All photo credits: Logan Summers
All photo credits: Logan Summers
So you put a big buck, bull, doe or cow on the ground and now the work begins. You get the meat off the animal and into some game bags and back to camp. But now what? Do you hang it in a tree for a few days, put it in the cooler on ice or bring it to town to get butchered? If you are like me, you probably love eating wild game but are always looking for a way to make it taste even better, be more tender and have all the right flavors as you cook it over an entire year. This is the year you should consider a way to age your meat so that you can come home with an even tastier trophy than you have had in the past.
Aging is the process of storing the meat at a refrigerated temperature for a few days to weeks after the animal has been dead. This is not a new process; in fact, some of the best and more expensive steaks in the world are aged weeks before cooking. Essentially, aging meat allows it to be more tender and flavorful.
You may be thinking, what exactly does aging do to my meat? Well, the answer is it does two things. First, aging meat breaks down connective tissues by utilizing naturally occurring enzymes. This is the part of the process that will tenderize your harvest. The second thing that aging meat does is dehydrate the meat, which will enhance the meaty flavor. A piece of meat that is aged can reduce its weight by up to 30%, which means the remaining meat will be more succulent and flavorful.
The two processes for aging meat are wet aging and dry aging. Essentially, wet aging meat is done by wrapping the meat in Saran Wrap or placing the meat inside a plastic bag, then refrigerating it. This will let the enzymes break down some of the connective tissue, but will not dehydrate it the same way dry aging does. Overall, you might be used to wet-aged meat if you buy your steaks from the grocery store where they are stored for several days on the shelf before you bring them home. When it comes to dry-aged meat, the most significant difference is that dry-aged meat is aged in the open air. Dry aging meat is what many experts suggest if you want to get the most out of your wild game’s tenderness and flavor. Dry aging will dehydrate your meat the most and also break down the connective tissue, leaving you with a tender and delicious harvest.
The most important part of aging is to maintain the correct temperature. If it is too warm, your meat will rot and break down quickly due to bacteria growth. If it is too cold, your meat will freeze, halting the enzyme breakdown process. Ultimately, you want the environment to be above 32 degrees so the meat does not freeze, but less than 40 degrees, so it doesn’t rot. Finding the perfect environment can be difficult; however, ideally, you want access to a walk-in cooler. A lot of butchers will allow you to hang your meat in their shops for a fee. Though a walk-in cooler is ideal, you can also age your meat in a cooler with some ice, hanging in a barn or shed (if the temperature is correct) or even in your own refrigerator. Keep a thermometer handy and be sure to check the temperature regularly. The last thing you want is to have it get too warm and rot your meat.
Aging meat is a science, but it is not an exact science. As long as your temperature range is between 32 and 40 degrees consistently, you can age meat over several weeks before butchering and freezing it. Typically, I age my meat between one to two weeks, depending on my schedule although I consistently want to keep pushing this further and aging the meat longer and longer. Ultimately, I would be wary of anything more than two weeks. Make sure to check the meat daily by smelling it, examining it closely and feeling it. If it smells, looks or feels funny, cut off any bad spots and butcher it immediately. The older the animal, the more time you should consider aging it. The younger the animal, the less time is necessary.
If you are looking to make your wild game — especially deer and elk — taste more tender and even better, consider aging it this fall. There are so many different ways to do this and I often do it differently year to year. Some people prefer to age with the hide on to stop excessive dehydration while others simply trim off that dried part of the meat when butchering it. You can age meat in coolers, a local butcher walk-in freezer or even a beer fridge in the garage. Some like to age their meat for days while others do it for weeks. You can experiment and see what you like and what you feel makes your dinners taste better and more tender. As mentioned, aging is not an exact science but will enhance the tenderness and flavor of your harvest, especially if done right.