DIY Butchery: Taking a class with Portland Meat Collective and blogger Hank Shaw

by Jeff Barnard, AP environmental reporter in SW Oregon for 30+ years (now retired)

I just found another reason to hunt deer. Done right, it produces good food that you can be sure of where it came from, and how it was handled, because you did it yourself.

I learned this first-hand last month at a class on butchering venison in Portland put on by the Portland Meat Collective (http://www.pdxmeat.com/), and featuring adult-onset hunter, acclaimed food blogger and cookbook author Hank Shaw (his Hunter Angler Gardener Cook blog, found at http://honest-food.net/ , was recognized as best individual blog of 2013 by the James Beard Foundation), who figured out how to get paid doing what he likes best after the media crash wiped out his newspaper job covering the California capitol.

Camas Davis, founder of the Portland Meat Collective, takes some meat from the butchering demonstration by Hank Shaw last month at Elder Hall on Portland’s East Side. (Photo by Jeff Barnard)

“I had foraged and I had fished my whole life,” said Shaw, of Folsom, Calif., who started hunting 16 years ago at age 30. “I went hunting basically on a whim. My best friend at the time was the outdoor writer at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. And what was really interesting to me was his ability to read the land the way I could read water. As an angler I knew tides, currents, weather and structure — all the things about fishing that make you a good fisherman. He knew that on the land. The other part of it was I wanted to eat pheasant, and I wanted to eat ducks.

“We went from Australopithecus to Homo (sapiens) because we hunt,” he added. “We have a 2 million year history of chasing God’s creatures, and I don’t want to drop the ball.”

The media crash also gave us the Portland Meat Collective. The founder and owner, Camas Davis, was a food writer/editor working in magazines who found herself without a job when the news business, magazines in particular, got blind-sided by the internet and the Great Recession.

A former vegetarian who grew up in a hunting family in Oregon, she decided that, “I want as much control as possible over the meat that comes to our table,” she said. “One of the biggest barriers is the intimidation factor of actually being connected to your food source,” such as killing the animal and cutting it up into the pieces that make for good food.

Frustrated with what she could learn in the U.S., she went to France to learn butchery of the whole animal, not just pieces of meat from a box that arrives on a truck. She returned to the states to start the Portland Meat Collective, which gives a wide range of classes on slaughtering, processing and cooking meat and fish of all sorts.

“We emphasize sourcing meat that is sustainably and humanely raised as possible,” she added in an email. “Meat from the wild is, in many ways, the ideal form of that!”

After cutting off the shanks, or lower legs, Hank Shaw explains how he will go forward with butchering a lamb that is standing in for a deer at at venison butchering class put on by the Portland Meat Collective in Portland, Ore. (Photo by Jeff Barnard)

Gathered at Elder Hall on Portland’s East Side, the dozen or so students in the class represented a range of hunting experience, from newbies like myself to experienced hunters who wanted to take over responsibility for butchering and processing their kill. Many of them were unhappy when the meat they got back from dropping off their deer at the butcher was obviously not the animal they had killed and taken pains to handle properly. Instead of a young and tender animal, they got an old and tough one. And most of it was ground up into burger. Sometimes it smelled bad.

Not so when you butcher it yourself.

One of the students was Valerie Fulleton, who started out in culinary school, cooked Northwest cuisine at fine dining restaurants, but now owns a waxing salon, which gives her more time to hunt and fish. She is one of a growing number of women hunters.

“There is something really gratifying about going from hunting an animal to feeding people,” she said as we all sat down to a Mexican venison stew called chocolomo prepared by Shaw. (The recipe is on the honest-food.net website. It was great.)

“It’s all about the authenticity of it,” she said of food she has hunted herself. “For me, it created a reverence that you don’t expect if you don’t hunt or fish. “

In his book, Shaw notes that the word venison comes from the Latin word venari, to hunt, and came to mean a variety of game. His book covers deer, elk, pronghorn and moose recipes.

“Where venison really excels, though is in the realms of humane animal husbandry and sustainability,” he writes. “You simply can’t get more free-range, humanely harvested, or sustainable meat than wild game.

