How to clean deer liver for cooking or freezing

You want to remove as much blood from the liver as you can - it gives the liver a metallic taste.
You want to remove as much blood from the liver as you can – it gives the liver a metallic taste.

Venison liver is often one for the first meals prepped from the animal after a successful hunt. Personally, I’d go with the tenderloin first. Nothing wrong with starting with the liver, but I prefer to do a little prep on it before I use it, which will take a day or two.

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Twelve Methods of Removing Gamy Flavor Put to the Test

You may have heard of many methods to remove the gamy flavor from venison. Well, we tested 12 of them to see what worked... and what didn't.
You may have heard of many methods to remove the gamy flavor from venison. Well, we tested 12 of them to see what worked… and what didn’t.

Gamy venison (or gamey, depending on your preferred spelling). Nobody likes it. There are some people who claim they do – but I say that they probably haven’t had a truly gamy piece of meat. Yes, venison tastes different than beef or pork. But different doesn’t mean “gamy”, and most deer you eat, if properly handled all the way from the shot through to the freezer –  won’t have a gamy flavor.

But if you eat enough venison, or are unfortunate to have some poorly handled/poorly processed venison – at some point you will encounter some truly gamy meat. What causes it? The two biggest causes of that venison “funk” are simple: spoilage and hormones. Spoilage happens a number of ways: bad shot, poor field dressing, and improper aging being the major contenders. All of these, you as the hunter, have a degree of control over. The hormonal gaminess you can control as well. If you see that buck of a lifetime, with the big rack, and the neck that’s as thick as a California Red Wood – if you decide to shoot him – expect some funk. That little 3×3 or that doe will taste MUCH better.

Now, I’m not here to chastise your hunting or processing techniques. Let’s just say you have a deer in the freezer that’s got some gaminess. As I said: it’s going to happen at some point. Let’s focus on what you can do with it.

As it so happens, I have a 5 point in the freezer right now that I would classify as a mildly gamy deer. He is perfectly in the “acceptable” flavor range to me: not the greatest, but not a deal breaker either. The wife on the other hand – yeah, his flavor is a deal breaker.

In prepping for our test, we tried to maintain consistency across all variables - from the thickness of the cuts, to the cooking and resting times.
In prepping for our test, we tried to maintain consistency across all variables – from the thickness of the cuts, to the cooking and resting times.

So, I decided to test out some techniques that I’ve heard (and some I’ve used) that people have claimed to remove that gamy flavor. I took a “scientific” approach to keep things fair. I cut all samples of meat to be tested from the buck’s loin, into equal thicknesses and sizes. I placed all chuncks of meat in separate plastic bags, each with it’s own “game removing solution”. I did two samples for each method I tested – one sample was aged for one day, the other for two days. At the end of each waiting period, each piece of meat was rinsed in water, and patted dry with a paper towel. I then cooked each piece of meat in an oven at 400° for 7 minutes. Next I removed from the oven, covered with foil, and let rest for 5 minutes.

All our test subjects after marinading for two days.
All our test subjects after marinading for two days.

I was a little surprised by some of the results. As it turns out, of all 12 methods tested, plain old milk was by FAR the best for giving a non-gamy steak with no flavors added. There are some methods I will likely never try again, like vinegar or lemon juice. Turns out they DO work, but the meat transformed into something you wouldn’t want to feed to anyone. For those of you interested, I’ll cover each method in detail below. And for everyone else who “just want to see the results already!”, without further ado:

You want to remove gaminess? Turns out the secret is probably sitting right in your fridge.
You want to remove gaminess? Turns out the secret is probably sitting right in your fridge.

Following is the breakdown on each method. It turns out that soaking for an additional day did not further reduce the gaminess in any of the samples, so I won’t go into detail on the day 2 results. Just keep in mind: these were thin slices – if you have a large roast you want to treat, you should consider soaking it longer, slicing it, or poking holes in it so the fluid can reach more surface area.

Buttermilk:

I was sadly disappointed. I had not previously tried this method, but it just SOUNDS like it would be good. Butter. Milk. Come on! But no. It had next to no impact on the gaminess, but it did impart an acidy taste to the steak that wasn’t all that pleasant. It DID have a mild tenderizing affect, though I likely wouldn’t use it again.

