods and hardware stores that go all the way up your arm to your shoulder. These will protect your clothing, help protect you from infection and also seal off any cuts on your hands or arms from contamination. Gloves also provide an added measure of protection from potential exposure to prions if you hunt in an area where chronic wasting disease (CWD) may be a concern.
Some hunters start by removing the musk glands on the inside of the deer's hind legs. This isn't necessary if you are careful, but if you do want to cut these out, recognize that these glands are pouched sacs and you have to cut around them before they can be removed. Some hunters also mistakenly believe they need to cut the animal's throat to bleed it out. That's totally unnecessary. Proper field dressing will adequately bleed out the carcass.
As added precaution against CWD, be mindful when dressing deer that the prion proteins linked to this disease concentrate in nerve tissue such as the brain, spinal cord, eyes, lymph nodes and spleen. The normal steps you follow in field dressing deer and trimming fat from the carcass will remove these tissues.
Place the deer on its back with the belly pointed upward. Make a shallow cut with your knife blade pointed up along the central belly line from the deer's tail, around the anus and all the way up past the diaphragm at the bottom of the rib cage. Be careful to just make shallow cuts with the knife pointed at a low angle so you only cut through the skin without nicking any of the internal organs or your fingers. Next, cut above the diaphragm around the peritoneum to free the lung and heart cavity and up the neck to cut the esophagus leading up the throat.
Turn the deer so your open cut now faces downhill. Work with your hands, not your knife when removing the esophagus, heart, lungs, liver and remaining entrails. Heart and liver tissue have not been linked to CWD, and some people save these parts. Esser does not. Since the liver is the body's primary filtering organ, Esser believes that any chances of other diseases in a wild animal might concentrate here first, so he discards it. You want to be especially careful when gently removing the entrails to avoid cutting the intestines or bladder.
"We only use our knife tip to cut around the anus, tie it off with a shoelace and gently pull it all out through the inside of the body cavity," Doc said. "We are equally careful to pinch the urethra so none of the urine in the bladder comes out. Urine spoils any meat it hits, so be especially careful to seal off that bladder, gently remove the entrails and get it away from the carcass."
Then prop open the animal to drain the blood out. If you choose to rinse out the cavity with clean water or wipe it with paper towels or a clean cloth towel, this is the time to do it. You want to dry out that clean cavity.
Lots of people feel it is necessary to cut the aitchbone on the pelvis to further open up the deer.
"We never bother with that," Esser said. "It's not necessary to getting good circulation and it's a dangerous thing to cut or chop through that thick hip bone that can splinter. If an accident is going to happen while field dressing or butchering an animal, I believe 99 percent of the time that is when it is going to happen."
In colder weather some hunters cool down a deer by packing snow in the cavity, Esser notes. "I would say absolutely don't do that." he says. Over time this causes the meat to thaw and freeze, thaw and freeze. That's tough on the meat, and snow isn't necessarily sanitary. Just rinse out the cavity or pat it dry with toweling, prop it open to promote air circulation, and that will do. Then register your deer.
"We look for a place to hang the carcass covered with a cotton sheet in the shade where it will certainly cool more quickly than in the sun. Hanging also allows the body heat to dissipate and escape more quickly. If the temperature is in the 50s or 60s on the day the deer is shot, you also need to get the hide off to cool the meat more quickly and preserve the meat quality. You need to cool the meat down thoroughly otherwise it can get tough."
Esser prefers to hang his deer by the hindquarters because all the blood flows down; this protects the choice meats and tenderloins from contamination as any residual blood drains away. Also, there is a natural gap between strong back leg tendons on the gambrels of each leg where the carcass can be hung and suspended.
If the weather remains cool with temperatures no warmer than the lower 40s, you can let the deer hang for a few days. It is easier to skin a deer while it is still warm, and that's critical if the days are warm, but it isn't practical for some. For instance, if you hunt in one part of the state and then transport your deer home for processing, you have to leave the hide on to keep it clean.
Once you get the deer to a building with clean tables, you are ready to start cutting it up. Make sure your workspace is well lit, tables are at a comfortable work height, your boning knives are sharp and you have packaging supplies. Esser likes to process deer with his hunting party to make the job easier, divvy the work, and continue the camaraderie of the hunting camp. A few people skin and prepare carcasses. Others bone the meat, cutting roasts, steaks, stew meat and scraps for sausage. Still others wrap, seal and label the finished cuts.
