Maggie Bonham is a long time hunter and game meat cook. She is also a writer on The LocaCarnivore, a website dedicated to local hunting.
You've gotten your whitetail deer, elk, or other game animal -- congratulations! Now, you're planning on taking care of the meat. You've been told you should hang or age your animal before butchering it. Or maybe you've done it in the past with limited or no success. Maybe your meat tasted gamey, or maybe just downright awful.
Regardless, aging venison is trickier than most die-hard hunters who hang meat will tell you. Chances are they've had success with it largely due to luck. Or maybe they just don't want to admit that they eat gamey venison. If you've had venison that tasted gamey, chances are it wasn't handled properly--and that includes hanging meat. So, let's look at hanging meat and why people do it--and more importantly, why you shouldn't.
Why People Hang Venison
Before we discuss if you should or shouldn't hang your deer, the first question to ask is why. People hang venison for many reasons, including tradition. The main reason to hang an animal is to age the meat to make it more tender. The enzymes within the meat act on the collagen and connecting tissues when the animal is hung at the proper temperature, thus making the meat more tender. (Note the words: proper temperature. More on this later.)
The idea behind aging is to have more tender and tastier meat. Whether they do that is purely subjective. Let me explain why.
Why the Whitetail You Hung Last Year Tasted Awful
Some folks hang their venison every year. And every year, they get complaints over the gaminess and the taste. They figure they just don't like deer meat, bear meat, antelope, or elk, when if they had done it right, it would've been awesome meat.
Venison, particularly deer meat, lacks the fat and connective tissue to break down over a longer period of time. This means that it should never be hung longer than a week under controlled temperatures, and it many cases, it would've fared better if it had been butchered right after being shot.
Game meat is often improperly cared for in the field. If you don't field dress and skin it soon enough, it won't cool down fast. Improper transport is another reason why game meat often tastes bad. Carrying your buck on your car's hood or in the back of your pickup all day will not yield quality meat, especially if you fail to skin and field dress it.
Dirt, failure to field dress, failure to skin, and heat are all enemies to good venison. The only time you can get away with waiting to butcher it is when it's below freezing outside.
Does that Mean I Shouldn't Hang My Venison?
At this point, you may be wondering if you should hang your venison at all. You can do it successfully, but it takes more than a garage and some rafters to do it. You have to properly age the meat at a consistent 32°F to 40°F to activate the enzymes to break down the collagen.That means no wild temperature swings, no bugs, and no dirt. Otherwise, you run the risk of spoiling or tainting good meat. Your best bet is a walk-in cooler to keep the meat at a consistent temperature.
Most people don't have that kind of set up, which is why I recommend butchering your meat as soon as possible and get it in the freezer. The delay you have between field and freezer is going to age the meat a bit anyway. The care you take with the meat will improve the taste markedly, and if it is a little tough, you can fix that by cooking the meat using longer, slower cooking times, and moist methods.
One way you can age your venison is if you have a refrigerator with wire racks that can hold an entire animal in quarters. This allows proper circulation and temperature, aging your meat properly. Since the meat is in the refrigerator, you don't have to worry about possible spoilage, bugs, and too much moisture building up. In fact, if you're planning on aging your venison, I'd say this is the best way. Age the meat no less than a day and no more than a week. Butcher it and freeze immediately.
Using a Cooler to Age Meat
You can use a cooler and ice to age your meat. Again, this can be tricky if you can't keep the temperature consistent and keep the meat dry. Quarter the meat, reserving the backstraps and tenderloins for the freezer. You will need enough ice to lay the quarters on and enough ice to cover the meat to keep it cold. Keep the meat as dry as possible while on ice by unplugging the cooler to allow the water to drain out of it. (Obviously, you'll need to have the cooler in a place where it can drain.) Use a thermometer on the meat to ensure it stays at the proper temperature. Age for one day up to a week. Pat dry and butcher as normal when done.
How I Handle Our Game Animals
Hunting season is hectic at my house. We field dress before we transport the animal and then skin and quarter it when it is in the house. Depending on the day we've had and whether we're hunting the next day, I try to get the main cuts of meat out of the quarters and into the refrigerator as soon as possible.
At this stage, the refrigerator's vegetable bins at my house are reserved for meat. Even so, our game may languish in the coldest room of the house until the next day. I'm guessing the room stays at temperatures of 40°F to 45°F. Not an ideal situation, but better than nothing. Once the meat is off the bones, it is in the refrigerator until I can pack it for the freezer in a couple of days.
One might say that I age the meat right there. Not intentionally, and I certainly don't hang it. All the meat off the deer we've gotten has been tender, hence I see no reason to go through an extra aging process. Both deer I've put up the same day and those that have maybe taken a couple of days have tasted similar and were equally tender. Process your animals as quickly as possible, and you'll have good tasting venison.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 MH Bonham
MH Bonham (author) from Missoula, Montana on November 29, 2018:
Thanks! Glad you liked it!
Don Bobbitt from Ruskin Florida on November 29, 2018:
You bring back some good memories! Long ago, I lived in what we called "the Country". And I did a lot of hunting, mostly for Deer, some Turkey etc. My father-in-law and I hung and cleaned our kill and we often aged the better cuts.
In Virginia, there are a lot of Apple growers, and we were allowed to hang our meat in the cold storage buildings where they kept the Apples.
I can say that when that city guy goes to his butcher and buys his "aged" steaks or roasts, that's what he's getting; meat that has been "Hung up and aged).
Anyway, great article.