A breakdown of why and how you should hang and age your venison
There’s an old saying among hunters. It’s “the real work starts after the trigger is pulled.”
We’ve all heard that uttered one way or another. There is a quiet pride in the hunters who, when rolling up their sleeves, smile upon the carcass before them. They see a gift of opportunity instead of a grim job.
Before diving into the merits and science of hanging wild meat—and there are many—it is important to make a quick distinction between hanging and aging.
Hanging vs. Aging
Hanging is the process of letting rigor wear off before butchering. This is mission-critical with pretty much every animal that you can hunt for consumption. Whether it happens in the field or back home, it is an extension of the meat care or butchering process. It’s important for every cut and any preparation.
Aging, on the other hand, is optional and serves a rather specific set of purposes. Aging controlled decomposition. It amplifies both tenderness and flavor. Usually, steaks or roasts cooked relatively quickly are prone to toughness by nature.
None of this is a secret. Most hunters employ these practices in some form or another. However, when armed with a deeper understanding of meat science, a boning knife, and a cool place, the home butcher can turn future harvests into truly memorable meals. This is, after all, why we hunt to eat.
You Should Always Hang Your Deer
The first barrier to tender meat is rigor mortis. Rigor mortis is a biochemical process that follows death in all mammals. A stiffening of the skeletal muscles is the main characteristic. Blood oxygen depletes after respiration ceases. Then, glycolysis ceases, and muscle cells no longer receive the source of their energy (ATP). The actin-myosin bridges that enable muscle contraction and relaxation default to their contracted state, in varying degrees. This is attributable to the concentration of lactic acid. As the saying goes, the animal becomes stiff as a board. Eventually, proteolytic enzymes that naturally occur in the meat will begin to reverse that process. They break the tiny actin/myosin cross-bridges and then the muscle will begin to relax.
It will only take an animal 24 to 48 hours to come out of rigor. However, there are severe pitfalls to avoid during that time. The first and most obvious is the result of not getting the animal cooled adequately or quickly enough. This is often called bone souring or spoilage. This is the enemy of archery hunters and the early hunting seasons.
On the other side of the spectrum is freezer rigor. In the meat industry, butchers refer to this as “cold shortening.” Cold shortening occurs when meat cools rapidly to less than 60 degrees F. A large concentration of calcium ions is released while ATP concentration is still relatively high. This triggers a pronounced contraction that can cause some muscles to shorten by 30 percent.
Fall and winter in most places give us a little leeway; a cold garage will suffice for a couple of days. The rest of the time, a properly drained cooler will work for a day or so. Really, befriending a butcher and getting things hung quickly is best. That way, you can let things relax for a couple of days and get to butchering on your own time. In any case, it is best to hang your deer or elk quarters in a temperature-controlled environment before processing it for the fire or the freezer.
How to Get the Most Out of Hanging Venison
Hanging is regarded by most hunters as standard practice. It follows the dressing of a deer or the quartering of an elk. There are a few easy tweaks to get the most out of your hard-earned animal.
The first, as previously mentioned, is controlling temperature right from harvest. Especially in the backcountry, this can be tough, but it is necessary. If the weather is warm, remove the skin. Be sure to keep things in the shade or get them to a cool, dry place as soon as possible. Conversely, if temperatures are low, it can be useful to leave the skin on the carcass. I’ve even wrapped it in a blanket. Except for in the coldest environments, the microbiome activity on the carcass will keep it from freezing.
The second way to get the most out of hanging your venison is to hang it correctly. There’s some debate on this subject, save for the idea of hanging meat on the bone. The weight of the deer acts upon itself to stretch each muscle from its origin on one bone to its insertion point on another. However, just exactly how the deer hangs may optimize this effect, at least where rear-quarters are concerned.
Traditionally, a whole deer is hung from Gambrills attached to the Achilles tendon, which stretches the front muscles of the sirloin and compresses the rear. The tenderstretch method, on the other hand, hangs the animal from the pelvis, allowing the rear-quarters to hang at a right angle from the spine so that the round stretches more evenly. A study by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia found this method yielded greater tenderness in less time in various sub-primals from the round.
Again, hanging is only required for about 24 to 48 hours, just long enough for rigor mortis to dissipate before butchering.
Aging Venison May Not Be Worth It
Extending the benefits of hanging, the aging process is a little more nuanced and can produce a range of improvements to flavor and texture. However, one must be aware of the variables and their effects on the meat. For every action, there is a consequence, usually a form of loss, either by way of water loss or the removal of the dried pellicle that forms as a crust on the outside of aged cuts.
Chances are, a dry-aged steak is the most expensive steak you’ve ever bought at a restaurant. There’s a good reason for that: well-aged meat can showcase a truly wild range of funk and flavor, particularly with beef. But deer and elk hunters must consider the risks, and it’s each hunter’s prerogative to run the cost-benefit analysis of dry-aging.
The rules here are simple. In a controlled environment, meat can hang for quite a while as long as the temperature stays above freezing and below 40 and the humidity isn’t so low that things turn to jerky. Ideal conditions are 38 degrees and about 70 percent humidity with constant airflow.
If we all had a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment at our disposal, this would be easy, but most of us don’t. All too often, we’re coming out of the field under less-than-perfect conditions. To do this safely at home, it’s best to build a refrigerator and dedicate it specifically to this cause. A humidity controller and fan are also critical to managing the environment, but with a little creativity, research, and a watchful eye, this can also be done in a garage or crawlspace.
Considerations for Aging Venison
It’s important to be aware of a few key considerations. The first is weight loss. As water slowly escapes the tissue and flavors are distilled, the meat that remains, although tender and delicious, may be only 50 to 70 percent of its original weight. This loss should inform what primals or sub-primals are the best candidates for aging.
The second consideration is that only some preparations will allow the flavors produced in the aging process to come through. Aged rounds can produce a great burger, especially with the right fat. Good candidates for aging also include anything cooked between rare and medium, like backstrap. On the other hand, anything cooked low and slow, like roasts and shanks, won’t benefit much from aging.
The third consideration is food safety and potential spoilage. For longer aging projects, the formation of white or tan mold on the meat can be natural and harmless. However, the appearance of black signals a failed project. Similarly, the development of a slimy coating, round bacterial colonies, or discoloration ranging from yellow and green to pink can be cause for alarm. Better to be safe than sorry and toss the meat instead of trying to trim and salvage it. While necessary for safety, doing so falls somewhere between wantonly wasteful and ethically dubious, underscoring how critical it is to manage an aging process carefully.
Is the risk of aging worth the reward? It sure can be! Some of our favorite recipes showcase the concentrated flavors that can only come from dry aging. In any case, it’s easiest to appreciate your venison when it’s fork-tender, juicy, and cooked to perfection!
Tristan Henry is a lifelong Oregonian and perennial student of wild food and wild places. Tristan spent his youth in wetlands and on farms of rural western Oregon, where he cultivated a sense for stewardship and love for cooking. After college, he relocated to central Oregon, where he manages a small advertising agency, co-chairs the Oregon Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, chases elk with his bow, and wanders the hills with his wife and dog in search of food and fun.