Pro-Tips on Harvesting Your Own Meat from Taste of the Wind
-Keep yourself hydrated! Butchering takes energy and time. I have participated in some long days of preparing and transporting meat from live animals to the freezer and it can really take it out of you if you don’t take care of yourself. Drink lots of water, with electrolytes and bring some snacks that don’t require clean hands to eat, like granola bars, bananas, sandwiches (things you can eat with a wrapper on so you don’t have to worry too much about the absolute cleanliness of your hands). Wear a good hat and bring sun-protection for your neck and arms if you are processing in the summer or on a hot day. It’s easy to get carried away with what you are doing and end up with a decent sunburn by the end of your processing project.
-Low-stress is best: when it comes to dispatching domestic animals, there are two ways I prefer to do it, that are both pretty low stress. 1- Use a bullet- I prefer a 22 mag- in the kill zone of the head (the intersection of two lines drawn from each ear to opposite eye) 2- Tie the legs, cut the jugular vein (the artery along either side of the windpipe) cleanly, and kneel on the animal’s rib cage until they drift into eternal sleep. Either way, you need to bleed the animal as much as possible so you must cut the jugular vein either after you use a bullet, or as the method of dispatching.
-Clean then sanitize. I keep dish-soap and vinegar on hand while I butcher to continuously clean the surfaces I cut on. Vinegar is a very effective sanitizer and is safe to use directly on meat surfaces in a 50% solution with water, if you have any portions of meat you are concerned about contamination with. It is a good idea to batch your work so you have periodic cleaning sessions to break up bacteria build-up opportunities. One example of this would be cleaning your work area and tools every time you finish cutting a quarter off the bone. Or cleaning your workspace between each chicken you process. Or cleaning and sanitizing your area and tools every time you fill up another metal bowl, full of meat.
-Sharpen your knives! Using sharp knives increases accuracy and prevents injury. Educate yourself on how to sharpen a knife efficiently before you get to the site of butchering, and bring a knife sharpener with you when you are going to be breaking down an animal.
-Anticipate slip-ups. Try your very best not to cut across your self. I like to get myself in the habit of asking whether the cutting motions I am using would end poorly if I slipped. I ask myself that constantly, and eventually this builds habits of cutting that prevent injuries when you get tired or are trying to cut quickly.
-Cool it out! Getting the meat cooled down as quickly as possible is a major factor in how the finished product will taste. The faster you get your meat cool, the less “gamey” it will taste, and the less opportunity any bacteria that may be present, will have to multiply.
-Fridge then freezer… This is one concept I wasn’t aware of until after I had worked at a meat processing facility. You can actually rot meat if you freeze it without cooling it down first. This is counterintuitive- I know, but it makes sense if you think about it like this. If you stick a very large piece of meat in the freezer that is warm in the middle, it can freeze on the outside and trap heat on the inside, causing the inside of a large cut of meat to cool down a lot slower than the outside. This can lead to rot in some extreme cases. So, don’t take an entire animal or an entire quarter and stick it in the freezer from warm. Take time to cool it out first, or cut it into smaller pieces before you put it in the freezer.
-Paper is great! Lots of folks tend to think that vacuum sealer bags are much better than wrapping with waxed paper. I have actually found the opposite to be true. I get better results when I double wrap with waxed paper, rather than using plastic. Plastic always seems to bust, or the seal breaks somehow-leading to freezer burn. Paper does not have this problem.
-Prevent freezer burn. I have done a previous blog post on this topic, but for brevity-sake here are a couple of reminders to help you prevent freezer burn. Keep an open container of water (which will become ice, but will still sublimate) in the freezer to help increase humidity. Minimize the amount of times you will need to shuffle around in your freezer so you won’t have to knock frozen packages against each other as much. I layer my chest freezers with a variety of cuts so I don’t have to dig very much when I am looking for certain things.
-Make it fun! Processing meat with friends is much more fun than doing it alone. When I must do a lot of meat processing by myself, I make sure to play music or podcasts I enjoy and keep my mind active so I don’t lose focus- this prevents mistakes.
-Don’t worry about doing it perfectly. Cutting up meat is an artform. It takes practice. To be honest, meat is still so very edible and quite delicious regardless of how pretty your cuts are. Don’t worry about being perfect. Just prioritize cleanliness and getting things into the fridge/freezer as efficiently as possible and you will be happy with your work!
What else would you add? I would love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to comment on this blog post or email me BJ@tasteofthewind.com.
Happy meat cutting!
-BJ and the Taste of the Wind Crew