If there will be any delay between the time your deer is skinned and the time you cut it up, cover the hanging carcass with a clean cotton sheet, not plastic. The sheet wards off flies and other contaminants but it is light and airy to allow heat to escape. It also helps retain moisture in the meat. If a skinned deer hangs without this light covering, the outer surface starts to dry out and form a dry, tough skin or pellicle that will have to be cut away.
Assuming your deer is hanging head down, use your knife to start freeing the hide with shallow cuts around the tail and under the hide. Once a bit of the skin is free, most of the hide can be freed by pulling it down slowly with both hands. Keep folding back the hide from the tail down the back toward the head to minimize contact between the hair and the meat. You may have to occasionally cut free a bit of connective tissue, but you don't want to nick the hide so it can be used for leather.
After the deer is skinned, an easy way to clean off the few remaining hairs from the carcass is to use a butane torch. Just wave the moving torch lightly across the carcass with the same motion you may use to singe hairs off chickens. The hairs burn off cleanly and completely without cutting or heating the meat.
Be very, very careful to take your time cutting and inspecting the carcass. You might see holes in the hide or flesh that could indicate the deer was previously hit with a bullet or, on a rare occasion, an arrow. Deer can survive superficial wounds, but an arrow broadhead under the skin can produce nasty cuts during butchering, so be mindful.
Saw off and discard the hooves to the first joint. Although the deer is hanging head down, start cutting by removing the front portions and working your way up the carcass. Esser's crew uses seven-inch boning knives. Using the knife tip, follow the band of muscle from the leg parallel to the body up and around the shoulder tapering to the spine. Leave as much of the shoulder meat attached to the leg as possible since this will be easier to bone-out once the leg comes free.
Once the shoulder and leg are free, carry the front quarter to the cutting board and lay it with the shoulder meat down and the leg joint up. Bone-out the meat by cutting down to the bone in a straight line, then making a long incision, follow the bone all the way down the leg. Next, go back up to the shoulder and cut around the bone to free the meat. Since the front quarters are less tender than the hind haunches, some choose to slice the chunkier portions of the shoulder meat into roasts or pot roasts, save the shanks for braising or cube the meat for stewing. Esser's hunting party bones-out and cubes the front quarter meat for sausage or ground meat.
All their "sausage" meat is stored in plastic milk crates that are stacked next to the boning table and lined with clear plastic bags. Only clean, boneless, fat-free meat goes into the bags. Never store food products in black garbage bags, warned Esser. They are made from recycled products, may have some contaminants and are not designed for storing food.
Moving up the carcass, the most tender cuts of venison lie on top of the spinal column (the "backstraps" or tenderloins) and just below the spinal column, the so-called "hanging tenderloins." These thick bundles of muscle cushion and protect the vital backbone and nervous system from injury. To the hunter, these are the prime cuts of meat on the whole animal, so handle them carefully.
The backstraps are large, round masses of solid muscle running the length of the spine from the back of the neck to the hips. These round cylindrical muscles are easy to see and can be gently cut and teased away from the spine leaving the sheathed muscles intact. These can be subsequently cut across the muscle into about inch and a half disks and packaged carefully as filet mignon for grilling or sautéing. Esser cuts his tenderloin pieces into about inch-thick disks and then butterflies each piece by cutting it about halfway through to make it half as thick but wider. These thinner, wider cuts cook more evenly and quickly when sautéed in a pan. He notes you can also make the cut halfway through along the length of the tenderloin, open up the meat and stuff it with dressing to have a tenderloin roast. In any circumstance, save, package and savor the tenderloins separately from other venison cuts.
Some hunters choose to leave the loins attached to a portion of the ribs and cut them vertically into loin chops. In these days of concern about CWD, it makes sense to avoid cuts through bone in the spinal area and simply bone-out the meat.
The hanging tenderloins lie under the spine and taper on both ends from the back of the ribs to the pelvis. These six- to eight- inch muscles are extremely tender. They can be teased out with a knife tip and the ends gently cut away from the insertion points at the spine.
The hindquarters of a deer contain the bulk of the meaty cuts. Just as with the front legs, it is easiest to separate the hindquarters by using the knife tip to follow the leg muscle around the natural contours of the muscle to the spine and follow the natural curvature of the quarter back to the leg. You can gently move your knife between the muscle layers until the only connecting tissue is between the ball of the leg and the socket of the pelvis joint. You can carefully cut through the ligaments with the knife tip and the leg will come free of the pelvis for processing.
