To Soak or Not To Soak, That Is The Question

As I was picking-up my processed antelope several weeks ago, I sought out the professional opinion of my butcher, Eric Jensen, which led to a very interesting discussion.   Eric is a third generation meat cutter, a skilled bowhunter and has the special duty of overseeing the processing of all the wild game that comes into the Hendricks household.  Therefore, in our family, this Eric Jensen guy is a pretty important fellow.  To top it all off, Eric is a good friend and we truly value and respect his knowledge and opinions since we have known him for many years.

The topic of discussion was the proper way to handle a carcass, especially when you are a thousand miles away from home.  I’ve always quartered the animal and put it into a cooler with ice, letting the ice melt; then draining off the excess water each day and adding fresh ice, if necessary.  From the very first hunt this fall in WY where the weather was very warm, the debate began.  It was so interesting that at each new gathering of hunters and I instigated a renewed discussion on the topic and discovered that that there are two distinct schools of thought on the subject, with a lot of minor variations in between. 

Simplifying the argument, one camp believes the meat should be wrapped in garbage bags so that the water and ice do not touch it and the other believes that the meat should come in contact with the water so no garbage bags are used.  Both sides of the issue have their arguments for their personal preferences proving that their way is the best way to handle the situation. 

The bag people insist that the water washes out good flavor, some even claimed that water-soaked meat tastes like cardboard (a bit extreme, me thinks).  The dried blood seals the meat and water spreads bacteria faster.  Keeping the blood in the meat enhances the flavor and the meat soaks up water adding to the weight and subtracting from its overall quality.

The ice/water people insist that their method cleans the meat, does not hurt and perhaps even enhances the flavor by removing the excess blood.  The ice-cold water rinses the meat and bacteria is not a factor if the water is drained each day.  Both camps agree that aging the meat in the near freezing temperatures enhances tenderness and definitely improves quality of the cuisine.

As Eric and I discussed the finer points of the controversy, he suggested that I should have a Horizontal Bowhunter staff butcher to address questions such as this one and to advise our members if and when the occasional meat processing question should arise.  His offer was way too obvious and I quickly agreed that he was the man for the job; before he could change is mind!  He suggested that Karen and I do a test to determine for ourselves which way was better, at least in our opinion.

That made perfect sense to me especially since Karen can be kind of finicky when it comes to wild game.  Anything other than pure, unadulterated scrumptiousness and the questionable game comes flying out of her mouth.  She would definitely be the one to join in the test to establish true quality control.

The samples came in the form of backstraps from the buck I took at Palmquist Farm this year.  It was probably a 3 of 4.5 year old buck and was cleanly killed with the assistance from my trusty little Vixen.  When the carcass had been transported from the field and was hung, I removed the straps double wrapping one in a two garbage bags, one inside the other, which insured that the ice water would not touch its surface.  The other strap and the tenderloins were tossed into the cooler with no protection whatsoever and a twenty pound bag of ice was then added to the mix. 

The cooler remained just like that for seven full days.  No water was drained off and at the end of the seven days there was still a considerable amount of ice left; the water was a deep, dark red, almost thick looking indicating to me that the meat in the ice had lost a lot of its blood.  The other strap was removed from the double garbage bag and both were rinsed off removing any hair or foreign matter that had attached itself to the long-chop.

I laid the backstraps side by side, matching the ends and then cut six steaks of varying thickness right out of the middle, three from each strap.  The point of this step was to make sure that the same portion of each strap was being used in the comparison.  The steaks that had been soaking in the water were a little lighter in color around the very edge, but still a deep, dark, rich burgundy in the middle.  The steaks were fried in olive oil at a medium temperature with absolutely no seasoning being added.  I figured that once the taste test was done, each diner could season to taste.  The meat was cooked so that it was red in the middle, perhaps even a little bloody.  Karen likes hers more well done than I do; I believe that a well done venison steak is ruined and that to truly enjoy it, there must be blood flowing.

I served the steaks on two separate plates of Karen’s Fiesta Ware, one blue and one yellow.  She did not know which was which and there was no way to determine by the outward appearance.  After sampling both steaks she declared that they were both good, but the yellow plate was definitely the best.  That happened to be the plate of the water soaked meat.  When she asked which one I thought was best, I honestly answered that I couldn’t tell the difference.  Karen ate one of the thinner steaks remarking that they were not done enough, which allowed me to eat the other five before rising from the table to do the dishes after Karen had returned to work.  Dead deer! Oh how I love it!

Here is what was determined by our test and I know that the results are not going to bring about any great changes among our devoted readers.  As our new HBM Staff Butcher and I laughed at the obvious, we agreed that everyone has their own opinion on how meat should be handled from the moment it hits the ground to the point that it is cut up for best results.  It also seems very obvious that most people feel that if you don’t do it the way they do – you’re doing wrong!

But we agreed that in the final analysis, you are the one that has to eat the game you bring home.  Therefore, if you have a definite opinion on how it should be done based on years of doing that way, then guess what?  That’s the best way for you to do it!  We all agree the meat has to be kept clean, cooled immediately and that a quick and humane kill will enhance its quality.  So when you see someone handling meat in a manner that is foreign to your system, don’t go over there and tell him that he is doing it all wrong; let him be. He is doing it the way he likes to do it and after all you don’t have to eat it, he does.

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