Milk:

The champion of the test. I’ve heard from many people who use milk to marinade their wild game: from venison to fish. And it truly works – the best of all 12 ways we tried. We used whole milk – I may need to do further testing to compare the various fat contents of milk, but the result was great. There was no gaminess left in the cooked steak, and it did not alter the taste of the steak. The only downside was the result was slightly less tender than other methods. If you use milk, you will want to additionally use a chemical or physical method of tenderizing the meat before you cook it.

Yogurt:

We used vanilla yogurt –  which may not have been the best choice. It was fairly effective at removing the gamy flavor, but it did impart a vanilla flavor to the meat that was not that enjoyable. Vanilla flavor is good for ice cream. Not steak. It did have a better tenderizing effect than plain milk though. In future tests I’ll try a plain yogurt.

Vinegar:

I like pickled heart. The result here was about the same. But I won’t ever pickle a steak again. Though it WAS effective at removing gaminess. The vinegar changed the structure of the meat. It became jello-like when raw, but still cooked firmly. The acid in the vinegar actually “cooked” the meat – if you look at the cross section of it above, you’ll see there is no red in the cooked center. Never again.

Wine:

We used a red wine. It was very effective at removing the gaminess, though it imparted an acidy, overpowering wine taste to the meat. I use red wine all the time in slow cooking venison – I will probably stick to using it for those recipes. It also made the steak tough – so it’s probably not worth it to try again even for a shorter soak time.

Salt Water:

Salt water was very effective at removing gaminess, and also made a very tender steak. On the downside, the result was VERY salty. If we soaked it again for another night in plain water, it may have helped – but then you have a two step process to go through.

Plain Water:

I constantly hear hunters say that they will continually soak their whole deer in ice water for several days after quartering it or butchering it (changing the water several times). I have personally never done this. And after this test, I never would. The theory is that it gets the blood out, and therefore the gamy flavor. What we found in our test (and we all agreed), was that the sample soaked in plain water tasted MORE gamy than the sample that we didn’t do anything to. On top of that, it was TOUGHER. Now, this was one test, so I’m not claiming it’s the be all, end all on the subject – but it’s a practice I have no plans for trying out again.

Italian Dressing:

This was a middle of the roader. The dressing didn’t do a lot to change the gaminess, but it added a masking flavor to the meat that was pleasant. Though the gaminess still was apparent.It also had little to no impact on tenderness.

Steak Marinade:

We used KC Masterpiece’s Original Steakhouse marinade – which we like for general steak cooking of any kind. It was good at removing the gaminess, and it had a nice tender result that had a nice BBQ/smoky flavor. This one was a tough call, but we’d say it was just slightly less effective than the milk method at removing the gaminess. One other note – the marinade seemed to have a similar “cooking” process to the vinegar and lemon juice. The day 1 result wasn’t noticeable, but the “rare” line in the day 2 sample was noticeably thin and uniform, and not from the oven cooking.

Control:

Our unadulterated sample – nothing applied but time. Which interestingly is a method some people claim will impact the gaminess: aging. This is another activity that I don’t do. Sometimes I butcher my deer the same day I kill it, and it hits the freezer usually within 24 hours of that. At most, it’s done in 1 to 2 days – and that’s based on circumstance – when do I have time, was it an evening hunt, etc. A number of respected resources on the matter will say you typically shouldn’t age your deer for more than 4 days. Now, with this test, we didn’t go that long. But I did test 3 cooked versions of this one: the day we started the test, after day 1, and then the day 2 round. We did not notice any impact on gaminess by aging the samples. There seemed to be a tenderness advantage to aging – but that was subjectively debated. For our test, the aged samples were only really effective at being comparative objects we could sample the other methods against. No advantage otherwise.

Lemon Juice:

Lemon juice is a strong acid like vinegar. It was effective at removing the gaminess. But it added flavor that was far worse! And similar to vinegar, you can see in the cross-section image above, the lemon effectively cooked the meat through by acidity alone. I’ve heard of cooking trout this way. I won’t do it to venison again…

Coffee:

Coffee was surprisingly effective at removing gaminess. Though it added an overpowering, unpleasant coffee taste. I like coffee. But this was more like “coffee breath” flavor. Yeah, not good. This might be interesting in a slow cooker recipe, but it was not good on the steak. It was also the TOUGHEST sample we tried.

Honorable Mention – Corned Venison:

I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up corning venison as a method to remove gamey flavor. It is more effective than ANY of the tests we did here, but I excluded it from the test because of the time needed for the process, and it’s really best for tough roasts.

