To the table: Handle venison with care for cooking

Well beyond antlers on the wall, Mississippi's annual bumper crop of whitetail deer fills freezers and graces tables for countless families. This buck, taken last fall by Jon Tatum of Mooreville, provided welcome organic meat. (Courtesy photo)

Well beyond antlers on the wall, Mississippi’s annual bumper crop of whitetail deer fills freezers and graces tables for countless families. This buck, taken last fall by Jon Tatum of Mooreville, provided welcome organic meat. (Courtesy photo)

By Kevin Tate

Outdoors Writer

Burger, chops, sausage and roasts are what come to mind after the smoke clears and the antler inspection is completed, but making sure the meat arrives in good condition takes as much care as the hunt itself.

Mississippi has an abundance of deer, but handling harvested venison in our temperate climate can be one of the most challenging parts of the adventure. Just because the weather feels cold to us doesn’t mean it’s cold enough to take care of meat headed to the table, so prompt and proper handling is a must.

According to food science experts, the three key points to remember are to keep the meat clean, keep it dry and keep it cold. Once a deer is on the ground, the internal organs should be carefully removed as soon as possible.

Keep it cool

This will allow the meat eventually headed for the table to cool much more quickly, and it also removes the greatest potential source of contamination. By doing this job as soon as possible, and by carefully taking your time as you do, you greatly improve the overall quality and safety of the meat.

If the deer was gut shot or if the emptied cavity is especially bloody, take some extra time to rinse it out once all the organs have been removed. Barbara Ingham, a food science specialist with the University of Wisconsin, suggests then spraying down the deer’s inner cavity with a 50/50 mix of water and vinegar to discourage bacteria growth.

With this step completed, it’s time for the cooling process to be assisted. If you’re not going to skin and debone the meat then and there, the deer should be put hide and all into a cooler or otherwise covered and filled with bags of ice. Hanging the carcass also assists cooling by allowing natural air flow to reach all surfaces.

Keeping the hide on until processing time goes a long way toward keeping the meat clean, something Bubba Tutor, a professional butcher and long-time wild game processor near Pontotoc, endorses.

“We don’t process anything in here that we wouldn’t eat ourselves,” Tutor said, and he doesn’t hesitate to reject meat he doesn’t believe has been properly handled.

“We’re dedicated to having a clean operation,”he said. “When you pick up your meat after it’s been processed, what you get is what you brought. There’s no mixing.”

Keep it clean

Maintaining food safety extends also to the containers in which the meat is kept. Trash bags should never be used to hold or store meat headed for the table, experts say, because they often contain plastic recycled from unknown sources and potentially-hazardous chemicals. Food-grade plastics should be used exclusively in this case.

Keep it dry

Aging deer before processing is a technique many swear by, but it’s one that also must be undertaken with care. Natural enzymes will safely tenderize the meat when it’s held between 35 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit, but warmer temperatures will allow bacteria to grow, and colder temperatures won’t let anything useful happen.

Further, food experts say it takes at least seven to 10 days of aging to produce a noticeable result, meaning aging must be done in climate-controlled facilities only, if it’s to be both safe and effective.