Warning: This post contains content about the reality of eating animals (again) and describes butchery and contains images of same.
I am pleased to say that at last, the deer hind we took delivery of last week is finally completely prepped and in the freezers. I am even more delighted that we managed to use almost every piece of the animal, just as it should be, with only one small carrier bag of no more than a couple of kilos of waste.
We are no butchery experts, but are self-taught. We butchered our first whole deer carcass 3 years ago with the help of a couple of useful books, web searches and You Tube. It’s surprising how much we remember, given we only do this once a year and this year we were patting each other on the back for not reaching for any references. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but the animal is prepared with care and respect to provide the cuts that we want. I hope this post will help or encourage others to try the same.
For me, venison is the finest of all red meat, and red deer the finest of all Cervidae. Better still, it is wild meat hence has much fewer welfare issues that are associated with domesticated stock such as cattle and sheep. Although, it is true that good wild deer welfare is dependent on good deer management practices. Wild deer populations require careful management for the benefit of the landscape and importantly, the fitness of the animals themselves.
There are a lot of deer on North Uist and culls at an appropriate level can take the pressure off a fragile landscape, not to mention crofters crops and gardens like mine (we have just this minute scared some red deer our of our garden). The deer population also benefits from this management. Maintaining the population at the correct level i.e. below the carrying capacity for any given habitat improves fitness by reducing the risk of starvation in lean times and helps the animals maintain good condition over the winter, improving reproductive success.
Food provenance is also not particularly a consideration with our Uist deer. When you pick up your animal from the local abattoir on the island on which is was shot a few days before, there are no ambiguities about its provenance. It is also a lean red meat, is relatively healthy and extremely versatile. It is also reasonably rich and dense, so a little goes a long way. So, I see benefits all round. This is meat that is good for your conscience as much as your health and palate.
I am always rather disappointed by beef these days. To my palate, even the leanest cuts taste fatty compared with venison (because they are). Some would argue fat brings flavour but a well hung piece of venison cooked to perfection will beat beef hands down – provided you understand how to cook it. Less is more. If you cook it to the Jesus sandal stage of leathery cremation, it is truly abhorrent.
Did I mention that I like venison?
If you want to avoid or have no interest in the following butchery section please see the recipe for Blackened venison chops with pak choi
Managing your own deer
The hind weighed 86 lb when we took delivery of it. This is the dressed weight meaning it is skinned and with the head, feet and internal organs removed, about 55% of the live weight. It is ready to butcher. It had been shot 2 days before. Ideally, we like the venison to hang for about a week to age and enhance the depth of flavour. We hung it up in our shipping container for a few more days. You should only do this if the temperature is low enough and you can guarantee the environment is fly free, otherwise, get on with butchery.
Suggestion: Before you start select some appropriate music. You are going to need motivation for the duration. Since it was a team effort for us, we came to a consensus that perhaps Bach or Sibelius would not serve us with the motivation required. We selected the Planet Rock radio station. A plethora of rock classics got us through to the forequarter. Memorable chestnuts we had not heard for a long time spurred us on: Speed King by Deep Purple (The Hairy Scream at his best), early ZZ Top – La Grange and some distinctively cheesy 90’s power rock – Thunder’s ‘Love Walked In’.
Playlist in place, first thing to do before you even start is make sure you are equipped with VERY sharp knives, appropriate for the job. A boning and a paring knife are essential, as is a butchers saw (or hacksaw). Fortunately, The Man Named Sous is an expert at sharpening knives. Just as well because our knives, Chroma 301, made of Japanese steel, require to be sharpened on a wet stone. It is tricky to get the sharpening angle correct and depends whether you are right or left-handed. Fortunately we are both right handed. The room should be cool as the meat is easier to work with in cool conditions. Finally, make sure surfaces and clean, disinfected with something like dilute Milton fluid. Once you get your deer ready to butcher, have a look over it, remove any hairs sticking to the carcass. Look and see where it has been shot and the implications for how you butcher it. This hind had a body shot which damaged part of the loin on one side, so we needed to take that into account. In the past, we have had deer shot through the shoulder.
This results in quite significant damage to the shoulder joint and a lot of meat can be lost as a result.
This is the first cut to be removed and it sits alongside the loin and continues back and into the pelvis. This prime cut is very fragile, so you need to know where it is and what it looks like before you start, or you will invariably cut straight through the club-shaped end at the rear of the beast. Working from the anterior end, drop the fillet away from the body. It starts to taper thinly at the end just as you reach the clubbed end, which is embedded in another group of muscles associated with the pelvis.
- Once you have worked out where the end sits, carefully remove it intact. There is a thin muscle lying along the length of the fillet. This can be trimmed off and I usually use it for stir fry.
- The Loin
- For this half, the loin was cut off using the saw just at the end of the ribs. The loin runs right along the top of the back from the shoulder to the rump. We decided to cut here to remove the damaged section where the hind had been shot and also as we prep the loin in association with the ribs at the front.
Boning out the loin is straightforward. Care must be taken to remove all sinew and connective tissue around it to prevent distortion during cooking. This applies to all cuts intended for quick cooking. It can be time-consuming, but there is nothing worse than a nice medallion that is misshapen and chewy round the edge because sinew has been left on it.
