For many hunters, processing their game meat at home is as much a part of the hunt as scouting or hanging stands. Count me in this group, as our family has processed our own deer and big game for as long as I can remember. A home butcher kit is easy to put together and the basic techniques aren’t hard to learn.
But not everyone wants to do it themselves. Out of town hunts, warm weather, lack of time and space, or just the desire to have the meat professionally butchered have all lead to a thriving processing industry. A quick check in just about any popular hunting location will normally yield several choices. How do you know who to trust with your hard earned wild game? The following tips will help you pick a winner.
Contrary to what you might think after visiting a few, butcher shops shouldn’t stink. If you have to hold your nose when you walk in, you might want to keep looking. Denny Markwell, owner of Markwell’s Deer Processing in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, says
“A clean shop is the most important thing to look for. We break everything down at the end of each day and clean the shop top to bottom.” Markwell goes on to say that, to him, “a clean work area is an absolute must-have for a butcher. If it looks dirty or smells bad, find another shop.”
2. Experience and Reputation
Dickie Lacefield, of Moore’s Meat Processing in Versailles, Kentucky, says that experience and a good reputation are important things to looks for. “People talk, good or bad. If lots of other hunters have had a good experience with a processor, chances are you will too.” Start asking around long before season comes in. Find out why fellow hunters did or didn’t like a certain processor.
This one kind of falls in line with the post above. Ask other hunters if the processor did what he or she said they would do. Were the cuts as they should be? Was the meat finished reasonably close to the promised time? Did they get back the correct amount of meat for the animal they dropped off?
4. Adequate Cooler Space
There is nothing worse than pulling up to a processor on a warm opening day evening and seeing a pile of deer that have been laying outside since the morning rush. Make sure there is adequate cooler space for all of the deer the processor expects to handle in a day. Ask how long they age their deer. Markwell’s has a total of six walk-in coolers. “In a perfect world, I like to age each deer for up to two weeks; aging just makes for a better finished product. But I won’t leave a deer outside in temperatures above 38 degrees. I would rather process meat with only one or two days of aging if I have to in order to keep adequate cooler space for all the deer that are coming in.”
Ask the processor how they feel about custom cuts. Are they willing to leave certain primals whole, or leave the bone in if you ask? Will they customize their package size on request? Realize that some custom work might cost a bit more, but look for a butcher that will work with you to get the finished product that you desire.
6. Good Packaging
The secret to successful long-term storage is in the package. Look for vacuum sealed bags, tightly wrapped (double layers are nice) freezer paper packages, and plenty of tape to keep things sealed up for the long haul. Clear, precise labels are important too. There is nothing worse than playing freezer roulette with a bunch of faded label white packages.
7. Start to Finish Tagging System
Ask how your meat is tagged. Does the tag stay with the meat throughout the entire process? You worked hard to dress your animal immediately, cool it quickly and keep it clean. Make sure the meat you dropped off is what you get back at the end of the process. At the same time, know that products like summer sausage or meat sticks are done in large batches. Out of necessity, unless you are ordering your sausage or sticks in 50 pound lots, ground meat from several deer will have to be used. Again, the quality of the finished product goes back to the cleanliness and standards of the processor. As long as all of the meat is held to the same high benchmark, the finished product will turn out great.
8. Timely Return of Finished Product
Every hunter should realize that peak business times, like the opening week of deer season, will result in longer waits when it comes to getting your meat back. That said, ask up front how long it should take for your game meat to be finished. Pick your meat up as soon as the butcher calls to say it is ready. The longer it stays in the freezer at the processor, the more chance of your meat getting mixed in with someone else’s.
9. Product Selection
Everyone loves venison summer sausage, and meat sticks, and jerky, and a million other things that can be made from deer or elk. Ask your butcher shop what options they offer. Don’t be afraid to ask for a sample before committing to an order. Besides the normal stuff, many processors now offer hot and spicy variations, bologna, breakfast sausage, bratwurst, you name it. Sample everything they offer that sounds good. You might just find a new favorite way to eat venison.
You might notice that price comes in last on the list of considerations when it comes to choosing your butcher. In my mind, it is the least important aspect. Think about how much you have invested in the hunt so far. A few extra dollars spent in this final step of the process can go a long way when it comes to ending up with a quality finished product. Ask up front what processors in your area charge, but don’t be surprised to find that the better ones charge a few dollars more. The extra time they spend and the higher quality they turn out is worth it.
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