In an age when Americans are questioning the origin and quality of the meat they consume wild game stands out as one of the best options for feeding our families.
Long before shoppers needed labels to indicate whether or not meat was organically grown, or injected with dyes and hormones, hunters were filling their freezers with low-fat, high-quality protein.
Before you release an arrow or squeeze the trigger this fall be prepared to properly care for game once the animal is down—savory backstraps and tenderloins must first be cared for in the field.
These six rules will help ensure you’re bringing home healthy and delicious protein.
Have the Right Gear
We, as hunters, spend a lot of time gathering and tuning our gear for fall hunts, but don’t overlook the need for quality field care tools. For most of us this begins with a knife, and there are plenty of good options.
The key is to select a knife with a sturdy blade made of high quality steel and to keep that knife sharp enough to accomplish the task at hand. A sharp knife helps make precise cuts and reduces the odds of accidentally cutting into the digestive tract.
Ideally, your knife blade should remain sharp throughout the entire process of field dressing, but don’t forget to pack a whet stone or other sharpening tool so you can maintain a fine edge. Disposable gloves are important too, and you’ll need to pack clean cloths or paper towels.
In some instances—particularly backcountry hunts—you’ll need an axe and a saw to quarter game, and be certain you pack plenty of meat bags as well. I’ve seen knife blades break during field processing, so I always carry at least one spare in case it’s needed. If you’re in bear country you’ll need rope to hang the meat out of reach of predators should you be camping.
Contamination can lead to meat spoilage, so from the time the animal is down until it is served reducing the odds of contamination is of primary importance.
Reducing contamination actually begins before the kill; a good clean shot to the vitals eliminates the odds that a ruptured digestive tract will spoil meat. Once the animal is down begin by moving it to a clean and cool place for skinning and field dressing.
Carefully remove the entire digestive tract while preventing the bacteria-rich contents to contact the meat. Plant materials, hair, dirt, and other items are the most common culprits of contamination. When quartering and removing meat from the carcass store in clean meat bags.
Meat spoils more quickly in warm temperatures, be sure you make every effort to keep it as cool as possible. Start the cooling process by removing the internal organs and avoiding direct sunlight.
Opening the body cavity and skinning will allow it to cool properly. When possible, you can pack the body with ice or snow so long as they are placed in sealed bags. Hanging also allows the meat to cool by increasing airflow, but the best option is to get your game to a refrigerated area as soon as possible.
Ideally you want to keep the meat below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but not below 32 degrees since freezing meat before rigor sets in can actually toughen the meat.
As previously stated, bacterial contamination is one of the leading causes of meat spoilage. Bacteria thrive in moist environments, so your goal should be to keep the meat dry. If it’s raining or you wash the inside of the carcass with water be sure to dry it thoroughly (this is where those paper towels in your pack will prove invaluable).
Blood will also increase the odds of bacterial contamination, clean it away from the meat as quickly as possible. Again, these rules are of particular importance in warm environments that speed bacterial growth, on warm days early in the season it is imperative to take steps to dry the meat.
Not all wild game processors are created equal, make sure the facility that handles your meat is prepared to properly handle game.
If the processor doesn’t keep the meat clean and refrigerated, or doesn’t take the necessary steps to avoid contamination, all your work in the field will be in vain. If you are processing in your home take the time to wash knives, other tools, hands, and cutting surfaces with warm, soapy water and dry thoroughly. Again, storage below 40 degrees is the key, and if you plan to age the meat do so in these temperature ranges for at most three days.
Properly Store Meat
If you plan to eat meat without freezing it can be stored in a refrigerator for 2-3 days, and marinating should occur in the refrigerator as well. Heating meat to 160 degrees Fahrenheit will kill bacteria. Keep a meat thermometer on-hand when preparing wild game.
If you plan to freeze the meat—which you will undoubtedly have to do unless you have an extraordinarily large and hungry family—wrap it in heavy wax paper, freezer wrap, vacuum bags or similar materials and make certain all of the air is out of the container before sealing.
It’s best to write the date and cut of meat on the exterior packaging. Attention to detail makes it possible to know know what’s inside the package and will allow you to consume within nine months to a year.
One critical element that many hunters forget is to keep meat separated in the freezer so that it can properly cool until it is frozen solid, usually about 24 hours. Afterwards you can stack the meat to make the most of available space.