Q&A with Travis Tweet: Do-it-yourself big game meat processing
By M.D. Johnson
I’ll be honest; I hunted whitetails — sometimes successfully — with my pop in my native Ohio for 14 years (1979–1993), and never once processed my own venison. Always, a local Amish butcher would get the call and, from my father, the instructions.
It wasn’t until I met my wife, Julie, a Washington native, that I was introduced to the art that is do-it-yourself big game meat processing. “You’ve always taken your deer in?” she asked, shaking her head in disbelief. “Well,” she said matter-of-factly, “we’re going to change that.”
And change that, she did. Today, some 30 years later, I wouldn’t give a thought to taking my deer, elk, or bear to anyone else. Not that there aren’t excellent butchers out there — there are! — but rather, (1) I like the way I cut my wild meat and (2) I truly enjoy doing it.
So, too, does Slayer Pro, Travis Tweet. Now living in Renton, Washington, the 37-year-old archery junkie not only enjoys processing his own wild game, but comes by it naturally. “For most of his life,” Tweet began, “my dad worked for Fletcher’s Fine Foods on the butcher assembly line. So I grew up with that and learned from him.”
As for why he started processing his own wild game, Tweet and I share a similar reason. “I honestly think people should be connected to the food they eat,” he said. “And I think you understand the value of meat [better] when you’ve taken a life, field dressed it, taken it home, cared for it properly, and you’ve processed it yourself; so when it finally hits your plate, you know the work that went into that meal.” Bravo, Travis, and very well said.
This week, then, let’s sit down and talk with Tweet about meat processing. And if y’all don’t mind, I’ll interject a word or two from time to time — tips gathered from my own three decades of cut ’n wrap.
Slayer Calls (SC): Good eats begin with proper field care; isn’t that right, Travis?
Travis Tweet: I would say meat processing begins with where you shoot the animal. Shoot it too far back, and you stand to lose a lot of good meat, especially the tenderloins. I hunt with a group of guys, and as soon as one of us puts an animal down, we move fast. It’s going to be 85 to 100 degrees. We get to the animal, and then [laughs] we debate as to the method. One guy uses the ‘gutless method’ and another guy does it the traditional way. We take as much meat as we can, cutting between the ribs. The neck meat. Then it’s into game bags and into a cooler right away.
Author’s Note: When possible, I like to hang my wild game at 36 to 40 degrees for anywhere from seven to 14 days to age. This time helps break down the muscle fibers, with the result, theoretically, being a more tender cut of meat; however, I understand this isn’t always possible. Maybe you don’t have access to a walk-in cooler, or Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate. Then, you play it by ear.
SC: Basic equipment for DIY processing, Travis?
Tweet: I like to use a small paring knife, a fillet knife and, for the steaks, a cleaver. I’ll have a meat grinder and a dehydrator. And a white plastic butcher block. A couple bowls for separating meat [cuts]. That’s about it.
Author’s Note: So I’m a knife guy. When I’m cutting, I’ll have both a 7” and a 9” Buck fillet knife, a 7” Dexter fillet knife with a little heavier spine, a 5” Buck fixed blade with a heavy spine, and a 26” old-school Disston hand saw for cutting the pelvic bone. I’ll always have a FireStone two-stage sharpener to touch up the blades as I go. I also have two restaurant bus tubs for the backstraps, roasts, steaks and chops, plus a lined 5-gallon bucket (or two) for the burger meat. I use a one-inch Corian cutting board and keep a spray bottle of white vinegar and a roll of paper towels nearby to periodically clean things up. All the scrap goes into a 33-gallon lined garbage can. And don’t forget the music.
SC: Okay, Travis. I have a skinned and trimmed carcass hanging in front of me. Where do I start?
Tweet: I like to start with the front quarters and get the weight off [the carcass] first. It just makes it easier to work with the carcass. I’ll move to the backstraps and tenderloins. The neck and rib meat. Once all that’s off, I’ll start working on the hindquarters.
Author’s Note: I’m just a little different. I’ll start with the backstraps and tenderloins, move to the front quarters, then to the rib meat. I will, at times, cut entire ‘racks’ of ribs out and barbeque them whole, especially with a coastal bear that’s been eating blackberries, wild plums, or apples — before going on to the hindquarters.
SC: I’ll be honest, Travis. Your dad would likely look at the way I cut my wild game and just shake his head. And I wouldn’t blame him. But is there really a ‘wrong’ way to process your deer or elk?
Tweet: Yes and no. I think that before people get to the butchering stage, they should really understand those muscle groups. It just makes it so much easier. The backstraps and tenderloins are pretty easy, but [it helps to] understand the different muscle groups and use them [to guide] you when you’re cutting. [Don’t be] afraid to use a lot of ‘grind’ for burger, jerky or sausage. But once you understand how to follow those muscle groups, there’s no real wrong way of doing it.
SC: What about the ‘grind’? The burger?
Tweet: You don’t need a massive grinder. Mine is a middle-of-the-road grinder I got from Amazon, and it works just fine. If I’m making breakfast sausage in the grinder, I use bacon bits — little bits of fatty bacon — or pork fat for burgers. I don’t like greasy meat, so I stay on the light side in terms of pork fat.
Author’s Note: We’ve been running a 1HP Cabela’s grinder that works incredibly well for our burger, which is about 90 percent of what we turn our venison and bear into (’cause that’s what we use in most cases). In the past, like Tweet, we’ve used the bacon ‘Ends and Pieces,’ but typically we get organic fat from a friend who raises hogs. We then coarse grind and hand-mix the fat into our burger before putting it through the fine grind plate one more time. It’s still lean at 10 to 15 percent fat, but that’s how we like it.
SC: And finally, Travis, wrapping or packaging?
Tweet: Let’s use backstrap medallions as an example. I’ll wrap those in butcher paper first, then plastic stretch wrap. Finally, I’ll vacuum seal it. The plastic wrap around the butcher paper? It really helps to cut down on the [blood] mess when the meat thaws. Too, it keeps blood from ‘stopping up’ the vacuum sealer; the blood or any liquid will keep the vacuum bags from sealing properly.
Author’s Note: We’ll straight vacuum seal smaller cuts like chops, though I really like Travis’ idea of the plastic wrap first to prevent blood/liquid from getting into the sealing machine. We actually will weigh out our burger into one-pound balls, then wrap each in plastic wrap, smash ’em flat, and then finish with butcher paper. OR, we’ll cut some of the larger muscle groups into chunks, simmer those with spices, and then pressure can the seasoned meats at #10 for 90 minutes. Read all about that in our canned wild game post.