All venison is aged, at least a little. The process starts as soon as the deer is dead. But what makes aging different than decomposition? While the aging process is simply the breaking down of collagen (the tough, stringy part) and connective tissue in the meat by enzymes, true aging of meat can only take place in a controlled environment in order to give the enzymes time to break down connective tissue before bacteria causes the meat to rot.
The most important part of that environment is temperature. Too cold, below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and the enzymes stop working. To warm, above 40 degree Fahrenheit, and bacteria multiplies rapidly, causing spoilage and leading to conditions that could very easily cause food poisoning. To properly age venison, the temperature needs to remain between this 32- and 40-degree temperature range, or at least very close to it.
Next in importance when it comes to aging meat is moisture. The lower the humidity around the meat, the slower any bacteria will reproduce. All other things being equal, the lower humidity of the western U.S. will age meat outdoors better than the humid southeast, even in similar temperature ranges. Luckily, the humidity level in walk-in coolers and refrigerators normally runs on the low side, making them perfect for aging meat.
The final key in aging is time. While beef is often aged 21 days or longer, venison lacks the fat and connective tissue that make such a long age time viable. Over the years, I have tried various lengths of aging time. I have settled on two to seven days as the prime window for the highest-quality venison. Older bucks might benefit from a bit longer hang time, up to 14 days if conditions allow, simply because they have more muscle mass and connective tissue to break down.
For the hunter, there are three basic ways to age venison. The first, and simplest, is in a cooler on ice. Next comes dry aging, simply hanging the venison in the proper temperature range, be that outdoors, in a meat locker or inside a spare refrigerator. The final method is wet aging inside a vacuum sealed plastic bag either in a meat locker or refrigerator.
Regardless of the method used, the aging process should take a minimum of 24 hours after the harvest. During this 24 hour period, the meat undergoes the process of rigor mortis. Upon death, glycogen stored in the muscle begins to convert to lactic acid, thus lowering the pH of the meat. This causes the muscle fibers to shorten and contract, making them stiff and tough. Freezing or butchering during this process will lead to tough meat, regardless of how long the meat is frozen after butchering. After 24 hours, the lactic acid level begins to drop, the muscle fibers begin to loosen and the enzymes start to break down connective tissue. Regardless of the aging method used, hunters should hold off on butchering a full day for tender venison.
Cooler Full of Ice: I admit; this is the one I use most often here in KY. Even during the November firearms season, it isn’t uncommon for temperatures to spike into the high 60’s or warmer. Since we butcher most of our venison ourselves, and I don’t have a walk in cooler (yet) that is way too warm for a long aging.
Start by adding a layer of ice to a cooler. Quarter the deer and remove backstraps and inside loins, layer the meat over the ice in the cooler and then cover the meat with additional ice. To prevent the meat from resting in a pool of water, I open the drain on the cooler and prop the opposite side a few inches into the air. This allows any melted ice to drain from the cooler, keeping the meat relatively dry. As long as the ice is refreshed as needed, venison can be aged up to a week in this manner. For younger deer, two to three days is usually sufficient.
Dry Aging: This is the method that pops into mind for most of us when we think about aging venison. To successfully dry age, the deer is hung in a spot where conditions are right for aging. This can be outdoors if weather allows, in a walk in cooler, or in a spare refrigerator.
Dry aging is most effective if the skin is removed before the process. That said, dry aging with the skin off leads to a thick layer of desiccated (dried out) meat that must be trimmed away before the meat is processed. I like my venison (especially the backstraps) way too much to throw any of it away. For that reason, when conditions allow me to dry age venison, I tend to do it with the skin on. I also remove the inside loins before aging, as they tend to dry out after hanging for a few days.
If you would like to dry age but don’t have access to a walk-in cooler, then a spare refrigerator will work. Remove all but the top rack and raise the remaining rack to its highest level. Remove the backstraps from the deer and place directly on the top rack. Next, remove all four quarters from the carcass and suspend them below the top rack, hanging them by wire or string tied to the rack itself. Venison aged this way can go a full two weeks before butchering, but there will be quite a bit of loss due to dried out meat. Three to five days seems to be the sweet spot for aging in this manner. This allows some break down of collagen and connective tissue, but minimalizes loss.
Wet Aging: While not as well-known as dry aging, wet aging is actually how a very large percentage of the meat found in grocery stores these days gets aged. Wet aging of meat is accomplished when large primal muscle groups are removed and vacuum sealed in plastic bags. The bags are then stored in a refrigerated area for a length of time. The plastic prevents drying of the meat and the vacuum seal helps to stop the growth of bacteria. While the venison is refrigerated, usually four to 12 days, the enzyme breakdown continues, making the meat both more tender and more flavorful than unaged venison. After the aging process, it can then be butchered down into table cuts and frozen.
If you plan to try wet aging your venison this year, a large vacuum sealer like the Weston Pro 2300 model which allows bags up to 15” wide to be used, making it easier to wrap large cuts or even entire quarters.
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