March 31, 2018 - Kjell Hedström

If you have not butchered your own deer or elk yet then you should. Butchering your own animal is an important part of being a hunter, it will connect you with the animal and connect you through it's journey from muscle to meat. I find it a very rewarding experience as it also increases ones self-sufficiency, gives you a better product and knowledge of the meat you are later cooking with.

Breaking down a hind leg could be considered the hard part of Do It Yourself (DIY) butchering. By reading this blog entry and watching the videos I have posted below you will be well prepared to try it yourself.

There are multiple ways of breaking down a deer's hind leg. Regardless of method you choose, if you are following the natural muscle structures you really cannot do it wrong. Using this basic principle of separating the hind leg by the whole muscle structures you will do just fine. The same principle can be applied to elk and moose.

Easy Set-up

My basic and inexpensive set-up can be viewed above and in the picture here on the right.

The essentials

  1. A grinder. For many years I used my wife's Kitchen Aid Mixer with a grinder attachment. By keeping the meat tendon and silver skin free and by keeping the parts cold we got through deer, elk and even moose without problems.

    You can always start small and upgrade to a heavy duty grinder later. Nowadays I use a robust Weston grinder and ironically enough I end up with more issues with it since I rely more on it's raw power to grind through what I used to trim away.

  2. Sharp knives and cutting boards are a must. Make sure you sharpen the knives before butchering day. If it can shave hair, and jagged-free cut through paper then its sharp enough in my opinion.

    I highly recommend to have access to a fillet knife, deboning knife and a couple of regular hunting or all-purpose knives.

  3. A good and easy to use sharpener. Use the sharpener often. Clean the knives often.

  4. A vacuum sealer, from a simple FoodSaver to something more heavy duty, whether you wet age your meat or not.

  5. Plastic sheeting to cover your table. The plastic sheeting will help to keep it clean and will help with the post butchering cleanup. You can find plastic sheeting at your local paint store or hardware store. I tape the sheeting to the legs of the table to avoid it moving around.

    The sheeting really helps in keeping my wife on the positive side of me doing the butchering in the kitchen. The trick is to not having it show the day after that you turned your kitchen into a DIY butcher shop for a few hours.

  6. Disposable gloves. Not to protect you from the meat. It's the other way around. Replace them often, they are cheap and will help keeping your meat away from contaminants.

  7. Kitchen paper towels for easy removal of hair and as needed surface wiping and cleanup.

Easy sanitation of a Mora Outdoor 2000 knife. This knife is an excellent hunting and all-round knife that will last you a lifetime. It also withstands boiling water with no problem. (No, I'm not getting paid for writing this)

Before you drop the knife down into boiling water, please think about what type of plastic and material your knife is made out of. If it's not as robust material as the Mora 2000 knife then you might regret this quick sterilization.

If you make the mistake of dropping a Havalon replaceable in boiling water then the plastic will immediately crack. The Havalon is better clean with detergent, water and a brush.

Breaking Down a Deer's Hind Leg

In general the top part of the hind leg is more tender. The further down you go the higher concentration of collagen and therefore tougher meat.

With aging you get more flavorful and tender steaks from the top muscles and improved stew and braising meat from the bottom.

Breaking down the hind leg

Follow the natural seams of the structure of the muscles. You are not cutting into the muscles, you are separating them. Separating them is equal parts using your hands to pull apart the muscles as it is helping out with your knife.

Once the big bottom round is separated the hind leg gland can be seen. Remove it.

This time I started with the bottom round.

The gland is shown at the knife point. The top round can be seen below the knife.

Removed gland

Bottom round with eye-round on top. The easiest way to remember the bottom round vs the top round cut is that the signature white skin side of the bottom round. Another telltale sign for the bottom round is that the muscle fibers are more diagonal alongside the length of the cut vs the top round which have the muscle fibers going straight in the direction of the muscle.

The bottom round and eye-round are tough, collagen rich muscles. The eye-round looks might remind you of a backstrap or maybe a tenderloin but it is not a great cut for a steak - contrary to its looks. Where the bottom round has coarse muscle fibers which are well suited for a steak the eye round has thin, compact fibers making it significantly tougher.

The eye-round is a great cut for skav, or coppiette jerky or a good addition to the meat for the grinder.

The two lean and collagen rich cuts side by side. Take especially note of the easy-to-identify silver skin and the diagonal direction of the muscle fibers on the bottom round.

With your hand you can start separating the top round. Just below it is the top shank (or knuckle) that is removed next.

The little upper shank (knuckle) often goes to the grind for many. Instead of grinding it, next time use the two deer upper shanks for braising. The tendons and grizzle will turn into gelatin and ensure a juicy and flavorful braised dish.

For elk and moose I absolutely recommend keeping as is. Braising, for a curry, red-wine braised or butter-braised would be great choices that you will not regret. Braising this cut for 3-5 hours will give top notch result.

The sirloin, on the right, looks oval in shape, reminiscent of an American football.

Separating the sirloin and the top round from the bone.

Use your fingers to separate the sirloin and top round as much as possible. Use the knife to separate the top round first and then follow the bone to separate the sirloin.

See how the top-rounds muscle fibers goes straight alongside the muscle, and that there is no silver skin on the side (compared to the bottom-round). The top-round is in my opinion the very best steak cut on a deer or elk. It's flavorful and improves amazingly with aging. I will take an aged top-round over backstrap any time.

The back of the sirloin can be seen above the top-round. If the leg would be flipped over, the sirloin would resemble an American football in shape. Frequently this the sirloin is also called called the football roast.

Sirloin with rump roast

The sirloin is removed from the bone. Left is the shank.

The shank meat was put in the grind pile this time although more frequently the shank will be saved for slow-cooks and braising.

The shank is excellent stew meat similar to the shank-knuckle above.

For bigger ungulates such as elk or moose the shank is big enough to cut up for skav, biltong or jerky.

Trimming for me is removing fat, blood shot and discolored meat and anything that got dirt on it. The silver skin I leave on as it protects the meat during wet aging and freezer time.

The finished cuts. From the left: eye round, rump, sirloin, bottom round and top round.

If you look closely to the rightmost cut, the top-round, you can see that the cut is actually two muscles. This smaller part (furthest to the right) doesn't really have a well-known name, I typically call it "the small top-round". Compared to the eye-round the "small top-round" would be an amazing choice for steak.

The cuts will look different depending on how much they are trimmed. In general this is what they would look like. For a big deer and particularly for elk and moose the big hind leg cuts will often be split in two or more parts before wet aging.

This mule deer was not dry aged. I butchered it roughly 36 hours after it was shot, well past rigor mortis. Butchering past rigor mortis is a must to avoid muscle shortening.

After vacuum packing, these cuts are ready for wet aging. For this doe I aged the cuts for 60° C day grades.

After aging the sirloin, top round and the bottom round you will have prime quality meat for flavorful and tender steaks. BBQ rare to medium rare, no more!

Recommended Watching

  1. Steven Rinella - Breaking Down a Deer's Hind Leg

  2. Sharing the Outdoors - How to Process a Hindquarter
    - first 8 minutes detailed hind leg processing instructions
    - the latter part is trimming advice

  3. Chef's advice on How to Butcher a Deer Hind Quarter.
    First 7 minutes is breaking down the hind quarter. Pay attention to his recommendation for the steaks. For example, just like my own opinion the top round is a "class A" steak - with aging!