Esser never uses a saw on the hindquarter. In fact the only saw cut he makes when processing a deer is cutting the head free from the neck. Given concerns about the slim possibility of CWD, Esser recommends boning out your venison and leaving the entire spine and ribs intact.
When you get the ball and socket joint apart, lay the leg on the cutting table with the hindquarter to one side. Lay the tip of your knife next to the ball joint and make a long cut from the underside of the leg bone following it all the way to the shank. Then lay the quarter open with your hand and keep gently working the tip of your knife around the bone on both sides. When you reach the shank you can pick up that large femur, the leg bone, and you will have nothing left but boneless meat.
Esser's hunting party usually separates the hindquarter longitudinally right down the middle into two large pieces. I watched them lightly score off each piece starting near the round from the shank end planning the cuts. The pieces nearest the shank were cut for sausage or chopped meat. Then they measured off round steaks and roasts. Round steaks are cut about an inch thick from the lower portion of the quarter nearer the shank. The top butt of the rump was cut into roasts. Odd shaped small pieces were cubed into stew meat. Thereafter, they went back through the carcass picking off little pieces of meat between the bones for sausage meat.
Esser doesn't even bother using the tiny bit of meat between the ribs, as the meat is fatty and full of tallow. Some save the ribcage for winter bird feeding.
The neck meat makes good stew or hamburger. Some people make a roast out of this portion, too. The neck muscles are so strong that they shred nicely when stewed or braised, providing a perfect texture for chili or barbecue. Once thoroughly cooked in this manner, the neck bones fall away from the meat. Given the possibility of CWD, you may decide to bone-out the neck meat to avoid any contact with the spinal cord contents.
Also, when the cutting is over, clean all residues from your knives, wipe down cutting surfaces and let them dry well. Disinfect your knives and cutting boards with a 50/50 solution of household chlorine bleach and water. Let the cleaned knives soak in this solution for an hour before rinsing them and drying them with disposable paper towels.
"I recommend packaging your roasts and steaks by wrapping them in freezer paper that is smooth on the outside and has a moisture-proof plastic-like layer on the inside," Esser said. Cut the wrap wide enough and long enough to completely enclose the meat and exclude the air. Seal it with freezer tape, which is like a masking tape, and wrap it again. This double wrapping excludes all air and will keep the cold air in your freezer from coming in direct contact with the meat. That direct contact would dry out the meat, causing a condition called freezer burn. It destroys both the taste and the texture of the meat, so wrap your pieces well. Immediately mark the outside of the package with a marker pen indicating the cut (steak, roast, tenderloin, etc.) the weight or number of portions in the package and the date. Dating the packages is important because you want to use the oldest meat in your freezer first.
Get the wrapped meat into the freezer as soon as possible. Don't lay unfrozen packages of meat on top of each other in several layers. Lay them in a single layer if you can for several hours or overnight until they are hard frozen, then you can stack the frozen packages on top of each other. Your aim is to cool and freeze the wrapped meat all the way through just as quickly as you can. If you stack a lot of meat packages on top of each other in the freezer, the interior pieces may not cool and freeze properly.
Scraps for sausage or chopped meat should be sealed in clear plastic bags. Squeeze any air out of those bags, seal them tight and freeze them. Many people who have sausage made are accustomed to butchering their deer and taking the scrap meat to the sausage maker as cold, unfrozen meat. If you are awaiting the result of a CWD test, it doesn't hurt it a bit to freeze the scrap meat and wait for results. The fact is, much of the meat brought into the locker plant gets frozen anyway before it is made into sausage, because the sausage maker can only handle so much at a time.
When talking to the sausage maker, you need to understand how products are made to figure your yield and costs. Esser smiled and said, "This is the part of getting deer that can be expensive, but it's worth it."
Venison is so lean that sausages are typically made with a blend of meat – perhaps 40 percent or more of beef and/or pork mixed with the venison. In summer sausage mixes, butchers typically add beef because it lasts longer as a frozen stick. Some people on strict diets can have their sausages made from straight venison, but those products are drier and less juicy. Each sausage maker offers a variety of smoked, mild and spicy products. Venison can be ground, smoked and flavored to form summer sausage, landjager, ring bologna, wieners, brats, breakfast sausage, luncheon meats, jerky and other products, so shop around. Most shops require a minimum of 10-pound batches of any one kind of sausage and each type of sausage uses a different blend of meats.
Most shops also post their charges. Here are steps that Esser recommends you take to get realistic expectations of the costs and final products you will receive.
David L. Sperling edits Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.