Field to Freezer – Meat Care & Processing Tips

This post is all about the proper field care and do-it-yourself processing of game at home. I won’t get too deep into the details throughout the entire process because that could fill the pages of a full-length book. Instead, I’ll share some of the key points in carcass field care, the basics of meat cutting, and how to properly wrap or package game for years of great tasting meat.  I’ve added a lot of photos and a video clip to help illustrate the details explained throughout.

Many hunters choose to take their game animal to a processor, which is fine most of the time provided a reputable meat cutting outfit is utilized. To many, the whole task seems daunting and they fear they’ll screw it up somehow. Understandable, but if you strip the whole process down to the basics – removing all edible meat from the bones, cutting it up, grinding it up, and wrapping it up – it’s really not a big deal.
You need to have a plan, some basic tools, and the time to do it right. Time seems to be the limiting factor for most people. Still, there are ways around that without compromising the end result.
Proper Field Care – Planning for Success
Here in the west, the whole idea of having a meat care plan is a serious matter. The temperatures during early bow seasons across the west often exceed 90 degrees and elk, for example, are not typically shot along roadways where they can be easily loaded up and driven to a meat locker. Having said that, it always amazes me how frequently I do see photos of elk loaded whole in pickup trucks, with the hide on, in 80+ degree weather. This is a sure way to waste precious game and is worthy of a formal game violation, in my opinion. Wanton Waste is illegal and negligence is no excuse. Ok, I’ll put the soapbox away now.
Animal Down – Now What?
In practice, you need to expect to tag an elk or deer and work backwards from there. Once you’ve got an animal on the ground in warm weather, the meat spoilage clock is ticking. You have two main objectives – cool the meat as quickly as possible and keep it clean! Remember this and you’ll come out ahead every time!
There are several ways you can do this but if you’re faced with decisions, stick to these core tasks. For example, I called in a bull for my dad in eastern Oregon one year. It was very hot that day and there was no way we were going to get that bull out and on ice in time. So, we proceeded to completely bone out the elk (remove all meat from the bones) and place the meat king-size pillow cases. (I like to use pillow cases because they are dirt cheap from Goodwill, they have a tight weave to keep out dirt and flies, and they simply work better than most commercial offerings.) I then made trips down to a clear running stream and proceeded to submerge the meat in the 40-degree water. We were lucky because the streambed was rocky and provided a silt-free environment. After spending a few minutes damming up the creek a bit, I had created a nice sized pool. Within the hour we had every ounce of elk meat cooling in a make-shift 40 degree meat locker. Once the meat is cold, you have bought yourself a lot of time. In this case, we made a run into town (2 hours) and loaded our large coolers with ice. Then we simply packed the chilled meat back to camp without the anxiety of meat spoilage concerns.
Now, some people freak out about getting meat wet so I’ll clarify why that can be a concern. Bacteria thrives with moisture and heat. If you are hanging meat in open air, then you want to keep it dry. When you submerge meat in chilly water, there is no bacteria concern, in fact, it’s no different than layering your meat on ice in coolers.
You don’t have to completely debone elk in many cases but in my experience, I have yet to find a good reason to get into the guts. I’m not into liver or heart much, but that would be the only exception. I usually bone-in quarter the animal (typically elk or bear) and get the meat hanging in the shade where evaporation can begin to cool the meat. I always split the hams in this case because the large muscle mass really holds in the heat, even in cool weather. To do this I simply make a deep cut all the way to the femur and physically pull the meat apart to create an open exit path for heat.
Rockie and Corey Jacobsen have done a fantastic job documenting this “gutless method” on their site,, and have granted me permission to reference it here. This is invaluable information for any big game hunter tackling large game such as elk, moose, and larger bears.
As for keeping meat clean, I am careful to keep the inside of the elk hide clean so I can use it as a place to work but I always keep a queen sized cotton sheet in my pack for a clean place to work. If I’m in an area with lots of blow-downs and/or fallen limbs I’ll construct a simple grid-frame then spread the sheet over it. This provides an elevated platform or sorts which aids in cooling while I’m working.
Back in my truck I keep two very large Igloo coolers (Costco) full of approximately 30 bags of cubed ice (for elk). The coolers sit atop a foam pad and are wrapped in three unzipped sleeping bags for added insulation. It’s amazing how long ice will keep like this even in direct sunlight, though I try to keep them in the shade. If I don’t fill my tag, big deal. I’m out about $35 but this insurance policy ensures my elk will not spoil and that’s a very small price to pay.
Home Sweet Home
Ok, assuming you are now home with a big game animal, whether it be whole or quartered on ice in coolers, let’s begin turning your successful hunt into successful table fare.
I have two young daughters and a very busy family life so time is always a premium for my wife and I. If you don’t process your own game meat due to a time constraint, it’s possible you are of the belief that it all must get done immediately upon arriving home. This is simply not the case. Provided you can keep meat cold, you have at least a week or more to complete the processing task. By cold, I mean around 38-42 degrees. A late season deer hanging in a barn where daytime highs only reach 45-50 degrees is generally fine because the air is cooler inside a structure. Early bow season meat must be kept in coolers on ice, in a refrigerator, or in a meat locker because the ambient air temperatures are too warm.
My 2007 bull was killed at 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon, 8 miles behind a gated road in southwest Washington. I had to be in Seattle by 9AM the next morning for a two-day Design Management conference. In short, I took my bull with me to Seattle on ice in coolers for two days. It was ice cold when I got around to unpacking on Wednesday. You do have time.
The topic of aging meat is huge and well-beyond the scope of this post. Generally, aging is a good thing but certainly not required. I generally do not age my game meat because I prefer to cut and wrap it as soon as I can get the job done. If I had a better set up for aging meat, then I probably would to some degree. Aging is essentially allowing the muscle tissue (meat) to begin decomposition, thereby making the meat more tender. The process of hanging meat allows more blood to drain as well.
Setting Up Your Work Space
I have processed deer and elk in the kitchen many times but now I prefer to work in the garage where it is generally cooler and I have close access to my freezer and extra refrigerator.
I made a low shelving unit serves as my work station. I cover it in 3 mil plastic sheeting (visquane) to ensure a clean work area. A kitchen counter works fine too but you’ll have a cooler of meat and another cooler with a few inches of ice. Believe me, this amounts to a “kitchen take-over” so you may want to consult your family first.
You will need a large cutting board and at least one 6” boning knife. If you own a kitchen knife block unit full of knives, there is at least one boning knife in the set. If you don’t own a boning knife, they can be purchased for around $20. I prefer the RH Forschner-Victorinox knives because they have a poly handle, exceptional quality, and they hold an edge very well. I have the flexible curved model and straight blade version but prefer the curved design for working around bones.