“As long as we hunters do our part to ensure a clean kill, the death of a deer is nearly as quick as in any slaughterhouse. When compared to death in the wild, a hunter’s bullet or broadhead is a far cleaner way to go than by starvation or the claws and teeth of a predator.”

Shaw hunts for meat, not trophies, but if he gets a bigger older animal during the rut, he recommends aging two to three weeks in the beer fridge in the garage with a fan and a pan of water. Unless the hide is left on, the aging produces a rind that must be cut off. After butchering, he vacuum-seals everything, which will keep in the freezer up to two years.

His butchering experience began in an Ethiopian restaurant in Madison, Wis., when he started as a dishwasher. The owner soon was demanding he cut up one carcass or another, without benefit of instruction. Her only guidance was a burn on the arm from her cigarette when he did not meet her satisfaction. Along the way he took a class from Davis’ French mentor, Dominique Chapolard.

The chocolomo (Mexican venison stew) was great. Find it at Hank Shaw’s blog, http://honest-food.net/. Photo by Jeff Barnard.

Using a 70-pound lamb instead of a deer during the class, Shaw demonstrated a method known as seam butchery, where you follow the natural seams between the muscles. Using a sharp paring knife and a bone saw, he produced a range of cuts, most of which can be braised, roasted, grilled or stir-fried, and some of which was destined for the grinder, to be made into sausages and burger.

It is all laid out in his new book, “Buck, Buck, Moose,” which goes through field dressing a deer, cooling down the meat, leaving it on burlap coffee sacks over ice in a big marine cooler for 24 hours until it goes out of rigor mortis, then butchering it and aging it.

There are also recipes for almost every bit of the animal — including the stomach, heart, liver, kidneys, neck, shoulder, the strips of meat between the ribs, the head, bones and the heavy leaf fat, which makes great waterproofing for your boots. And don’t forget the “holy backstrap,” or loin. With a big deer or an elk, you can cut steaks. But with a small black-tail, he recommends separating the loin from the chain, then cutting the loin into lengths of about 6 inches.

In the class, he started from the shanks, the lower legs front and back, which he cut at the knee with the knife, then cut through with the saw.

“The meat is tough, because it is loaded with connective tissue,” Shaw said of the shanks. So they are great for braising — browning then slow-cooking a long time in a Dutch oven. Figure they will take about 90 minutes longer than your lamb shanks.

Then he removed the kidneys and leaf fat. He splits the kidneys and soaks them in milk a long time to remove the urine taste before cooking.

For the hind legs, or hams, he cuts to the ball joint at the flange of the pelvis.

“Don’t cut above the ball joint,” he admonishes.

Then he cuts out the femur, and uses his fingers to separate the meat into three different roasts.

The bone saw cuts through the vertebrae to remove the pelvis.

Then he removes the shoulders, putting his knife down, and using his fingers to find gaps in the muscle and pulling them apart. He picks up the knife again to cut through the connective tissue.

“The thing to try to remember in your head is you are not cutting, you are freeing. Free the meat,” he said.

From the neck came a pair of steaks known as the whistlers, perhaps because they lie along the esophagus. They can be grilled whole and cut in medallions, or cut into stew meat. The lower neck can be cut off with a saw and cooked bone-in as a pot roast, or boned out for stew.

Peeling off the brisket, or breast — the pectoral muscle — he never splits the sternum.

After peeling off the meat on top of the ribs, which on larger animals can be turned into bacon, he picked off the fat along the back to expose the “holy backstrap.” I will leave it to the book to explain removing the backstrap, the best meat on the animal.

If you want ribs, you can leave the belly on and cut the bones with the saw. If you remove the belly — he part on a pig that goes to bacon — you can cut out the strips in between the ribs for stir-fry.

“All the weird little gristly things go in the stock,” he said, wiping his greasy fingers on his apron. “A rule of thumb, if you don’t know what it is, cut it smaller.”

If you are like me and have never field dressed a deer, plenty of books offer instruction, including Shaw’s, “Hunting Black-Tailed Deer” by Louis G. Terkla has a section on it. So does “The beginners Guide to Hunting Deer for Food,” by Jackson Landers.

One tip from Shaw: carry a large syringe in your backpack to draw down the urine in a full bladder. That will allow you to pinch off the bladder and cut it off without spraying urine all over the abdominal cavity.