Should Maine hunters cut up deer at home or go to a meat cutter?
It depends. And I know: That answer sounds wishy-washy.
Without help to cut up the first deer, though, a neophyte may have problems. The job requires certain skills. But a book, video or friend can teach the basics, and then experience polishes meat-cutting talents.
However, learning meat cutting offers two powerful allures: 1) saving money and 2) getting a touch of our pioneering past.
I’ve hired a meat cutter just once during my long life of deer hunting. This occurred after injuring my back while lifting a buck into a pickup. Other than that time, deer cutting takes place on my kitchen counter and the package wrapping on a dining table.
My do-it-myself attitude strikes me as logical, too. I can make custom cuts just as I like them, including thin and thick steaks, chops with bones, tender stew meat, special roasts, string-tied rolled roasts, corned venison, sausage and so forth. I mark the packages to identify special cuts.
Thin steaks work better for breaded venison cutlets and steak Diane, and thick steaks for venison Oscar. Terrific recipes can be found in good cookbooks. They’re usually written for beef but venison works fine as a substitute.
Also, professional meat cutters often cut tough meat for stews that require long cooking times, which makes sense. However, my recipe for venison in red-wine sauce over linguine requires tender stew meat for the short cooking time, so I cut up tender meat for the stew-like chunks.
Boneless meat lasts longer in a freezer, so without prior directions pro cutters often wrap everything minus the bones. But folks like me keep track of packages with attached bone on meat so we can use it first.
In my late teens, home meat-cutting businesses specializing in processing deer sprung up overnight. The cost was so inexpensive that many successful hunters stopped doing it themselves, and then through the years they forgot how and didn’t teach the next generation.
My meat cutting education began early, and by age 7 a scene in the Allen household might go like this: My mother would hand me a plate and razor-sharp hunting knife in a sheath and send me to the cellar to cut steaks off the skinned hindquarter of a whole deer, hung upside down.
“Make sure to cut across the grain and not up and down,” she often said, a needless caution. My father cut steaks, chops and roasts many times with me watching, and he often told me the how and why of the process.
As the deer aged in the cellar, we’d first strip out the back straps and cut steaks off the hindquarter(s), until we knew the meat had properly aged. Then we’d immediately skin the rest of the carcass and cut the meat up.
My father always said: “Cutting up a deer is like slicing bologna.”
The comment oversimplified the job, but he did make a good point. Slicing bologna requires perpendicular cuts just as meat cutters slice perpendicular to the animal’s body and body parts, which is across the grain. Parallel slicing results in tough meat.
Watching my father cut up deer taught me cutting skills, and in my teens I worked at Bernard’s Foodland in Augusta and cleaned the meat-cutting room on Saturdays – a grand learning experience.
Friendly meat cutters taught me about proper cleaning agents and methods to kill bacteria in a food-processing room, and we cleaned every nook and cranny. Ever-present bacteria, molds and yeast can get onto meat, and when their population on the food surface grows abundant enough, spoilage occurs. Deer hunters can depend on that rule.
To this day I’m reluctant to accept packaged venison, moose and bear from do-it-yourself meat cutters for fear of getting salmonella because of an improperly cleaned cutting area.
Fortunately, for folks wanting to be do-it-yourself meat cutters, plenty of books on the market teach skills that can turn folks into the second coming of Daniel Boone.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: [email protected]