I say, "Just speak your mind Joe, what is it hunters need to know?" Me and Joe Malafy, the best butcher I've ever met, are chatting in the back of his Milan, N.Y., shop. Well, not chatting. His hands are elbow deep in sausage and he's been working 16-hour days for two weeks. His butcher coat has gone from white to blood red. Deer still hang shank to shank in his walk-in cooler. He's holding a very large knife. He is stressed out.
I'm pestering him because his kielbasa is legendary. His summer sausage prompts non-hunting wives to order their men to fill those doe tags already. But, like any butcher, he can only work with what he's given. And though hunters brag about their venison chili and grilled backstraps, few have been taught meat care. So I want to find out what deer hunters can do between killing and grilling to get better meat.
"A lot," Joe says, "but if you're gonna put me in American Hunter, I'll start by saying, ‘Guys, please, learn to field-dress.' Every season I have deer brought in with the lungs still in. And about half the deer I get still have their bladders in, meaning they've been peeing all over the sirloin tip."
I say, "Just keep telling it straight Joe."
He walks me into the cooler and grabs a carcass. "See that? If you can't see light where the anus used to be you haven't finished the job. You have to get all that out. Then you have to hose it off. Blood turns sour fast. This includes the blood clots where it was shot. This is why I joke that if you want good meat, then head-shoot them."
Now Joe is laughing, maybe the first mirth he's had time for in weeks, as he adds, "Shoulder shots have to be cut out. Chest shots are better. Just be diligent."
So I ask, "What about aging?"
Joe points his knife at me as if he needs to put an exclamation mark on his words. "I wish a few would age them first. That way I wouldn't have a hundred deer piled up on opening afternoon."
"But how long should we hang them Joe?"
He says, "About a week at 38-40 degrees, just as we do with beef. You can hang them outside if it isn't so cold that they will freeze solid at night and won't get above the mid-40s during the day."
"Okay, but what happens when meat ages?"
He looks at me the way a tired parent does after a 3-year-old has asked his 10th "why" in a row, then finds his patience and says, "Meat is made up of muscle cells that are connected by collagen. As animals get older the amount of collagen increases. This is why young deer are more tender. Natural enzymes break down the collagen. Of course, with sausage, aging isn't critical."
"Hell no," he says after barking orders at his scurrying staff, "rot is when bacteria eats a carcass. We can smell bad meat because bacteria's waste gives off an odor. Aging meat doesn't stink. Even aging a day helps, as it gets it past rigor mortis."
"Why should we wait until after rigor mortis?"
Joe looks at me the way an expert does who's forgotten the fundamentals of his occupation are not common sense. "Butchering an animal during rigor mortis can cause shortening, meaning the muscles contract and remain tough. You want those muscle fibers stretched and relaxed.
"Just as importantly," says Joe, "very rapid freezing immediately after slaughter can also cause the muscle fibers to contract."
That made sense. "So Joe, can hunters age venison in a fridge?"
Joe shakes his head, says, "It's tough. First of all you have to cool the animal before bacteria turns the meat; however, keep the skin on if you're going to hang it for a week. Beef has enough fat to age skinned, but venison tends to dry out. Also, fridges suck moisture out. And when meat lies flat, blood pools and destroys good meat. Maybe you could do it, but you'd have to be careful."
"How about a cooler with ice?"
"Bad idea," he says. "Melting ice turns red-colored meat gray. Ice is good for cooling an animal, but not to age it in."
"So Joe, anything else you wish hunters would learn?"
He screams more orders at people prepping for the next round of sausage making, then says, "Just this, an animal that isn't killed cleanly builds up lactic acid in its muscles. If you kill it cleanly, then treat the meat like you would expensive sirloin just bought from the market, you'll have better venison."