All fat and sinews removed, the loin can be sliced to form medallions (also called loin/sirloin steaks). In this case, we left it intact as we are planning to use it in a Venison Wellington. Together with the fillet, loin is the best cut.
To bring out the best in the loin, it should not be cooked more than medium rare. It contains very little fat and overcooking will dry it out. I prefer it either very rare (almost bleu) or rare. Undercooking, searing the outside to get a caramelised exterior and resting are the best treatment to guarantee succulence and a soft, almost melt-in-the-mouth texture. Resting is also very important to relax the meat and draws the juices back to the more cooked meat around the outside. You know your medallion is well rested when all juices remain within the meat when it is served.
The back leg and rump. It is a big piece of meat. In the past, we have kept the muscles together and boned out the joint but it weighed kilos and we simply didn’t want to hold a banquet to use it. We now take the 4 muscle groups (rump, topside, silverside and thick flank) apart and cut them into sensible sized pieces.
Silverside and salmon cut are good for steaks and roasts. Again, all sinew including the silver connective tissue that gives the cut its name should be removed.
The thick flank is a rounded muscle group made up of 5 muscles. It usually makes a good rolled roast, but if from an older animal, may be best as stew. The topside is great for steaks, the largest from the animal. It is also good for making bresaola, which I have done in the past. Although traditionally an Italian recipe for beef, it works well for venison. It is salt-cured with herbs and spices then air-dried for at least a month during which time it goes deep red, almost purple. Sliced thinly, it makes wonderfully distinctive antipasti. I would recommend giving it a go.
Below these cuts is the shank, a piece of meat that requires very slow cooking, either on the bone, or sliced and including the marrowbone, called ossobuco, an ingredient in many classic recipes.
By this point, the process was getting pretty intense and we needed another musical boost. Planet rock was wearing thin with an increasing amount of ‘Cradle Rock’ such as Foo Fighters (stick to Them Crooked Vultures, Grohl) and the final nail in the coffin was Bon Jovi’s ‘Bad Medicine’ an appalling track. Bad Medicine, no Jon, just bad songwriting. This is not rock! Hang the DJ, as the great Mozza said…
Time for our own musical back catalogue and a motivational smack between the eyes – Lamb of God’s Sacrament followed by Machine Head’s The Blackening. Whoaaah!! Having then had enough Mofos for one day, time for something epic and loud, that’s right, it’s Epicloud, Devin Townsend’s captivating new album. The only Canadian more prolific and consistently brilliant as Neil Young. However, typical of Hevy Devy, this album is so complex I was unable to concentrate on both the butchery and the music. Time to try Porcupine Tree’s The Incident…..
The front end of the hind including the neck, shoulder, ribs/loin and flank. We prefer to bone out the shoulder and dice it to use as stew. Parts of it are also used for mince and sausages, as is the flank. Boning out the shoulder is time-consuming, but there is a lot of meat and it is worth removing as much sinew as possible, even if though it will be used in stew/sausages. The shoulder can also be rolled.
The bottom of the ribs were retained for stock. We kept the tops attached to the loin and sliced these into chops. Immense on the barbeque (on the few days a year we can have one here).
The neck contains good meat for stew and the bone is excellent for stock making. All bones from this hind were retained to make stock (recipe to be featured in Venison Volume II).
So, give it a try!
Although, as will have been deduced from this butchery description, it is a protracted process but it is worth remembering how satisfying it is to butcher your own deer to produce the cuts you want. Also worth giving it a go, even if you are a beginner. We were too. Mistakes will happen, but it’s not the end of the world. Stick to separating muscle groups and you can’t go far wrong. Think about where the meat sits on the deer, how these muscles will have been used and how this affects how you will use them. It is a steep learning curve the first time but ultimately rewarding to know you have treated the deer with respect and you will be proud to honour it in your recipes over the months to follow.
After all that butchery, a simple dinner is required. For the simplest possible dish, why not try venison chops? I found this recipe in Nichola Fletcher’s book ‘Ultimate Venison Cookery’, a mandatory purchase and reference for the venison lover. It is derived from the recipe ‘Blackened rack of venison with a gratin of fennel’. I just use the marinade and mix and match with whatever fresh veg I have to hand from the garden. In this case, it was my super-abundant and bolting pak choi crop at the end of August.
1 tblsp balsamic vinegar
2 tblsp soy sauce (I used dark)
2 tblsp clear honey (also have made with cloudy, doesn’t make much difference)
That’s it! Mix, rub into the chops (or steaks, whatever quick cook cut you choose) with a bit of pepper. Marinade for a few hours, grill or stick on the barbie.
Stir fried pak choi with chilli and spring onions
Served with the chops last time I made them. Very simple and tasty.
A few handfuls of pak choi
sesame oil, a small glug
a handful of spring onions
1 fresh red or green chilli
Heat a small amount of sesame oil in a wok, on a high heat. Add the chilli and stir fry for a couple of minutes. Fling in the sesame seeds and stir until golden and popping, about 1 minute. Throw in the pak choi and stir fry until the leaves wilt down a little. Add the spring onions, turn them through the pak choi and then serve.