Photo credit: Jake Horton
All hunters want to be successful and harvest an animal to put some meat in the freezer. To do this, there is often a lot of thought and time spent trying to harvest an animal; however, not as much thought and time figuring how to get the meat from the place the animal’s expired to your freezer. Meat handling is such an important aspect of hunting and is crucial to do right if you want to get the most out of your harvest. Whether you are hunting a bull moose or a game bird, there are a few basic principles that need to be done in the correct order to bring home quality, tasty and safe to eat meat. Below, I will discuss techniques and ideas to get your meat from the wild to the freezer safely and efficiently.
Photo credit: Jake Horton
So you put a moose, elk, deer, or other animal on the ground and feel accomplished after months if not years of practice, patience and hard work. Now, this is when the real hard work begins and it starts with cooling the meat. Typically, big game species have body temperatures around 100 degrees, which is fine when they are alive and blood is circulating through their body; however, once they expire, it is a different story. At this time, it is crucial to get their temperature down in the 70s or lower, if possible, to prevent bacteria growth. This will prevent meat from spoiling in a way often referred to as bone sour or bone rot, which is when bacteria forms at the bone and ruins the meat. The best way to reduce meat spoilage and cool the meat is to find the animal as soon as possible and gut the animal or quarter the animal out, making sure to remove the skin. Often, people argue that keeping the skin on the animal is better because it keeps the meat clean from dirt and debris. This may be an okay technique in extreme cold weather when the skin will keep the meat from freezing; however, in most situations or in mild weather, it is crucial to remove the skin. After all, the purpose of the hide and fur is to insulate the animal and keep them warm so after the animal is dead it will definitely keep the meat warmer for longer, which is not the goal. Anything you can do to get the animal processed and cool as soon as possible will be better for your meat and for your freezer.
Keeping the meat as clean as possible is a three step process. The first step involves cleaning the animal properly. This means cutting the hide off from inside out in order to prevent extra hair from covering the meat. This also means making good and precise cuts, not cutting into the urinary tract, guts or slicing into the meat. Animals have a silver skin protecting the individual muscle groups with an almost elastic membrane that I try not to cut because it is essentially protecting the meat.
Whenever you introduce an unnecessary cut through the silverskin and into the meat there is a higher chance of contamination. The second step involves having a clean place to lay the quarters and meat as you cut it off. To do this, I often carry a tarp or industrial garbage bag in order to create a barrier between the meat and the ground. This allows the wind to blow over the meat and cool it while also keeping it clean from dirt, grass and other micro bacteria that live in the soils. The final step in keeping meat clean is using good quality game bags with good ventilation. The point of game bags is to keep dirt, bugs and debris off the meat while also allowing it to breath and cool — even when it is on your back. Keeping the meat clean makes the butchering part of the process so much easier and prevents wasting meat.
Getting back to camp and getting the meat off your back and into a pre-iced cooler is a game changer. If your cooler doesn’t have ice in it, then you may be better off hanging the meat until you do get ice. If you put meat either on the bone or deboned into a cooler with no ice, the cooler acts similarly to the hide, insulating and keeping the meat warm. This is not what you want so be sure to have ice ready or quickly accessible once you arrive at camp. I find that dry Ice is the best way to keep meat cold because it doesn’t turn into water. The only trick is being sure not to put the dry ice directly onto the meat because this will cause freezer burn and ruin some of your harvest. Whether you are using dry ice or regular ice, the biggest concern at this point is getting the meat to a stable low temperature and not allowing water to sit in your coolers. Water can be just as big of an enemy as heat because it can leach into the meat and also promote bacteria growth. Once you have your meat in a cooler, then, it is a judgment call on what to do next. If you are going to butcher it yourself, you can often pay a small fee to a butcher or local store to put the meat in their refrigerator or meat lockers. If you are going to have a butcher process the meat, then get it to them as soon as possible. They usually have the best chance to get as much meat off the animal the sooner you get it to them.
Once you put your animal on the ground, it is important to get as much meat off the bone as possible and get that meat back to your freezer. You worked hard to harvest an animal and don’t want to waste your harvest. In order to maximize your success, it is crucial to get the meat cool, keep it clean and use a cold cooler as soon as possible. Ensuring that you do these three things will help you tremendously in putting the most meat back in your freezer. Anytime an animal is on the ground, it is your responsibility as a hunter both legally and ethically to do your best. Good luck hunting and hope you enjoy full freezers this fall.