How to Butcher a Deer for Sausage Making

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Homemade sausage can be an impressive addition to any meal.
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The loin has a layer of fat on the outside that you need to peel off. The backstrap or loin offers a choice piece of deer meat that can be used for steaks or sliced into muscle-meat jerky.
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Whether you have already tried your hand at sausage making or you are new to the art of curing meat, "The Complete Guide to Sausage Making" is a good book for anyone interested in drying or smoking sausages. The book includes instructions on how to butcher and how to make sausage for both wild game meats, such as deer meat or venison, and more common meats, such as pork and beef.

The following is an excerpt from The Complete Guide to Sausage Making by Monte Burch (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011). Learn how to butcher meat and how to make sausage using this guidebook, complete with several easy-to-follow recipes for dozens of sausage variations. This excerpt comes from Chapter 3, “Food Safety.” 

My favorite method to butcher a deer for sausage making these days is to bone off all meat while the deer carcass is still hanging. This prevents the possibility of contamination from pathogens found in the brain and spinal column when cutting through them with a meat saw. This results in a pile of boneless meat, the loins going into the freezer for steaks, and the rest to be ground “burger” or for sausage making, with some used for jerky as well. 

How to Butcher a Deer 

To begin butchering a deer, the carcass should be hanging head down. The first step is to skin the carcass (if not already done). I like to use a rope winch to lower or raise the carcass as I work on the different areas. The skin can be removed with or without cutting off the head and front feet. One method is to skin down to the head and cut it off at the neck, then skin down to the front feet and cut them off with a meat saw. Or skin down to the head and cut off the skin at the joint between the head and neck. Cut from inside the skin to help prevent getting hair on the carcass. Skin down to the hocks and encircle the legs with a cut to remove the skin from the legs. The latter avoids using a meat saw completely, but it requires a bit more skinning effort.

Using a good, sharp boning knife, separate a front shoulder from the carcass. There is no connecting bone joint between the shoulder and the body. Simply pull the front leg out and away from the carcass and slice it off. Lay this shoulder aside and remove the other.

Again, using a good boning knife, simply cut all the deer meat away from the shoulder bone and leg.

The bottom portion of the leg is filled with sinew and is quite tough. I usually add this to another pile to be used as “dog food” (cooked first) for our Labs, but it can also be ground with a sharp grinder. Note: There is a sharp ridge of bone on the outside of the shoulder that must be cut around to obtain all the meat from the side.

Place these boned-out deer meat pieces in a clean, covered tub and refrigerate until you can grind them.

Remove the backstrap or loin by cutting down either side of the backbone, then cutting from the rib side to release the long strip of meat. Properly cut, the loin will peel out fairly simply. Cut away the other backstrap in the same manner. This choice piece of meat can be ground for sausage, but we find that it’s just too tasty to eat it grilled. Don’t forget to cut and peel the small tenderloin pieces located inside the carcass next to the backbone. Cut away the brisket meat, as well as the layer of meat joining the ribs and the backbone. Then simply cut away all neck meat, leaving the neck bone. This is tougher meat that requires the use of a consistently sharp knife. Although my nephew bones out the meat between each rib, I find this meat has a lot of fat, which must then be trimmed away when grinding, so I usually leave it in place to be discarded with the carcass.

The hams or hindquarters provide the most deer meat for sausage making and are also boned out while the carcass is still hanging. Don’t worry about keeping specific pieces separate, such as you would do with labeled, traditional butchering. If there was any spillage of intestinal fluids around the aitch bone or anus area, it would be on the exposed ends of the hindquarters next to the bone. Trim these pieces away, and then wash and sterilize the knife. Make a cut starting at the top of the hindquarter and simply follow the bone down to the aitch-bone area. Make a cut down the aitch bone to meet the first cut, then continue cutting around the bone until you have removed all of the meat.

Now you are left with a completely boned-out deer carcass and a good amount of boneless deer meat ready to grind for sausage making. And there are no bones to take up excess space in your refrigerator or freezer.

Again, these boned-out pieces must be kept well refrigerated until they can be ground for sausage. Do not wait overly long, as even refrigerated meat will spoil. Cut up or grind within three days. Actually, it is suggested that you freeze the meat at 0 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit for sixty days, which will kill most pathogens, except trichinosis in bear meat and hogs. 