So there you have it. If you have some gamy venison, and you have some milk in the fridge, soak it for a day or two and you’ll be good to go. Who knew, that whole “keep it simple” philosophy really DOES work…

Five Tips on Skinning Deer

Deer Skinning Tools
Having the right tools makes any job easier, including skinning a deer.

To paraphrase an old idiom, there’s more than one way to skin a deer. Similar to field dressing and butchering, if you take a minimalist approach, the only thing you need is a sharp knife. Also similar to field dressing and butchering, the job will go a lot smoother if you have more tools available than just a sharp knife.

There are a ton of tricks out there to speed up the process, from using your truck, a winch, or lately I’ve seen a number of videos on using compressed air to “inflate” the skin off. I’m not going to go into any of those here. If you are a commercial processor, or maybe a successful hunting camp where you need to skin a lot of deer, then I’m sure those speed methods come in handy. I only ever have one to two deer to skin at a time – so I do it the old fashioned way, with a knife and elbow grease.

Even though I do it the hard way, here are a few tips to make your deer skinning job easier.

Tip 1: Never, EVER, let the deer freeze before you skin it.

Deer hair has amazing insulating properties. But there’s this weird paradox:

  • If you hang your deer overnight, and the temperature drops below freezing, the deer freezes (so much for insulating properties).
  • Once it freezes, it can take DAYS of above freezing temperatures to thaw back out (WTH – magic one way insulating?!).

DON’T let it freeze. If the temperature is supposed to drop, protect the deer somehow. If you can’t hang it in your garage, then wrap it in blankets or whatever you have handy. If it does freeze, the job will take ten times longer –  the worst part: plan on not feeling your fingers while you are doing the work.

Tip 2: The sooner you skin it, the easier it is.

Personally, I very seldom ever age my deer before processing it. There are a number of reasons  why I don’t, which I’ll go into more detail elsewhere – but the tie in here is that the sooner you skin the deer after you kill it, the easier it is to skin. You can find some YouTube videos of a guy skinning a deer in less than two minutes. If you look closely at the deer, you can tell it was very freshly killed. If you do age your deer, waiting a few days to skin it won’t make it impossible, just understand that it will be more difficult than if you had skinned it the same day the deer died.

Tip 3: Three tools is the magic number.

The first thing I do, is cut the forelegs off. A knife will do, but a set of loppers is even quicker – They work just as well on bone and cartilage as they do branches. You want to cut it right in the joint, that will cut much easier than going through just solid bone.

Then you need some knives. Sure you only need one knife. But have two and the job will be a breeze. You want a rounded skinning blade, and a thin blade such as a caping knife or a fillet knife. Use the thin blade to cut the hide. Use the skinning knife to separate the skin from the body – the exaggerated rounded blade makes it easy to just run back and forth as you move down the body.

Tip 4: Keep the hair out of the meat!

It is much easier to keep hair off the meat than it is to try to clean it off if you make a mess. There are two main ways you are getting hair on the meat:

  1. When you cut the hide: If you just slice along the top of the skin, the blade will contact hair first. As you make your cuts, you are basically cutting hair the whole way you go, and all those hair trimmings are most likely falling all over freshly exposed meat. The solution: using your caping or fillet knife, make your first incision small. Once you have an incision made, stick the tip of the knife in, and turn it around so the blade is facing up. Think of it like using a pry bar –  you get underneath it and “pry” the skin up. By slicing “up” through the skin this way, you will NOT be cutting the hair – no hair, no hairy meat.
  2. You touch the hair, then you touch the meat: Ok, maybe you cut a few hairs making your first cuts. Plus there will always be a few loose hairs on the hide. So the easy solution: pick a hand to touch the deer, and pick a hand to use the knife. And don’t let them switch. If you do need to switch hands, change gloves or wash your hands first.

If you do still get some hair on the meat, a damp paper towel can scrub most of it off easily enough. Or run a torch over the meat to singe any strays off – just a quick burst will clean it up nicely. If you follow the steps above though, odds are you won’t need any clean up.

Tip 5: Have an extra set of hands.

Having a partner just makes it go faster and smoother. Have your buddy do the pulling while you do the cutting (or vice versa) to help avoid hair contamination. Your hands are going to get dirty – having someone else around to run errands, get more water for cleaning utensils, raising or lowering the deer, changing the radio station, getting another round of beers – hey it just helps to keep a cleaner work site, meaning less cleanup when the job is finished!

