Hunting season is almost upon us. Smart hunters have spent the summer prepping for it. Legs and lungs are ready for the mountains. The bow is tuned to perfection and rifle shoots to center.
You're steady and ready, with a pack load of gear that's been refined over and over again. The calendar advances week by week as you anxiously await, tag in hand, for the sun to rise on opening day. But I'm betting there's one important thing you haven't considered: the deep freeze.
Of all the tasks hunters face as they prepare for upcoming hunts, the freezer cleanout may be the most daunting. Who knows what lurks at the bottom of the big, white beast humming in the basement?
Among the tubes of ground venison, bags of veggies, and that full-feathered canvasback that hasn't yet made it to the taxidermist are white paper packages with blurry, indistinguishable markings, Ziplocs bursting with goose breasts from two years ago, and vacuum-sealed bags vaguely marked "mom's muley" or "Wy. Elk '14."
Before adding to the freezer with freshly packaged venison, it's smart, and ethical, to deal with the largesse of previous seasons. At the very least, an inventory is in order. Line up several coolers or meat totes, don a pair of gloves, and start digging. Divide the freezer's contents by the age of the packages, the animal species, or cuts of meat. Having a system not only helps you know what you've got, but also makes future cleanout jobs easier.
Set one cooler aside just for meat to be donated. Now is a great time to help the less fortunate, whether that's the local food bank or your hapless brother who never manages to fill his tag.
Many hunter-led organizations, such as Hunters for the Hunger and others, hold special "freezer cleanout" days in the fall, setting up central meat drop-off locations to make it easier to donate. Just make sure these packages are clearly labeled — and resist the temptation to give away just the dregs of your freezer.
"Call it "fall cleaning." Make room for a new stockpile before notching this season's tags."
Keep a tub close at hand for any meat you suspect has gone bad or suffered freezer burn beyond saving. Freezer burn isn't a burn at all, but an oxidation that occurs when cold air is allowed to make contact with meat.
The dehydrating effect sucks moisture from the meat, turning it white or gray as it dries out and converts to a leather-like texture. There's really no saving tainted meat, though it is possible to trim off small areas of freezer burn to salvage cuts. For severely affected meat, the trashcan or dog bowl is your only option.
Once the freezer is empty, defrost it, chipping away any ice or thick frost. Wipe the inside down with a good kitchen cleaner, then repack everything in an organized fashion. Decode mystery packages, unwrapping them if necessary, and relabel them with a Sharpie so you know what you've got. Place the oldest packages on top so they get used first, making a written inventory as you go. Use internal divi-ders or cardboard boxes to organize the interior of the freezer, leaving an empty area off to the side to accommodate all the fresh venison you hope to add in the coming fall.
After butchering, the tender cuts are always the first to disappear. Tenderloins should be eaten fresh, and backstraps rarely last through grilling season. Versatile ground venison also doesn't last long, ending up in pasta, tacos, and, of course, delicious cheeseburgers. What's typically left in the freezer as fall approaches are larger pieces of meat some people might consider difficult to cook: shanks, shoulder roasts, the neck, and those random packages of mystery meat labeled "stew" or "jerky."
Though these chunks of meat are often referred to as "lesser cuts," there's an old adage that applies. One man's trash is another man's treasure. Personally, I prefer a tougher cut of meat as they're often the most flavorful. Cooked low and slow in a moist environment, otherwise known as braising, the connective tissues inside the shank and neck break down into a silky sauce. The braise also turns tough protein fibers into meltingly tender strands that are rich and meaty, more so then even the overrated tenderloins.
Although I like the whole muscle version better, jerky that's been ground and extruded with a jerky gun or shooter is also a great way to make use of all those mystery cuts of meat. The grinding process takes care of tough fibers, and the right spice blend, like those from Walton's, can make a delicious snack out of all but the ruttiest of bucks or bulls. The same can be said for sausage, which also turns meat found in the bottom of the freezer into a great and tasty meal for the upcoming hunting season.