You will need some method of keeping your steaks, burger trimmings, and scraps separate. I like to use large stainless steel bowl for my burger trimmings and cookie sheets for my steaks. I use another large bowl for scraps.
You can grind your own burger or take all your burger meat to a meat cutter for grinding. I prefer to grind my own and have recently upgraded to a 1HP Cabela’s grinder. I love this unit but it may be overkill if you are only processing small amounts of burger. For elk-sized animals, it is perfect.
Making Meat – Making Sense of Meat Cuts
Another topic hunters seem to have anxiety over is an understanding of the various cuts of meat, especially if you’ve got 300 pounds of unrecognizable boned out elk meat randomly piled into coolers. I’m here to tell you that it’s not all that complicated to sort out. Neck meat, backstraps, and tenderloins are self-explanatory by their physical shape. That only leaves rib meat, front shoulders, and hind quarters. All the shank meat from all four legs gets ground up. The muscle groups for hind quarters are larger than anything found on the fronts, so it all is pretty logical when it comes down to it.
Here’s how I approach it, starting at the front of the animal working toward the rump:

Neck Meat – Burger

Front Quarters – Burger, Jerky, Stew meat, Shoulder blade roasts (elk only)
Backstraps – Roasts or Steaks
Rib Meat – Burger
Tenderloins – Keep Whole (see Wild Game Marinade post for details on how to prepare)

Hind Quarters – Steaks and Roasts

All trimmings go into the burger tote.