In summary:

Sure, you can do one of the gimmick skinning methods, and I’m sure they work well. But learn how to do the job right first, with minimal tools. And once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll find it’s pretty easy to skin a deer, and doesn’t take much time. Unless you let it freeze. Then good luck, because the gimmick methods won’t even save you then!

Five Tips on Field Dressing Deer

Deer Field Dressing Kit
All you need is a knife to dress a deer, but trust me, you want more than just a knife when you have that deer in front of you.

Google “how to field dress a deer”, and you will get “about 848,000” results.

And probably about 848,000 different ways to do it.

Field dressing a deer at it’s simplest only requires three things: you, a sharp knife, and a deer. You make a slice along the abdominal cavity, and pull everything out as carefully as you can. It’s messy work. There’s no wrong way to do it. You just have to get in there and do it a few times to really get a handle on it.

I’m not going to do a walk through here. Instead, I’m going to give you five tips that will help make the process easier.

Tip 1: Have more than two hands.

I’ve field dressed a number of deer on my own. You can get by easily enough, but an extra set of hands will make it ten times easier. When you don’t have another person to help, cut two sturdy sticks a few feet long. Pound them into the ground on either side of the deer. Use these as tie off points – tie each rear leg to a stick. You do carry rope with you, right?

Tip 2: Put together a field dressing kit.

As I mentioned, all you really need is a knife. But putting together a small bag with a few other key items will ensure you always have what you need. I usually keep this kit in my truck – since my truck is never far away when I’m hunting. Yeah, if you are in the deep woods, put it in your pack. One nice thing about a kit is it can be shared across the hunting party. At minimum, you should have a smallish fixed blade knife, some paper towels, some nitrile/latex gloves, some bags for storing organs, a sharpener, and a bone saw or hatchet for splitting the pelvic bone. Which leads me to:

Tip 3: Split the pelvic bone.

Some guys will tell you not to do this, that you’ll spoil some of the meat. My preference is to split it. I’ve used a saw and a hatchet. I actually prefer to use a hatchet – you just need to be very controlled and careful in your swings. If you can’t do that, use a saw. With your knife, cut down to the bone in a straight line towards the anus. Expose the bone for about an inch on either side of this line, and then cut through the bone on either side of what you exposed, removing a chunk of the bone about 1.5 inches wide, give or take. You’ll have to judge the width of the cut based on your deer. Going this route, you don’t need to tie anything off, or use those “but out” tools. You expose the colon and urethra so you can free it to pull it through the channel.

Tip 4: Take. Your. Time.

Is field dressing fun? Not really. It’s messy. It can be smelly. You might be sweating your ass off from tracking the deer through thickets. But next to good shot placement, it is probably the most critical player in how your venison is going to taste. If you cut the bladder, the spilled urine is not going to enhance the flavor. The deer really won’t smell bad as you are dressing it – unless you knick the stomach with your knife.

Take your time here so you don’t cause any contamination. And also to learn. I approach it as an anatomy lesson. How are things connected? Are there any more useful parts I can harvest? Did I get everything out of the chest cavity? I had a doe “missing” a heart once. After 5 minutes of searching the gut pile, I found it was still in the chest… Oops!

While you don’t want to go so slow your meat starts spoiling, go slow enough to avoid mistakes.

Tip 5: Get all the good stuff!

If I’m going to kill an animal, it’s my responsibility to not let any part of that animal go to waste. Now, technically speaking, nothing goes to waste. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a gut pile that lasted more than two days in the woods. The coyotes, fox, raccoons, and birds will all enjoy their share. But still, I want to appreciate as much of it as I can. The heart and liver are the prime candidates. I can get about five personal lunches out of a liver. And pickled heart is one of my favorite sandwich components. I also grab any fat I can see. That lacy covering on the stomach? That’s called caul fat. You can actually cook with it. Most of the fat I grab will be rendered down and made into suet to help feed my feathered friends through the rough parts of the winter.

In Summary:

Just remember that there is no wrong way to gut a deer. As long as you cleanly get everything out, and start getting the meat cooled in a timely fashion, you’ve done it right. And no YouTube video will teach you as much as doing it yourself in the field. So hunt more to practice more!

Do you have any field dressing tips to share? Tell us in the comments section!