Autumn brings with it deer hunting season, and if you’re a hunter, there’s a lot to keep in mind about staying safe both in the field and when you return home with your spoils.
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As hunting season begins, registered dietitian (and venison enthusiast) Beth Czerwony, RD, outlines what you need to know about cleaning your kill, safely storing the meat for consumption and more.
Take health precautions in the field
Preparing venison is like preparing any other meat — except that because you typically hunt it yourself, you often need to do a lot of that prep work in the field.
“It’s important that once you get that deer, you know how to process it as efficiently, as safely and as quickly as possible,” Czerwony says.
Here’s what you need to keep in mind in the field to ensure that you’re bringing home the highest-quality meat.
Hunt healthy deer
Infected deer become infected meat, so when you’re out in the field, keep a close eye on the animals you hunt to ensure that they look safe and healthy. Overall, don’t bring home a kill that looks diseased, sick or otherwise questionable.
Chronic wasting disease
Deer that look dazed, confused or emaciated may be exhibiting signs of chronic wasting disease — what is essentially the deer version of the better-known mad cow disease.
“These deer are often very thin and stumbling because the disease affects the brain and the central nervous system,” Czerwony says. “Their meat is contaminated and cannot be consumed.”
White-tailed deer can be infected with coronavirus but aren’t likely to transmit the disease to humans. The United States Department of Agriculture says, “Based on the information available, the risk of animals spreading the virus to people is considered to be low.”
Still, hunters should steer clear of contact with the lungs of dead deer, as a precaution.
Give your deer a once-over for skin troubles, including lesions and unhealed wounds. Sometimes fighting bucks can cause damage to one another with their antlers, causing wounds that migrate to the spinal column and result in infected meat.
Nature is beautiful, but it’s also full of bacteria. When you’re hunting in the middle of the woods and preparing meat for future consumption right there on the forest floor, it’s vital that you know how to keep the meat as clean as possible.
“All deer hunters need to know how to properly gut deer to avoid cross-contamination,” Czerwony says.
Use a sharp knife
A dull knife can drag bacteria through the meat and raises the risk of nicking the organs. Bring a sharp, clean knife to make your cuts in the field, and use wipes to clean it off as you work.
Steer clear of the organs
Just like in humans, your deer’s internal organs are full of all kinds of, well, gunk (note the scientific medical terminology) that you don’t want to mess with.
“When you’re processing the deer in the field, you want to make sure you’re not nicking its intestines, bladder or stomach, which are full of waste materials,” Czerwony says. “You don’t want any of that waste material to get onto the meat itself.”
Leave the bad stuff behind
Once you’ve removed the aforementioned organs, don’t take them with you, as you risk spreading bacteria and contaminants. Instead, just leave them in the field to let nature run its course. Ah, the circle of life!
Use a tarp for transportation
Bring a clean tarp into the field with you, and use that to get your deer back to your vehicle. Keep the deer on the tarp during the drive home, too, to ensure that it doesn’t pick up additional bacteria during transport.
Clean your surfaces
When you return home to process your deer, work in a clean, disinfected space, whether it’s your kitchen, garage, basement or someplace else. “Any bacteria that was there prior can get transferred onto the meat,” Czerwony warns. Afterward, clean up with bleach.
Properly process and store your venison
“It’s very important that hunters understand how to properly store deer meat,” Czerwony says. “That includes right after it’s been shot, when it comes time to process it and when you’re packaging and storing it.”
- Hang your deer: A key step in processing deer meat is to let it hang upside down, usually overnight. This helps to redistribute the blood within the tissue, which helps preserve the meat.
- Keep it cool: “Really the worst thing for a hunter is to get a deer on a hot day,” Czerwony says. “You really want to cool down that meat so it doesn’t breed more bacteria.” Keep your deer out of sunlight and as cooled-down as possible.
- Work quickly: You’re working with large cuts of meat, racing against the clock to get your venison into the fridge or the freezer. Take time and be careful, but try to work swiftly to finish the job.
- Freeze it: “My best advice is to vacuum-seal it and put it in a deep freezer.” Czerwony says. “Frozen venison can be good up to a year, so make sure that when you process it, you also label and date it.”
Enjoying your venison
Venison’s health benefits are many. For starters, it’s one of the leanest, heart-healthiest meats available — low in fat, high in protein and packed with zinc, haem iron, and vitamin B.
It’s also economical. “If you get two deer a year, you have enough food for the entire year,” Czerwony says.
How to cook venison
“Venison is so versatile that you can use it for any type of protein, including burgers and steaks,” Czerwony says. “Anything you would use ground beef for, you can use venison instead.”
- Enjoy it on its own: Because venison is so low in fat, it becomes especially tough when overcooked. Tender cuts like medallions and tenderloins can be enjoyed medium-rare (135°F).
- Mix it up: Some people like to mix venison with a fat source like pork. “But you have to make sure that any kind of meat mixed with pork is cooked at 165°F,” Czerwony advises.
- Find your favorite recipe: Venison is perfect in juicy burgers and cozy chili. You can also use the bones to make your own bone broth.
The risks of eating bad deer meat
“If it’s not prepared and stored correctly, you can end up getting food poisoning and other foodborne illnesses from your deer meat,” Czerwony warns.
So how do you know if it’s gone bad? Pay attention to the following:
- Color: Fresh venison is a dark, brownish-red in hue, while venison that has gone bad typically has a greenish tint.
- Texture: Good venison is firm and tough, and it should feel smooth and slick to the touch. If the venison looks loose or has started to break apart, the spoiling process has begun.
- Smell: Good venison smells gamey and fresh; bad venison can smell spoiled, even sewage-like.
Hunters: Take a class first!
When it comes to hunting, there’s a ton to learn. If you’re new to it, it’s best to learn from a professional how to do the prep work the right way — and the safest way.
“New hunters should go through a hunter safety course,” Czerwony advises. “The whole idea behind hunting is to be able to enjoy the meat you’ve hunted, so you really want to make sure you know how to do that correctly.”