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Safe Handling of Wild Game - Big Game Carcasses
by Susan Brewer
When animals have been shot in the ribs, internal
bleeding into the chest cavity may be enough. Most
other shots take additional bleeding. Some hunters
stick the carcass by severing the large blood vessel
leading to the heart. Proper bleeding improves
keeping qualities and appearance of the meat.
Two major rules to follow are:
- 1) get the
intestines, lungs, liver, and heart out as soon after the
kill as possible and;
- 2) get the carcass off the ground
and, if possible, into the shade to cool as soon as
dressing is completed.
Wipe the body cavity thoroughly with a clean
cloth, or wash if water or snow is available. Dry with
paper towels or clean rags. Prop the cavity open with
sharpened sticks and hang the carcass until the cavity
surface is thoroughly dry. Be sure there is good air
circulation. Put the carcass on rocks or logs if it
cannot be hung.
Transport the carcass to camp and skin it if the
temperature is expected to be above freezing the first
night after the kill. After skinning, wrap the carcass
in light muslin, cheesecloth, or mosquito netting and
hang in the shade to cool. This covering will keep
flies, bugs, and dust from the meat. Avoid heavy
tarpaulins or canvas bags that hold in the heat.
If the weather is cool, leave the hide on to protect
the meat on the trip home. Fresh meat should be
kept at 30-40ºF when transporting. High
temperatures enroute often cause spoilage, especially
in gunshot areas.
In warm weather (above 40ºF) hunters
should skin and quarter the carcass (or have a locker
plant do it).
Avoid damaging the hide by dragging or careless
handling. Salt the hides (2 to 3 lb. for the average
deer hide) immediately after removing to prevent
Aging of meat--also called seasoning, ripening or
conditioning--is defined as the practice of holding
carcasses or cuts at temperatures from 34-37ºF.
Quick aging of beef is brought about
commercially by holding beef at temperatures of 62°F-
65ºF for 2 or 3 days. High relative humidity is
maintained to prevent dehydration; ultraviolet lamps
are used to prevent microbial growth.
Aging usually results in improvement of
tenderness and flavor. However, not all meat should
be aged. Aging carcasses with little or no fat cover is
not recommended by meat specialist. These carcasses
lose moisture rapidly; excessive weight loss and
surface discoloration of lean meat result. Lean meat
is exposed and is susceptible to deterioration through
microbial growth. Slime formed by bacteria and mold
growth then must be trimmed.
Because grinding or chopping tenderizes meat,
aging is not necessary for carcasses that are to be
ground, or made into bologna, frankfurters or other
Changes in Tenderness
Immediately after the animal's death, all meat
decreases in tenderness. This is because muscle
fibers shorten and harden as a result of rigor mortis.
The changes are similar to those which occur during
muscle contraction. The third day after slaughter,
meat which has been cooled at 34ºF has
returned to its original tenderness level.
If the carcass is to be made into chops, steaks and
roasts, additional aging at 34ºF is often
recommended. At 34ºF and high relative
humidity, it usually takes 10 to 14 days for bacterial
slime to develop on meat. This, along with the fact
that tenderization proceeds more slowly after 14 days
aging than it does from 3 to 14 days, is the reason
aging should be limited to a maximum of 2 weeks.
Aging game that has been skinned often results in
drying and high weight loss. For this reason, properly
chilled game should be aged with the hide on unless
it is to be stored in a cooler where the humidity is
Many meat processors do not recommend aging
game. One reason for this is that much of the game
delivered to a meat processor has already been aged
long enough. Quick aging of the meat often occurs
because the game carcass could not be chilled at
34ºF after the kill.
