Freeze Deer Meat Before Processing: Can and Grind Later

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DIY meat processing is a big project that can take many hours to complete. Freeze deer, elk, moose, and pronghorn meat before processing to save some of the work for later. Frozen meat can be canned or ground into burger later. I have been processing all types of wild game meat for 20+ years and I always freeze the meat before processing the canning and grinding. Learn all the best practices to ensure mild, tender meat at your dinner table.

closeup of deer meat going through a meat grinder

Best Practices for Best Results

The best way to ensure your venison meat tastes great is to properly handle the meat immediately after the harvest and in the next several days. Careful field dressing and transportation, quick cooling, and aging will give you tender, mild meat.

Field Dressing

The most important part of processing any animal is immediately after the harvest. The quality and safety of the meat is directly related to proper field dressing. Best field dressing methods will vary based on the temperature, location of the animal, and the size of the animal.

The two most important things are that the meat is kept clean, and the skin is removed as soon as possible to encourage cooling. Using game cloth bags to keep the meat clean is always a good idea. The best option for keeping your meat clean and free of bacteria is using the gutless method. We have used this method for years. It basically removes the chance that you will get gut contents on your meat. If your meat does get dirty while trying to get it home, you can use your hose to rinse the meat with cold water, just make sure it is hanging in cold storage so it can dry out.

Transportation

Transporting your harvest may look like a backpack on your back, an ATV or UTV, or the back of a truck (or all three). Meat cooling and air flow should always be your most important goal. Keep your meat in the shade and out of direct sunlight. Hanging meat from trees while you backpack some of it out will encourage cooling. Propping quarters up in the back of the truck so air can flow around them while your drive can also encourage meat cooling. If it’s not cold outside, get your meat to an area that is between 34-40 degrees as soon as possible. Use a large cooler filled with ice to cool the meat while you make your way home.

Quick Cooling

It is very important to get your meat cooled to 40 degrees F within 24 hours of harvest. This will minimize bacterial growth. This can be achieved with a cooler filled with ice or an old refrigerator with the shelves removed to fit quarters. If the outside temperatures are 40 degrees F or below, simply hanging up the carcass or the quarters will cool the meat properly.

Aging

Aging meat involves keeping it at an internal temperature between 32-40 degrees F for a period of 5-14 days to improve tenderness and flavor. The best quality meat is always aged. Airflow is very important during this process.

Walk-in coolers are ideal for aging meat. Aging can be done outside if temperatures are consistently within the ideal range. Hanging meat in an unheated garage or shed, or even in a tree in your yard will work if temperatures are appropriate. We use an old refrigerator with the shelves removed to age meat. It is important to monitor the temperatures and the meat during this process.

Processing

If you have a friend who knows how to butcher a deer, have them teach you the ropes. It’s really not that hard and once you know how to butcher a deer, the process is the same for elk, moose, and pronghorn.

getting ready to freeze deer meat before processing a closeup of a deer quarter being butchered

Basic Steps to Process Deer, Elk, Moose, and Pronghorn Meat

  1. After aging, the meat develops a semi-dry “crust” on the outside. Using a sharp knife with a fine point, remove this thin layer on the entire surface of the meat. This will also remove any hair or dirt that may be on the surface of the meat. Discard this thin layer.
  2. Once the outside thin layer is removed and discarded, you can start to cut the meat from the bones. Remove each section of meat from the bones by cutting around it carefully and separating the meat sections. Divide your meat piles into meat that will be steaks, roasts, burger, or canned.
  3. Remove and discard excess fat as from deer, elk, moose, and pronghorn. The fat can give your meat a stronger flavor and spoils more quickly than the meat.
  4. After all the meat is removed from the bones, each meat section can be cleaned up. Discard any tendons, silver skin, or fat. Also discard any areas that were damaged by the bullet or arrow.
  5. After each section of meat is removed from the bones and cleaned up, you are now ready for wrapping and freezing!

Helpful Tips for Different Cuts of Meat

Tip: In general, meat from above the knee on the back legs or hind quarters is more tender and can be used for steaks. Meat from above the knee on the front quarters or front shoulders is less tender and should be cut into roasts, ground into burger, or canned. Any meat below the knee on back or front legs is less tender and should be ground into burger, or canned. Meat on either side of the spine on the back is very tender and should be used for steaks (back straps). Meat from the ribs and neck is best used for burger or canned. The most tender meat (tenderloins) is inside the body cavity right below the spine near the back legs. This meat is best if never frozen and eaten 2-3 days after the harvest.