When working on both front and hind quarters I generally cut up a manageable sized chunk of meat at a time, separating out steaks, roasts, burger trimmings, stew/jerky meat, and scraps.

For the backstraps (prime rib), I cut them into 6-8” roasts so I can grill them whole with a meat thermometer (again, see Wild Game Marinade post).  Neck meat, rib meat, and clean red meat trimmings will all go into burger. For the best tasting burger, trim away all fat and most of the thick gristle/sinew.

Unlike beef fat, venison (deer & elk) fat has a strong flavor most people don’t care for. The good news is that unlike beef, deer and elk deer store fat around organs and in single layers on top of the muscles under the skin. This makes it relatively easy to remove during processing.

So, as you begin making progress you’ll start to fill bowls or totes with steaks and burger meat. It’s important to keep your meat cold as you work. You can use a spare refrigerator or a cooler partially filled with ice. I like to place my steaks on a cookie sheet so I can easily move them from coolers or my spare fridge.

Once I have completely processed all the meat I will then clean up a bit and prepare for wrapping the steaks and roasts. Once all the steaks & roasts are wrapped and in the freezer, I’ll set up the grinder to grind all the burger. The final step will be wrapping the burger.

Grinding Burger

Grinding is a simple process but there are some key things to consider before running your hard-earned game through a meat grinder.

First, wild game is very lean and lower in fat and cholesterol than beef – by a long shot! And because venison is so lean it needs some fat to help hold patties together during cooking. But, you don’t want to add just any fat or suet to your burger. And there is nothing in stone that says you have to add fat to your ground venison. Some people like to grind a portion of their burger coarse with no fat added. This is excellent way to prepare wild game for chili, spaghetti sauces, etc.

While pork fat can we used with excellent results, I recommend adding 5-7% beef fat to your burger for two primary reasons. The most important reason is that beef fat can be cooked rare. This allows you the freedom to cook and eat your burgers rare and moist as opposed to pork fat which requires full cooking and often turns out too dry. The second reason I prefer beef fat is the flavor benefits. We all know how tasty beef fat is. At a low ratio fat/red meat, you gain this flavor enhancement. In fact, at this ratio you will not need to drain the pan when frying or deal with pesky BBQ flare-ups.

Your local butcher shop or fine meat counter is your source for high-quality beef fat. I have found that if you call ahead or stop by and explain that you will be grinding your own burger, they will hand select the best clean trimmings. I specifically ask for New York or T-Bone trimmings because these are the best steak cuts and the fat from these cuts is pure white and very dense.

Red meat and fat grinds best when it is very cold, near freezing is best, so if you haven’t kept your trimmings in a cooler on ice, you may need to chill the meat for a couple hours before you begin. I like to have a clean cooler on hand to hold the burger once I start grinding. I grind into a tote, then dump it into the cooler.

Before you begin, lubricate your grinder screw, plate, and knife with food grade mineral oil. This will aid in the grinding process. Install the coarse plate for the initial grind and eyeball the distribution of beef fat in small amounts as you go. The goal is to evenly distribute the fat as you work through the initial grind.

Once you’ve run all the meat through you should have a cooler or totes with the coarse mixture. Next, change swap out the coarse plate for the fine plate and re-grind the meat. You’ll need to use a pusher to keep the ground meat moving down the throat of the grinder. ***NEVER put your hand or fingers down the hole!*** As you continue to grind, you’ll see the finished product flowing from the grinder plate and if you’re like me, you’ll have to refrain from firing up the BBQ right then and there! If you’ve followed this process to the letter, this will be the best burger you’ve ever eaten.

Wrapping Meat – The Final Critical Step

Today there are several ways you can prepare game for the freezer. Vacuum sealers are very popular and I own one as well. They do one thing very well – remove all the air, which is the primary cause of freezer burn. But in my experience, nothing beats wrapping meat and burger in Stretch-Tite (Costco) food film and a high-quality, wax or plastic-backed butcher paper. The mess, fuss, and expense of the vacuum sealer when dealing with a whole elk is not worth it to me.
With my wrapping method (video below) I have eaten elk meat that was in excess of five years old and unless I looked at the date on the package, I’d never had known. As I mentioned, the critical step is removing the air during the plastic wrapping. The video below demonstrates how I do this with consistent results, with burger or steaks. I will sometimes do a double wrapping on larger roasts.

