Story by Chris Sargent, an avid outdoorsman, a former Maine Game Warden and lover of anything wild and tasty. Chris’ passion and appreciation for hunting, processing and preparing wild game has become more a way of life than a hobby and is something he loves to share with others.
As warm summer days cool, the first signs of autumn begin to reveal themselves in the form of changing leaves, woodsmoke and everything pumpkin spice. For many, this signals the start of their favorite time of year and the greatly anticipated hunting season.
No matter the game, the end goal is the same: meat!
The subsequent obligatory freezer check and wild game inventory reveal the sad truth — two lonely packages labeled with “steak” and “burger” remain next to the frozen peas and carrots. Rather common staples.
Don’t get me wrong, a juicy moose burger or medium rare deer steak will make most mouths water, but there is a number of ways one can break out of that “steak and burger” mold and enjoy some truly different and amazing wild game meals. I suggest giving that grinder a bit of a rest, hold off slicing so much steak or stew meat and taking a “stab” at using some of the more underutilized and underappreciated cuts.
Things like shanks, ribs, blade or whole leg roasts, neck roasts and really, any other large muscle group that typically ends up in the grind pile can serve a far more delicious purpose. With just a little understanding of anatomy and some very basic butchering skills and tools, obtaining these cuts and getting the most out of an animal is both rewarding and pleasantly simple.
For those who prefer to butcher at home, it’s very likely that the animal starts whole, loses its hide, gets broken down into quarters, backstraps removed and the remainder of the meat liberated from the bones to be packaged in a preferred manner. The carcass then gets picked over for every last skrid of meat destined for the stew or grind pile. The process can be lengthy and tedious at times.
While stripping an animal of its meat and leaving the bones is traditional and effective, taking a different approach can not only yield a better variety of cooking options and meals, but also save butchering time and prevent waste of perfectly good meat.
It’s widely accepted that backstraps should be removed, as should the inner loins and large muscle groups, especially from the hind quarters, such as sirloin and the rounds. These will be the very best steaks and have their rightful place in the freezer.
Quarters can then be broken down further with a stout knife, bone saw or sawzall, with the bones left in. Ribs can easily be removed, laid into racks and the neck severed from the spine.
After just a few minutes, a pile of beautiful meat starts to form.
Continuing, shoulders can be left whole or cut into smaller pieces depending on size. Shanks, the lower portion of the legs from both front and rear quarters, can be left whole or cut in half. The neck, again depending on size, can be left whole or cut into smaller pieces then packaged as is, or de-boned and neatly tied into roasts using butcher’s twine. The rear quarters with the remaining meat, similar to the front quarters, can be left whole or cut into smaller pieces.
For the burger and stew lovers out there, don’t fret: there will still be more than enough trimming to do while cleaning up these cuts, or you can choose to sacrifice some of them instead for whatever purpose suits your taste.
Cuts such as flanks and the odd-shaped brisket or really, any other large chunk of meat, can be tied in similar fashion to the neck using butcher’s twine. Though intimidating at first, this skill can be easily learned in about 5 minutes on YouTube. The primary purpose is to get the meat into a uniform shape so it will cook more evenly and stay together during the cooking process.
Now that the animal is fully butchered, what’s left are far more options for the table.
Yes, there’s still plenty of steak, burger and stew meat, but now those ribs can be grilled next to the burgers and that smoker can be fired up to transform some handsomely tied roasts. That dusty old Dutch oven under the cupboard will gladly help turn those tough shanks into mouth watering Ossobuco, and the always useful slow cooker can work magic on those beautiful bone-in roasts.
The list of possibilities and recipes is endless and for another day. For now, the meat is in the freezer, waiting its turn.
To each their own as it relates to processing and preparing wild game. Some prefer to drop it off at the local processor and gladly pay to pick it up days later. Others enjoy gathering with family to spend the afternoon cutting, packaging and reveling in memories of the hunt.
Regardless, meat will find its way into cast iron pans, stew pots and onto hot grills for the most part, and that’s wonderful.
However, if one can step out of their comfort zone, leaving that “steak and burger” crew may result in a whole new dimension and appreciation for their wild harvested meat.
Remember this season to enjoy, be thankful, be ethical, be courteous and shoot straight.