Hot-Weather Big-Game Meat Care
Cooling your meat down, both internally and externally, is the key to the finest-tasting wild game possible.
By Bob Robb
Growing up in coastal southern California, our deer season in the massive “A” zone opened the second weekend in August and lasted six weeks. Where I hunted for years, the daytime temperatures routinely soared into the triple digits, with nights never cooling below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. I learned early on that cleaning and cooling the meat in hot weather is the most important thing a sportsman can do to ensure the most flavorful steaks and burgers possible.
Hot weather intensifies the need for rapid and meticulous field care. There is a direct correlation between the quality and flavor of wild meat and the way it is cared for in the field. The key is to make life harder for bacteria by creating a cool, high-acid environment to slow their growth, limiting their food sources by bleaching out blood, making a protective glaze coating, and controlling flies.
Get it Cooled Fast
I like to get my animals quartered as soon as possible, with all blood and other bodily fluids removed either by washing the quarters or wiping them down with paper towels and then placing them on ice. If I’m at a place where I can hang the carcass whole after being gutted (a barn, garage, etc.), the first thing I do after skinning is hose down the carcass like I am trying to put out a four-alarm fire. Next, I let it drain, pat it dry with paper towels and start the breaking-down process. Depending on the final cuts you want and your transportation limitations (your cooler size, for example), you can either leave the bone in or take it out.
Far from home or town, having a portable walk-in meat cooler like this one from Koola Buck is ideal if you have a camp setup where a power source is available. Most of you won’t have this kind of setup, though, so you’ll need to reduce the carcass temperature by hanging it so air can circulate around it.
In a backcountry situation or remote hunting camp where hoses and such aren’t possible, the meat must be hung so that air can circulate around the entire piece of meat, which will help it cool. The key is to hang the meat in the shade where any breeze will gently blow across the carcass.
Meat will cool faster in smaller chunks, and smaller parts are easier to fit into a refrigerator or cooler(s) to chill. Before you reduce your big-game carcass to more than quarters, though, be sure you know all state regulations to make sure that taking the carcass apart in the field is legal and follow all tagging and registration requirements, including evidence-of-sex rules. If it’s legal, once skinned, break down the carcass into nine main parts: the two hindquarters, two front quarters, two backstraps, two tenderloins, and the neck meat.
Reduce pH to Kill Bacteria
To really get this right, you’ll need a citric-acid solution to reduce the meat’s pH level.
“To understand how this works, you must understand that bacteria grow rapidly at a pH level of 7.0,” Tommy Johnson, a professional butcher and avid deer hunter, told me. “The pH contained in lemons or limes is about 2.35. By using a citric-acid solution on the game bag, the pH level drops dramatically, helping kill off bacteria.”
You can make a citric-acid solution by combining the juice of three lemons, one large bottle of lemon juice concentrate and one small bottle of Tabasco sauce.
When hanging meat, once excess moisture has been removed, apply the lemon juice mixture A small plastic spray bottle is ideal for this task. This will create a high-acid protective glaze over the meat while it is drying. Once the meat is dry, it can be quartered, bagged and re-hung.
It’s in the Bag
First, never use game bags made from plastic, as they hold in heat and don’t permit proper air circulation. (Note: Plastic bags have their place later in the process.) Your smart choices are heavy-duty cloth or cheesecloth-type game bags. The best are strong enough to carry meat yet allow for maximum air circulation, and they are woven tightly enough keep out flies.
I like to treat my game bags with the same citric-acid blend I used to spray the meat, because it discourages flies from landing on the bags and inhibits bacteria growth. Before your hunt, soak your game bags in the citric-acid solution for 20 minutes to one hour, then let them air dry completely (not in your dryer!). Once dry, store them in tightly sealed plastic bags. In the field, when your quartering is complete, remove the cloth game bags from their plastic storage bags and put your meat in them and re-hang.
Building a Flytrap
If you hunt in areas where flies are a problem, the solution is to build a small flytrap near where you’ve hung the carcass to cool and glaze over.
“All it takes to build a flytrap is a can of Starbar Golden Malrin and a black garbage bag,” Johnson said. “Eight to 10 feet away from the meat, lay a couple of branches on the ground. Pile meat scraps on and around the branches. Pour the Golden Malrin on and around the scraps of meat. Cut a slit in the center of the garbage bag and place it loosely over the pile.
“The sun will heat up the plastic, which in turn heats the meat,” Johnson said. “The flies are attracted to the whole mess and crawl in through the slit in the plastic. The Golden Malrin kills the flies. When you’re ready to leave the area, put the entire trap into a thick garbage bag and dispose of it properly.” Golden Malrin is available at many feed and mill stores, as well as some big-box stores like Walmart.
Ready to Go
When I’m prepping for transport, I like to layer a lot of ice in the bottom of my cooler, bag the meat in 3mm plastic trash-compactor bags, lay those bags (single layer) on the ice, then cover everything with more ice. The thick 3mm plastic bags are hard to rip, and they keep moisture off the meat. I always keep the coolers in the shade until it’s time to pack it all out.
Field to Fork
Prime table fare is all about caring for the meat in the field. When it’s hot, the challenges increase exponentially. Just remember: Clean it and cool it now. Do that, and your family will enjoy the finest meat on the planet at its peak of flavor.