Keep it cool
You just bagged that black-tailed buck deer you've been after, and what you do in the next hour will go a long way in determining whether the venison steaks or elk jerky that cross your palate will be savory or gamey.
Proper carcass care actually started back when that buck was still just a gleam in your eye — when you loaded a large cooler full of frozen gallon water jugs you'll need to keep the meat cool.
"The quicker you get that cooled, the better the flavor is going to be," says Tim Owings, an avid Eagle Point hunter and angler who also happens to be a Master Food Preserver. "It buys you time to get it down to the meat processor."
Owings will be wearing his many hats Saturday during a day-long workshop aimed at helping deer and elk hunters take proactive measures to treat their fresh game in ways that will help preserve the integrity of the meat.
Owings' offering, through Oregon State University Extension Service, comes two weeks before the start of the general buck-hunting season for rifle hunters in Western Oregon.
Though bowhunters and black-bear chasers have been in the woods the past few weeks, the rifle season marks the unofficial start of the fall big-game seasons here, where about one in four buck hunters and one in 20 general-season elk hunters will find success in the woods.
Most find their way to butchers like Darryl Hansen of Jerry's Custom Meats in Central Point, whose advice to deer and elk hunters is to keep their quarry clean.
"They have to be good and clean," Hansen says. "Keep that carcass cool and clean."
But how to do that is where Owings comes in.
As a Master Food Preserver, he's taken 48 hours of Extension Service classes on all the various steps for safely preserving foods.
For game animals, the key to preserving meat and flavor is to get the carcass eviscerated and caped as quickly as possible, Owings says.
Leaving the cape on is "basically leaving a blanket on it," Owings says. "It'll keep all the heat in it."
This is when the jugs of ice come in particularly handy. Owings places them inside the carcass to cool the meat down while he's headed out of the field.
Secondary cooling sources include water, the cleaner and colder the better.
"Out in the bush, you have different resources you need to take advantage of," Owings says.
Owings recommends against taking the carcass home to hang in a garage for easier caping.
"You don't want to take it home and put it in your garage when it's 100 degrees outside," he says. "It's even hotter inside."
During the seminar, Owings will discuss tips for processing meat at home and will have a goat carcass on hand for a butchering demonstration.
A speaker from Oregon Zoo Outreach will also discuss the potential risk of lead from ammunition in game meat.
Owings, 41, says his attitudes toward dealing with freshly killed big-game animals have evolved over his three decades in the woods.
The concepts of "meat integrity" have changed over the years, with the emphasis today placed on cleaning and cooling carcasses much faster than what may have been the accepted this-is-how-we-do-it approach of the past.
It's also regular fodder at chapter meetings across the state for the Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association, the state's largest such organization.
"It's always good to hear a new perspective," says Duane Dungannon, OHA's statewide coordinator.
"There's a lot of myths still prevalent about game care," Dungannon says. "There are people who tell me, 'Don't wash the meat.' I had a butcher tell me the best thing you can do is wash the meat with clean water."
Ultimately, it can be the difference between game meals and gamey ones.
"You owe it to yourself," Dungannon says. "Eating it should be a payoff, not a payback."