Forget Paleo, This is Neanderthal
Dave does my deer processing. He does a great job at a fair price and I just like the guy so there is no good reason to go anyplace else. Except that I told him I wanted to try my hand and doing it myself. So, there we stood on Christmas Eve morning, with me picking up a doe he’d processed earlier and contemplating whether or not I wanted to drop off the one I’d just bagged or do it myself. Dave was philosophical about it. “Murff, I’ll take your money, but if you want to learn how to butcher a deer, you’re just gonna have to do it yourself.” It was Christmas Eve, maybe he just wanted to go back inside.
The chore seemed daunting because I assumed there was either some high-end technical training - or at the very least some ancient, rustic wisdom involved - neither of which I possessed. The closest thing to a woodland Yoda I knew had just told me to do it my own self. Therein lies the wisdom: Our cave dwelling ancestors learned by watching someone who’d done it before and just got on with it. The real danger in screwing things up is that it is hard for some men (read: me) to leave well enough alone when we go all Paleolithic. In truth, processing big game on your own is fairly simple. Tedious, yes, but simple.
First thing to do, assuming you’ve gutted the damn thing, is to use a bone saw to take off the legs above the knee joint. While you’re at it, saw off the head too. I certainly can’t speak for all women, but the charming Mrs. M is a little squeamish when it comes to making eye contact with dinner.
There is a skinning shortcut with rabbits wherein you make a few slits and literally sling Bugs out of its fur. If you can fling a deer like that then you, sir, are a cartoon and skip this article because physics don’t apply to you. I’ve heard of mere mortals making short work of it with ball bearings and even a truck, but I drive a Nissan Altima. I just use a knife.
Just take the edge pelt and pull it, making gentle, sweeping cuts where the fat and the muscle meet, angling the knife into the underside of the pelt. The more you do it, the easier it is to grip. The skin starts to get heavy, at which point gravity starts to work in your favor. If it’s 50F outside this takes a while. When it’s 30F, it takes the same amount of time but the desire to kill yourself settles in a whole lot faster so it only feels longer. Don’t ask to bring it inside – she won’t let you.
Then comes the butchery which is counter-intuitive in a modern world that is mostly stackable and linear, rather than one that flows. We like finely plumbed lines and right angles, but God (or Mother Nature or Charles Darwin) is all about flow. And God operates well above your pay grade and mine. Unless you want to hack this majestic quarry into ribbons of meat-flavored jelly you’d better figure how to embrace the flowing lines on which the noble beast is actually put together.
On the back, on either side of the spine, will be the back straps – these are delicious. The trick here is to run along the lines of the strap with a fillet knife: Short, light strokes as you use your fingers to gently expose more to gently cut. Keep doing this until it rolls out into your hand. On the inside of the cavity will be the tenderloins – smaller and slightly more delicious. You get them out the same way. Try not to cut into the meat, but along the lines. Rinse them off and let them air dry before storage.
Let’s say it again – go with the flow and follow the lines.
If you are a real skin-flint, and there is no reason not to be, there is meat on the neck. This is easy to free but you’d better grind it into hamburger or cube into a stew. Otherwise you’ll have a steak that eats like a mid-priced tire.
The legs and shanks are a bit trickier: Follow the lines of the fat and folds with gentle sweeps, the knife will eventually find its way exactly to the place you want to be in order to separate the joint. I realize that sounds like something that Obi Wan Kenobi would say, but there we are.
At this point, you have two smallish shanks and two big ones, and the wife must let you into the kitchen if she ever plans to share thine bounty. You want to rinse the shanks off thoroughly in the sink and dry. If you have an enormous grill or roasting pan do it bone-in. If not, you’ve got some more cutting to do.
The thing to remember about cooking these shanks and joints is go at them low and slow in a wet heat. The cartilage will break down into the liquid in the roasting pan and make a beautiful sauce when reduced. Outside I like my trusty Primo for the job, but keep the temperature to 250F. Low and slow, however, requires a lot of not doing anything, which can be problematic.
You almost certainly believe that you are a logical and efficient man not given to fussy tinkering. Fine, but consider this experiment: The next time you build a fire or cook out, pay attention to all your needless lifting up and putting back down, as well as the superfluous poking. The wife or lady friend will have likely pointed out the gratuitous fiddling as it pertains to her, but a slab of meat or a log can’t talk back. At any rate, if you are remotely honest you’ll note a lot of uncalled for monkeying around with sharp objects and fire. I know, I know, I love it too.
Remember that the hardest thing about cooking is just leaving it the hell alone.