Preparing Deer Meat for Sausage Making

The next step is to cut the meat into chunks to be ground. On deer it’s important to cut away all the fat and as much gristle and sinew as possible. The former doesn’t create a safety problem, but fat in deer adds an “off” taste. The amount of fat trimmed away from beef and pork depends on the type of sausage and your taste preferences. An excess of beef suet can also create an off taste. Trim away all gristle and sinew, as it makes the meat tough, and make sure you cut away all bloody meat parts and discard them. Always thoroughly wash your hands both before and after you handle raw meat. Do not use cutting boards for both meat and other foods, but keep meat-only boards. Clean and sanitize cutting boards often.

Other important safety steps must also be followed:

  • Keep meat and poultry refrigerated below 40 degrees.
  • Use or freeze ground beef and poultry within two days; whole red meats, within three to five days.
  • Defrost frozen meat in the refrigerator, not on the counter.
  • Marinate meat in the refrigerator, and discard marinades; do not reuse.

Cooking, Drying, and Smoking Sausage: Food Safety Basics 

Sausages are basically fresh (uncooked), dried, or cooked. Many of the dried or cooked sausages may also be smoked. Fresh or uncooked sausages must be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. (or 165 degrees for poultry meat) before consuming. When making cooked sausages, such as frankfurters, they should be cooked after stuffing to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. (165 degrees for those containing any poultry).

Dry sausages, such as summer sausages or pepperoni, have traditionally not been cooked but are dried. This is where things get a bit confusing. These sausages actually consist of two categories, both dry and semidry sausages.

According to the USDA Fact Sheet on Food Safety: 

Dry and semidry sausages are possibly the largest category of dried meats, particularly in the United States. These products can be fermented by bacterial growth for preservation and to produce the typical tangy flavor. Alternatively, they may be cultured with lactic acid—such as cheese, pickle and yogurt makers do—to eliminate the fermentation phase and shorten the process. They are, with a few exceptions, cooked. 

Fermentation is one of the oldest methods of preserving meats. Dry sausages—such as pepperoni and semidry sausages, such as Lebanon bologna and summer sausage—have had a good safety record for hundreds of years. 

In this procedure, a mixture of curing agents, such as salt and sodium nitrite, and a “starter” culture of lactic acid–bacteria, is mixed with chopped and ground meat, placed in casings, fermented, and then dried by a carefully controlled, long, continuous air-drying process. The amount of lactic acid produced during fermentation and the lack of moisture in the finished product after drying typically have been shown to cause  pathogenic bacteria to die. 

Semidry sausages are usually heated in the smokehouse to fully cook the product and partially dry it. Semidry sausages are semisoft sausages with good keeping qualities due to their lactic acid fermentation and, sometimes, heavy application of smoke. Some are mildly seasoned and some are quite spicy and strongly flavored. 

Dry sausages include: Sopressata (a name of a salami); pepperoni (not cooked, air-dried); Genoa Salami (Italian, usually made from pork, but may have a small amount of beef; it is moistened with wine or grape juice and seasoned with garlic). 

Semidry sausages include: summer sausage, Lebanon bologna, Cervelat, and Thuringer. 

Some dry sausages are shelfstable (in other words, they do not need to be refrigerated or frozen to be stored safely). Because dry sausages are not cooked, people “at risk” (older adults, very young children, pregnant women, and those with immune systems weakened by disease or organ transplants) might want to avoid eating them. The bacterium E. coli 157:H7 can survive the process of dry fermenting, and in 1994, some children became ill after eating dry cured salami containing the bacteria. After the outbreak, FSIS developed specific processing rules for making dry sausages that must be followed, or the product must be heat-treated.  

Any of the sausages may be smoked for flavor, and some are smoke-cooked as well. Sausages, regardless of the type, must be considered raw or fresh unless they have been heated to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. For instance, some recipes call for smoking at 100 degrees for several hours. This is not a heat treatment but smoking. Regardless of whether you are smoking or drying, the recipes in this book call for a heat treatment of the required internal temperature of 160 degrees (or 165 degrees for sausages containing any poultry).

Smokers that can achieve the desired temperatures, and maintain the temperatures properly, should be used. Smoking can also add more flavor to the jerky. Electric smokers with adjustable temperature controls up to 275 degrees or over are a good choice. Use only proper smoking wood or chips, such as apple, hickory, alder, or mesquite. Softwoods such as pine contain resins and compounds that not only provide an off flavor but are also dangerous.

Reprinted with permission from The Complete Guide to Sausage Making, published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2011. 

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