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DIY Deer

A mini course in gutting and cutting


Published November 7, 2007 at 10:10 p.m.

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • James Blais

If you're a novice hunter, chances are you'll be out in the field with an experienced woodsperson when you score your first kill. But what if you're not — or what if you find a steaming specimen on the side of the road and don't want the meat to go to waste? Then there are some tricky tasks in your future.

If you live in the right place, you may be able to find a butcher's shop, slaughterhouse or old-timey general store willing to do some of the dirty work. There are also expert cutters scattered all over the state who've equipped their homes for large-scale processing. James Blais, head of the meat department at Shelburne Supermarket, runs a "custom cutting" biz on the side. "I do about 150 a year, mostly deer," he declares. Blais has a special cooler for hanging meat while he's waiting to process it, and the knife skills to create any cuts his customers want.

Others go the old-school route and do it at home. John Buck, a wildlife biologist with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, falls into that category. The aptly named Buck has been hunting for 40 years and is well versed in the art of dismembering deer.

But whether you plan to butcher a doe or buck yourself or pay someone to do it, you've gotta have the guts to get the guts out ASAP.

In separate interviews, Blais and Buck offer a primer on what to do with a downed deer:

SEVEN DAYS: One way or another you've got a Bambi carcass in front of you. What do you do?

JOHN BUCK: Once you are successful in getting a deer, you need to eviscerate it immediately . . . The long-term objective is to cool the body down, so it won't spoil on you and the meat will taste better.

SD: Besides a strong stomach, what does it take?

BUCK: A good sharp knife, rubber gloves and a willingness to learn about deer anatomy.

SD: OK. So I've slit the deer's belly open and scooped out all the guts, dragged it to my vehicle, weighed it at a "reporting station," and now it's at home. What next?

JAMES BLAIS: Generally speaking, you'll hang it from the hind legs. Then you take the hide off. It takes some pulling and cutting, but then you just peel the hide away. An average deer takes 10 to 20 minutes to skin.

SD: I know that some people hang deer for a day or more. Should you skin it before or after it hangs?

BUCK: It's absolutely easier to get the skin off of it immediately. Once the skin dries onto the muscle tissue, it's very hard to pull it off. It takes great strength.

SD: Great. Skin it while it's fresh. Was the head still on when you did that?

BLAIS: Try not to cut the head off first. Any time you cut the hair or cut through the hide, you get hair on the meat itself. It's like glue; it just sticks to the meat.

SD: Sounds good so far. Now how do you get it into chunks that fit in the freezer?

BLAIS: I take it off the bone, starting from the neck and the shoulders, and work my way up to the top. I just use a boning knife. The old-fashioned way used to be to take it and cut it on a saw. But most people like to have it boneless, 'cause it's not nearly as gamey that way. A pretty standard cut would be steaks and hamburg or steaks and sausage, but some people like roasts and some people like stew meat.

SD: Mr. Buck, do you approach it the same way?

BUCK: I quarter the animal. Each side of the rear end gets cut in half. I take the shoulders off and sever the head. Then I fillet the major muscle groups off of each section of the deer with a 4-inch boning knife. You bring those muscle pieces inside and cut them up on the kitchen counter. At that point, it's very recognizable as food. It doesn't look like an animal anymore.


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