Every hunter should hang their deer meat for at least a day or two if they plan to eat it. Hanging greatly improves the texture and tenderness of the meat due to the biochemical processes that happen after the animal dies. Specifically, a deer carcass stiffens up in the 12-24 hours after death in a process called rigor mortis. If you try to grill some venison during this time period, it’ll be like chewing on a leather jacket. However, hanging your deer for up to two days can counteract this and keep the meat soft and tender.
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The Science of Rigor Mortis
We don’t need to go into a full organic chemistry lesson, but basically, you just need to know that when a deer dies, the biochemical processes that cause the muscles to contract and lengthen stop, and they all revert to their contracted state as if the animal were tensing all its muscles at once. The result is that its whole body becomes stiff as a board, rigor mortis literally meaning “stiffness of death” in Latin.
Of course, rigor mortis eventually subsides, usually after 24-48 hours. (As a general rule of thumb, the older the deer, the longer this will take.) Hanging the deer helps stretch the muscles back out after they relax, which leads to tender, tasty cuts.
How to Age Deer Meat
Despite popular belief, aging your deer meat is not the same thing as hanging it, though most hunters do perform both processes at the same time. Hanging meat is what you do just after killing the deer, suspending it from its head or legs for 24-48 hours to counteract the effects of rigor mortis.
Aging deer meat, on the other hand, can last up to a week and can theoretically be done after you butcher or quarter it. It dries out part of the moisture, concentrating the flavor, and allows natural enzymes in the muscles to dissolve connective tissue, increasing tenderness. Additionally, in advanced aging processes, controlled fungal colonies grow on the meat that add to taste.
Dry-aging meat produces the best flavor, but it’s also difficult to do correctly. That’s why dry-aged beef, for example, is so much more expensive.
The primary issue is preventing uncontrolled microbial growth without over-drying or freezing the meat. This means hanging in a place with a consistent temperature of 38℉ (around 3℃) and humidity of 70% with constant airflow.
If you want to age your venison at home, you’ll need a large meat cooler dedicated for the purpose. Otherwise, you can take the deer to a butcher and see if you can use theirs.
When aging at home, it’s important to be vigilant. If you notice a slimy coating, round colonies of bacterial growth, or yellow or green discoloration, this means the meat has spoiled, and you shouldn’t eat that cut. Additionally, throw the cut away if it develops black mold. Tan or white mold, however, is okay, if not desirable.
The Deer Hanging Debate
Few things will get the guys at the range arguing like the subject of deer hanging. Hunters have differing opinions on just about every factor. However, based on the science we discussed above, I believe these are the right answers.
How Long Can You Hang a Deer?
How long you hang a deer depends on what you’re trying to do with it. After all, you could hang it indefinitely at a cold enough temperature. However, for producing tender cuts through hanging, you should only hang your deer about 48 hours. Aging, on the other hand, is a much longer process, one you can perform for 5-7 days.
Either way, hanging your deer can lead to spoilage if it’s too warm outside. Whether it’s two days or seven, you can only hang a deer for an extended period of time if it’s kept at the right temperature, so let’s discuss that as well.
What Temperature Do You Hang Deer At?
This is a more complicated topic than you’d think, which is why I have a full article going into all the details. But the short answer is between 32℉ and 40℉ (0℃ and 4℃). Any colder and the meat will freeze while warmer temperatures will allow for more microbial growth that could lead to spoilage.
Most hunters achieve this temperature by hanging the deer in a cool, dry place like a garage or basement, if the outdoor temperature is cold enough. If you live in a warmer place, though, you may need a walk-in cooler.
Skin On or Off?
Whether it’s for brief hanging or extended aging, it’s better to leave the skin on the deer. The skin can protect the outer layer of meat from freezer burn and keep it from overdrying.
That said, it’s a lot harder to skin the deer after it’s aged, so you might find it easier to skin it first. In the end it’s up to you, but it’s usually better to leave the skin on unless you have access to a cooler with a constant temperature.
Head or Feet?
Whether to hang the deer by its head or by its feet is probably the biggest debate of all when it comes to deer hanging. Many hunters prefer to hang the deer using a rope around the deer’s neck, allowing all the cuts to dangle and stretch naturally. Still more argue that using a gambril hooked into the rear Achilles tendons prevents digestive juices from draining into the hams.
The fact is, both approaches are wrong. The best way to hang a deer, and the one you’ll see employed in professional butcher shops, is the tenderstretch method. This involves hanging the animal upside down from a hook in the pelvis such that the rear legs hang at a right angle. This is especially good for the round cut since it stretches more evenly.
If you don’t believe me, consider that a study from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia found that in a blind taste test, the tenderstretch method produced more tender meat in a shorter period of time. Try it and see for yourself.