Wrapping and Freezing Steaks and Roasts

After steaks and roasts are cleaned up and ready for the freezer, they need to be packaged to prevent freezer burn. In my experience, the best way to wrap meat for the freezer is a two-step process.

  1. Wrap the meat tightly with plastic wrap, removing any air pockets.
  2. After the meat is wrapped with plastic wrap, wrap it again with quality freezer paper and tape to seal the edges.
  3. Label each meat package with the cut, the species of animal, and the year.

I have tried using a vacuum sealer and vacuum bags, but the meat suffered freezer burn much faster than the plastic wrap and paper wrap method. I have stored meat wrapped in plastic wrap and paper for more than 4 years in the freezer without suffering freezer burn. The plastic wrap and freezer paper method is also nice because you don’t need any fancy equipment. Just plastic wrap, freezer paper, and masking tape.

Freezing Burger/Canning Meat for Later

Put all the meat that you saved for grinding or canning in a gallon size plastic bag. Label the freezer zip lock bags with a permanent marker with the year, what type of animal, and the words “burger” or “canning meat”. You can freeze deer, elk, moose, bear, and antelope meat before processing to save time in your busy season.

Grinding Previously Frozen Venison Meat

You decided to freeze deer meat before processing, but now it is several weeks or months later after your harvest and you have some time to process your meat. The complete steps for processing previously frozen meat are here!

Thawing

Thaw the gallon freezer bags of meat in the refrigerator. Make sure to put the bags in some kind of container to catch any liquid that leaks out of the bag. Depending on how many frozen bags you have, this can take several days. Don’t let the meat thaw completely if you plan to grind it, just enough that you can pull the different pieces of meat apart to feed them into the grinder. Partially frozen meat is easier to grind. If you are canning the meat, thaw it completely.

Grinding

If you have a large volume of meat to grind, keep the meat cool while you work through the rest of the meat. Feed the partially frozen meat through your grinder using a course die plate with approximately 3/8” (9.5mm) holes. We do not add any fat to any of our meat, but if you want to, now is the time to incorporate the fat and grind it with the meat. After the first grind with the course plate, switch to a finer plate with 3/16 (4.5 mm) holes and run all the meat through the grinder again. The meat is now ready for wrapping and freezing.

Wrapping and Freezing

Use a plastic container that holds approximately 1.5 – 2 lbs to portion out the ground meat. Place this measured amount on a strip of plastic wrap big enough to completely wrap around the meat. Wrap the plastic wrap around the ground meat and squeeze out any air pockets. Wrap freezer paper around the plastic-wrapped meat and seal edges with masking tape. Label the package with a permanent marker with the species of animal, the year, and the word “burger”.

Canning Previously Frozen Venison Meat

canned deer meat from previously frozen meat

You decided to freeze deer meat before processing, and now you want to can it. After you have safely thawed your venison meat in the refrigerator, you can begin the process of canning it. Canned venison is one of my favorite time-saving tools in the kitchen. Using canned meat helps me get dinner on the table very quickly on those busy weeknights.

Canning previously frozen venison uses the same process as canning fresh meat. Venison is a low-acid food. You MUST use a pressure canner to can venison.

There are two methods to pressure can venison. Either one works great, but I prefer the raw pack method because it takes less time and the results are really good. Think pot roast in a jar.

Raw Pack:

Add 1 teaspoon of salt per quart jar, if desired. Fill jars with raw meat pieces, leaving a 1-inch headspace. Pack the meat pieces tightly. Do not add liquid. Adjust lids and process.

Hot Pack:

Precook venison until at least rare by roasting, stewing, or browning in a small amount of fat. Add 1 teaspoon of salt per quart to the jar, if desired. Fill jars with pieces and add boiling broth, meat drippings, water, or tomato juice, leaving 1 inch headspace.

Process Time:

Pint Jars

After jars are filled, process pint jars for 75 minutes at 10 lbs. of pressure for altitudes below 1000 feet. Process pint jars for 75 minutes at 15 lbs. of pressure for altitudes above 1000 feet.

Quart Jars:

After jars are filled, process quart jars for 90 minutes at 10 lbs. of pressure for altitudes below 1000 feet. Process quart jars for 90 minutes at 15 lbs. of pressure for altitudes above 1000 feet.

Share your ideas!

Do you freeze deer meat before processing? Drop a comment below to discuss!

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