Whole Foods? You’re Not Even Close…
Busting Down an Elk — Organic Meat Bonanza
by Jason Ross
If your wife’s like mine, she’s all about the free range, organic, non-GMO, hormone-free, artsy-fartsy blessed-by-naked-hippies food. It took a coupla years, but I finally convinced her of the obvious: you can’t get more “free range” than animals you hunt yourself. Plus, almost anywhere except for Southern California and the deep desert, hunting your own meat is ultra-cheap (especially if you do it right.)
Whitetail deer, mule deer, hogs, moose, elk and bear abound in this great country and if you’re a resident, the tags are almost always dirt cheap. Here in the Rocky Mountains, mule deer and elk grace our mountains and our tables. Especially if you can get depredation, cow or doe tags, you can rack up a considerable freezer. Chad Wade and I pounded two cow elk a few weeks ago and they made it into the freezer costing about 25 cents per pound, bullets included.
You might be saying, like so many do, that your family “doesn’t like game meat.” In all likelihood, the game meat’s not the problem. Mostly, people over-cook game meat, wrongly thinking that since it comes from the “dirty” outdoors, that it might have special bacteria or parasites. The exact opposite is true — wild game hits the turf cleaner than farm-raised, every day of the week. When you over-cook game meat, because it’s so lean, it comes out tasting a bit like liver. And, if you like liver, there’s something wrong with you. Therefore, the “trick” to cooking delicious game meat is DON’T OVERCOOK. Move your meat temperature preference two clicks toward raw and your game meat will come out savory, juicy and oh-so succulent. Nothing beats properly cooked elk or deer. Moose is even better. Wild hog tastes fantastic (don’t undercook) and bear makes outstanding sausage (also, don’t undercook.)
There’s a learning curve to hunting, dressing and butchering game meats, but DAMN is it a fun learning curve. Hunting with an experienced buddy makes all the difference, and you can shorten the learning curve to a couple of seasons.
When it comes to handling a dead animal, you can easily find yourself staring down at a confusing mess. For almost any animal, you need to make a choice. Pack it or drag it.
Option No. 1: Drag It
If you’re within an easy drag to the car, you can grab a rear leg or two and get hauling. Generally, this is a lot harder than it seems. Animals are heavier than they appear, and hooves, antlers and heads get stuck on any/every thing.
But, dragging presents advantages. First and foremost, you’ll end up with more meat. An animal that’s hung and seasoned whole doesn’t leave as much meat exposed to air — so you don’t have to trim away as much waste when you go to butcher. If you’re dragging, you’re going to leave the hide intact, and that’s easier too. Removing the hide at home, when the animal’s hung, is tons easier than removing it in the field, on the ground. Also, it’s easier to hang a whole animal, since you have positive hang points just above the rear knees.
If you’re going to drag, you probably want to gut (“field dress”) the animal right where it fell. The makes it lighter and gets it cooling down quickly, which is important. By leaving the hide intact, cooling will become paramount.
Once the animal’s gutted out, then you can drag it back to your car and get it home for hanging and seasoning.
Option No. 2: Quarter It
If you’re too far in to drag the animal, you’re going to have to pack it out or take it out on a sled. Another packing option might be a deer cart.
In any case, it probably makes sense to quarter the animal, since virtually nobody can carry a full-grown deer or elk on their back.
Assuming that the animal is belly-down, carefully peel back the hide right down the spine, revealing the back straps. Follow the instructions on both videos to carefully cut the back straps off the spine and the ribs, riding the bone with your knife to preserve every nibble of the cut.
Then, turn the animal over on its back. Cut under the hide from the knees toward the center of the belly. Lay back all the hide around each leg, being careful not to let the raw meat touch the ground.
On the hind legs, carve against the body, being careful not to penetrate the gut bag. You are going to completely avoid the guts, leaving them sitting right there in the carcass. Carve along until you find the ball and socket. Cut at the socket until the labrum releases it. Then, keep working until the rear quarter comes free. Set it somewhere cool and clean.
The front quarters are far easier. There’s no socket and you can see the natural dividing line between the front shoulder and the body just by pulling the leg away from the body.
When you’re done, bag the the fronts, rears and back straps in a cloth bag, like a game bag or an old pillowcase. For short hikes, you can use trash bags. The bags are just to keep your pack from getting nasty.
Once you get to your car, or home, try to store the quarters and back straps with as much airflow around them as possible. If it’s hot outside (above about 60 degrees F), you may want to forego hanging and just butcher the animal right away.
Generally, I do my best to butcher and vacuum seal my game meat as neatly as possible. It’s a subtle nod to the grocery store, but as long as my family’s eating this cheap, ultra-healthy meat, then I’m fulling justified in hunting my brains out, every year. And in buying a lot of rifles and hunting gear…