A 65ºF temperature at the time of the kill
will result in less toughening and hardening of the
muscles due to rigor mortis than will a temperature of
34ºF. In addition, the action of natural
enzymes which are responsible for increased
tenderness is much faster at 65ºF. Thus, aging
at 65ºF for 3 days gives the same amount of
tenderization as the more conventional aging
temperature of 34ºF for 2 weeks. Therefore,
game which is killed when the temperature is near
65ºF and held at this temperature should not
Game slaughtered in the colder months
(November and December) should be aged longer
than game slaughtered in the warmer months
(September and October). Alternating temperatures,
such as 65ºF days and 30ºF nights
speeds up the aging process. Under these conditions
aging game 1 week or less is recommended.
Game carcasses under 100 pounds often chill
rapidly if the temperature is below freezing at the
time of slaughter.
Muscle contraction or rigor mortis hardens the
muscle to a greater extent at temperatures below
freezing than if the temperature is above freezing.
Very rapid chilling and hardening causes meat to be
tough. This condition is known as cold shortening; it
will occur if the internal muscle temperature drops to
32ºF within 12 hours after the kill. Leaving
the hide on will help prevent cold shortening and also
help to keep the carcass from freezing.
Carcasses which undergo cold shortening should
be aged at 34ºF for 14 days. If the carcass is
frozen while hanging, little additional tenderization
will occur because enzyme action is very slow at
freezing temperatures. Frozen carcasses should be
thawed and maintained at 34ºF. Alternate
periods of freezing and thawing should be avoided
because these temperature variations lower meat
Deer carcasses should be cut approximately 7 days
after the kill. If they have been held at higher
temperatures (above 40ºF) the meat should be
cut before 7 days of aging are completed. If the
carcass is frozen, very little aging (break down of
muscle proteins by proteolytic enzymes) occurs.
Do not age any game carcass if it was shot during
warm weather and not chilled rapidly, if the animal
was severely stressed prior to the kill, if gunshot
areas are extensive, or if the animal was under 1 year
of age. Aging has already occurred if the carcass has
been in camp for 1 week in relatively warm weather.
No further aging is recommended.
These aging periods are not needed if game
carcasses are to be ground, cured or made into
sausage. Most meat recipes utilize moist heat cooking
methods which tenderize the meat and shorten the
needed aging period.
Recommended Procedure for Handling
Big Game Carcasses from Kill to Freezer
- Bleed by cutting the throat or sticking.
- Eviscerate as soon as the animal is dead.
- Hang to drain and wash inside with clean water. Put
the carcass on logs or rocks if it cannot be hung.
- Chill. In warm weather (over 40ºF), when
possible, it is strongly recommended that the carcass
be taken to a cooler the day of the kill. If this cannot
be done, transport to camp and skin if the nighttime
temperature is expected to be above freezing.
- If skinned, use cheesecloth or light cotton bags to
keep the carcass clean and protect the meat from
- Make sure the internal temperature of the meat is
cooled to 40ºF or below within 24 hours. This
will often require cooling facilities.
- Follow the safe and recommended aging procedures.
- Trim fat and inedible parts from the carcass when it
- Mix 15% pork or beef fat with ground game and 35%
pork fat with fresh game sausage.
- Wrap all cuts (fresh or cured) in good quality freezer
paper and store at 0ºF or colder.
- Limit fresh game to 8 months frozen storage and
seasoned or cured game to 4 months frozen storage.
Field, R.A., 1973. The Mule Deer Carcass, Ag
Extension Bulletin B-589. University of
Wyoming, Laramie, WY.
Field, R.A., 1983. You and Your Wild Game, Ag
Extension Bulletin B-613, University of Wyoming,
- Crawford, R.E. and York, G.K. Prepare to enjoy
- venison. HXT-53. Agricultural Extension,
- University of California.
- Diedrichsen, E. Care and cooking of game meats.
- E.C. 70-923. Cooperative Extension Service,
- University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
- Field, R.A., 1973. Aging Big Game, Ag Extension
- Bulletin B-513R. University of Wyoming,
- Laramie, WY.
- This document is EHE-731, a publication of the
Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
- Susan Brewer, Ph.D., Foods and Nutrition Specialist,
Illinois Cooperative Extension, University of Illinois
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