I used to use a black Sharpie to write on all the finished packages of meat but that was time consuming. About 15 years ago I had some rubbers stamps made for all the cuts I typically process: Hind Qtr Steaks, Backstrap, Tenderloin, Burger, Jerky Meat, Shoulder Roast, Hind Qtr Roast. I have stamps for Elk, Deer and Bear, and I also bought a date stamp because I like to mark each package with the harvest date.
Packing your freezer
I rotate my game meat from bottom to top so the oldest meat is on top. I also keep it organized by specie and cut. I usually have lot of burger so it often gets a whole shelf or more in my large upright freezer.
So there you have it – this is how I turn a punched tag into incredible table fare for my family. I hope you enjoyed it.  Feel free to contact me with any questions you may have:
Good Processing!

Bull down – time to get busy.

Hanging backstraps and bone-in quarters immediately upon removal expedites the evaporation cooling process. 

Splitting the hams all the way to the femur speeds the cooling of these massive muscle groups and reduces the possibility of bone souring.

Layering meat on ice ensures quick cooling of your game meat.  I can
ice down a whole elk in these two large coolers.

Hind quarter of my 2010 bull elk.  Following the outlines of the major muscle groups with a quality boning knife is pretty simple.

Working with a smaller portions makes the job easier and allows you to keep the rest of the meat cold.

Fat on deer and elk is not marbled throughout the meat like beef.  Instead it is layered under the skin, which makes it pretty easy to trim away.
This is a front quarter of a blacktail buck.  Once trimmed of all fat, this will be turned into polish sausage.
A nice row of well-trimmed steaks.  Cutting meat is not difficult if you take your time and enjoy the process.

I stack my steaks on cookie sheets so they can be easily transported from the cutting table to the refrigerator or cooler with ice.

Another view of how I trim my steaks.  Removing all fat and silverskin (thin connective tissue membrane) ensures the highest quality.

A few hours’ work, ready for the grinder – my elk burger starts off as well-trimmed red meat free of fat and sinew.
My garage meat cutting set up.  I’ve finished cutting and am getting ready to begin grinding burger.  Notice the open cooler at left ready to receive loads of burger.  I have also set up my wrapping station.  Nothing fancy but it does the job.
Ready to begin.  The beef fat at right was trimmed from New York beef steaks only hours earlier.  I only needed a small portion of what is shown here.  The butchers are great – not only do they cut and save the fat for me; they also package it up nicely too.
Starting to grind and incorporate the beef fat.

First pass through the coarse plate with the 5-7% beef fat incorporated.
After the initial coarse grind, switch over to the fine plate for the final grind.

Final grind. You need to “push” the burger into the throat to keep it flowing.
Never stick your hand into the throat – use a pushing device.

Getting ready to wrap.  I have pre-cut a large stack of butcher paper and taped down the Stretch-Tite dispenser carton to keep efficicent.  This way all I have to do is pull out another length when I’m ready for the next wrapping.
I package about 20# at a time.  Once I’ve got them all wrapped in plastic, I wrap them all in paper, stamp them, and load them into the freezer before starting on another 20# load.

Freezer tape or regular masking tape works fine.  I tear off a lot of tape ahead of time so I can wrap quickly.
Butcher paper – Step 1: start with the corner at right and roll the meat forward once.

Step 2: Tightly pull the sides across, overlapping them.

Step 3: Tightly roll forward to the tip of the paper and secure with tape.
Rubber stamps make marking packages a snap.  They can be ordered
from any office supply store or you can purshase a set from LEM Products.
My date stamp only went to 2009 so I had to add the 2010 with a Sharpie marker.

Burger gets its own shelf in my large upright freezer.  This meat will last in excess of five years and maintain its freshness and taste.

 (c) Tom Ryle 2010

About the Author

Tom Ryle

Tom Ryle

Tom Ryle's passion for bowhunting has fueled adventures spanning the United States, Canada, and South Africa. He is an official measurer for the Pope and Young Club, NMLRA, NW Big Game Inc., and Oregon Shed Hunters.